Photo by fensterbme on Flickr.

As competing design teams come up with ways to revitalize three sections of the National Mall, a diverse panel of public space design practitioners excoriated

exhorted them to envision an evolving space that reflects and keeps pace with the realities and aspirations of the region’s and the nation’s people.

The National Mall is the most-visited national park in the US and our region’s most central public space. Its boosters say it has been “loved to death”: One can point to many examples of damage and decay to its structures caused by heavy use with only superficial maintenance.

The Trust for the National Mall, which is sponsoring the design competition along with the National Capital Planning Commission, wants to ensure that the Mall remains “the best public space in the world,” one that continues to celebrate “our nation’s rich history and reflects who we are as a society to America and the world.”

Each design team is charged with coming up with innovative ways to revitalize 3 zones: Constitution Gardens (the area containing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial), the area encompassing the base of the Washington Monument and Sylvan Theater, and Union Square (the Mall’s eastern third). The winners of the 8-month competition, now in its final stage, will be announced in a ceremony on May 3. A group of 12 finalists has been selected, 4 for each section.

Three individuals with extensive public space design experience, though not all planners or designers by profession, shared their insights as to what makes a great public space in a January 11 panel talk at the National Archives. They agreed that great spaces must be able to sustain a high level of use over time yet retain the surrounding community’s sense of ownership and stewardship.

The challenge at the heart of the treatment of the Mall is that it must be a national symbol, a green space for area residents, and the locus of expressions of the national public mood (celebrations, remembrances, protests) all at the same time. Theaster Gates, a Chicago-based artist and cultural developer, spoke eloquently to this conflict: “America is a very complex place with lots of different people and lots of different interests that would like to see themselves present on the Mall.”

An “evolving monument,” Gates said, isn’t a permanent manifestation of one historical person or event, but rather a constant symbol of the community’s mood that is “a carrier of whatever the moment is” and “accumulate[s] multiple stories.” Public art or architecture that changes with the times would carry more meaning for people than a statue of, for example, Civil War commander John Logan, whose significance is lost on most who pass through Logan Circle.

The idea of public parks as staging grounds for cultural movements has been tested by the presence of Occupy DC in the city’s central public squares. Gates insisted that there is no way to plan a space to accommodate certain types of First Amendment expression, as the very act of planning for them takes away their spontaneity, and thus much of their power.

“No matter how much planning and designing we do, people have the ability to remake spaces,” Gates said, as Occupy has done. “Public space has to be able to cradle movements,” added Tupper Thomas. “Spaces are defined by how people choose to use them. I don’t think you can design niches for resistance,” said John Bela.

Three specific precedents for innovations in public parks were discussed: the restoration of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park as a popular gathering place, the transformation of Manhattan’s High Line from an elevated railroad to a mile-long green space, and the annual observance of Park[ing] Day when on-street parking spaces are turned into temporary parks.

30 years ago, Prospect Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (whose hand is also seen in parts of the Mall, Rock Creek Park, and on Gallaudet University’s campus), had become “totally unused” because people were afraid to go on. Tupper Thomas’s Prospect Park Alliance engaged in a grassroots dialogue, beginning with door-to-door canvassing, with the goal of getting Brooklynites, some of the country’s most diverse citizenry, to love the park again. The park now has more visitors than it can handle, and the Alliance’s new challenge is raising enough money to maintain it.

Park[ing] Day mastermind John Bela of San Francisco’s Rebar Art and Design Studio spoke to the idea of planning for the sustainability of public spaces as a constantly evolving process. Park[ing] Day relies on a how-to manual with a few guidelines, but beyond that each group can make what they want of it. The most important aspect of the temporary parks, however, is that they have a truly public feel, and are not just extensions of the commercial spaces in front of which many of them are created.

Manhattan’s High Line Park, where it crosses 22nd St. Photo by the author.

Manhattan’s High Line has accelerated the surrounding neighborhood’s redevelopment and, because of this, has sparked the interest of other cities seeking to emulate it.

The fact that it took two entrepreneurs to take on the task of remaking the High Line, with initially no help from the city bureaucracy, shows that the traditional planning process is broken, said Bela. Consultants and activists with their own agendas, he noted, too often come to dominate “open” planning processes, essentially drowning out other community voices. To counter this tendency, planners should offer many affected people different levels of engagement in a process to give them more ownership.

It is good that cities are seeking to be noticed for good public spaces, added Gates, but each city should decide what kind of re-use of abandoned urban infrastructure is appropriate to its own context. Thomas cautioned those seeking to emulate the High Line to pay as much attention to community development as to economic development.

“Cities are being determined by what the public realm is,” Trust for the National Mall President Caroline Cunningham summarized. In the Mall’s case, local residents’ desires for a certain type of public realm must be balanced with the nation’s need for a place that is “both grand and personal” and evokes the country’s history and future, while allowing the people to help shape that future through collective action.

Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.