Land Matters: On Shifting Ground

I was angry the last time I was on the National Mall for anything related to politics. That was exactly two years ago, when I joined the mass protest of tens of thousands of other Americans against the war in Iraq (Land Matters, March 2007).

What a difference an election makes. The mood on January 20 was one of mass jubilation, and from my perch on the flank of the Washington Monument, I could catch glimpses up and down the mall. There, 1.8 million Americans—the largest crowd this city has ever seen—stood shoulder to shoulder in the freezing cold under that bright blue sky, all of us awaiting the inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th president of the United States.

When our new president finally began to speak, his opening remarks were sobering, even challenging. He spoke of “this winter of our hardship” in a faltering economy. He told us that “the ground has shifted” and that we need to make hard choices and prepare the nation for the demands of a new age. Later, waxing eloquent about our liberty, he reminded us that people of every race and faith “can join in celebration across this magnificent mall.”

But is the National Mall really magnificent? As I stood there on that thrilling morning, yes, “America’s Front Yard” seemed a mass gathering place like no other. After all, it’s steeped in the history of our nation’s capital, from Pierre L’Enfant’s conception for an axial open space stretching from the Capitol to the Potomac River, through the McMillan Plan that established its baroque sense of monumental grandeur, to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech—and Obama’s inauguration.

But what about day-to-day use? My friends at Project for Public Spaces (PPS) have relegated the mall to their Hall of Shame, charging that it “is experienced mostly as a place to move through between destinations,” lacking outdoor cafés, movable chairs, and other PPS-style amenities. And in truth, there may not be a lot for tourists to do on the mall except walk from one museum or monument to another.

Still, there’s a fair amount of activity for locals along the two-mile-long corridor when the weather is decent. I happen to walk across the mall at lunch to one or another of the adjoining gardens almost every weekday, and I usually see a Frisbee game going on. There’s kite flying on weekends and ball games in the shadow of the Washington Monument. In the summer it hosts events such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and July 4 fireworks. All this activity is the reason the grass on the mall is so patchy and the soil so compacted.

More seriously, the mall is in need of repairs to its infrastructure (see “Pall Over the Mall,” April 2007). These extend far beyond resodding the lawns—for example, the Tidal Basin seawall at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial has sunk nine inches in the past year and needs to be replaced. Apparently, Obama thinks the mall is important to our national identity, because he included $200 million for it in his economic stimulus package. As I write this, Congress has eliminated that funding. Given other funding needs such as creating jobs and recharging a faltering economy, should the mall be a funding priority for the first year of the Obama administration?

J. William “Bill” Thompson, FASLA
Editor /

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s