Photo by North Cascades National Park on Flickr.

On Thursday, residents from all across the city asked the National Park Service to do better for DC, and praised the progress NPS has made this year, at a town hall meeting from Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.

If you didn’t get to attend, you’ll have another chance to talk to park superintendents about DC parks at another event NPS is organizing on November 13.

At the town hall, Norton noted that the Park Service has very little money and the climate in Congress isn’t likely to fund them any better anytime soon; if anything, there might be more cuts.  That will exacerbate the huge maintenance backlog at the National Mall and many problems at smaller parks, like at Fort Dupont, where a reasident of Ward 7 said NPS hasn’t fixed a deteriorating roadway for years.

But many other people brought up issues that won’t require more federal money.

Danielle Pierce of Downtown DC Kids said that 6 months after NPS officials promised to help give the District jurisdiction over a small parcel so it could build a playground, and after Tommy Wells put money into the budget for such a playground, nothing has happened on the Park Service side.

The organizer of a youth sports league said that playing fields in Anacostia Park are in terrible shape. They’d be happy to fix the field themselves if they can become a partner for that park. Joe Sternlieb, the new head of the Georgetown BID, said they’d be happy to do more to remove graffiti at the C&O Canal but need NPS permission.

Rick Reinhard, Deputy Executive Director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, had a very cogent statement about the need for funding, its progress and challenges on partnerships, and its frustrations with rules that make it very difficult to program downtown parks.

He said,

In 1997, our buildings, our streets and sidewalks and our parks all were unexceptional— a 3 to 4 on a scale of 1 to 10.  Today, our buildings are an 8 or 9, our streets and sidewalks are a 6 or 7.  Our parks are still a 3.  Why?  Mainly lack of investment.  The NPS budget does not allow the [34 National Park Service parks and reservations in the one-square-mile Downtown BID]  to be designed, built, maintained or programmed any of us would choose.

NPS is handcuffed to run its urban parks using the same rules they use to run Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Everglades.  The same regulations that work so well to protect moose, redwoods and crocodiles work much less effectively to promote playgrounds, concerts and family picnics.

Permits are required for small, what should be spontaneous events.  Sponsorship banners are so limited as to be practically prohibited.  Food service is limited to the National Mall concessionaire, who finds it not profitable enough to operate a small food cart in, say, McPherson Square, when it is selling thousands of hot dogs on the Mall.

When the Downtown BID worked with the Willard Intercontinental Hotel to promote a simple art fair in Pershing Park, NPS red tape strangled it.  One example: artists could sell only art that was materially connected to the theme of the park, like portraits of General Pershing.

Sidewalk cafes are next to impossible to site legally on NPS-controlled Pennsylvania Avenue.  So while the number of sidewalk cafes within the BID area has grown over the past 15 years from zero to 147—with 4,400 seats—the number of sidewalk cafes on Pennsylvania Avenue—which should be one of America’s greatest, liveliest streets—is only four.

Local NPS officials understand these problems and do not want to manage this way, but rules are rules.

If NPS is not appropriated enough money, and if NPS has inflexible rules, then the only way our parks ever will be what we deserve is through forging serious, meaningful partnerships.

We offer sincere compliments to Regional Director Steve Whitesell, Mall Superintendent Bob Vogel, Deputy Superintendents Steve Lorenzetti and Karen Cucurullo and their staffs.  We have moved ahead on these important issues more in the past couple of years than we have in the decade before, because these men and women understand that these parks not only must respect history and serve our nation but also must be enjoyed day-to-day and serve our residents, workers and visitors.

The Downtown BID wholeheartedly endorses Secretary Salazar’s call for a new way of managing NPS’ urban space inventory, which includes all of Downtown DC’s green spaces. Our hope is that our most recent experiences constitute a new way for DC to work with NPS going forward, and are not exceptions to the rule.

You can read the complete statement.

At the meeting, NPS regional head Steve Whitesell announced that the agency was planning its own town hall as well to hear from even more residents. That event will be Tuesday, November 13, 6:30-8:30 pm at the African-American Civil War Museum, 1925 Vermont Avenue NW, right by the east entrance to the U Street Metro.

5 area park superintendents will be there to talk with residents: Bob Vogel of National Mall and Memorial Parks (the Mall plus most nearby small parks), Alex Romero of National Capital Parks-East (generally everything east of the Capitol and also east of the Anacostia), Tara Morrison from Rock Creek (which includes small parks outside the L’Enfant city in Northwest), the C&O Canal’s Kevin Brandt, and Ann Bowman Smith who works with the White House to manage “President’s Park,” the White House itself and surrounding grounds.

This is an important opportunity to bring important issues directly to the people in charge. NPS isn’t going to make parks safer to walk and bike, or enjoyable for sitting and eating, or more active for daytime and evening activities, unless people personally ask them to. The more residents ask for these things, the more we will get them. Mark your calendars!

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.