The National Park Service owns 90% of the parkland in DC. The City Paper recently found this Google Maps mashup charting all the National Park Service properties in the District.
Everyone knows about Rock Creek Park, but residents often overlook the arc of parks that form the Fort Circle Parks.
The Fort Circle Parks are mostly grassy patches of land with few other amenities. Federal and District budgets are strained right now but per capita park spending in DC is the highest of any city in the country. NPS could enhance their appeal without significantly increasing their maintenance costs by focusing more limited resources on active recreation areas that benefit local neighborhoods instead of just maintaining empty lawns.
Outside of the original L’Enfant Plan, the federal government acquired parkland largely as a result of the 1902 McMillan Plan, a Senate report advocating a comprehensive park system for the District. One section of the plan proposed a “Fort Drive” to connect all the District’s Civil War forts that previously dotted the high points of the city. This scenic roadway was to run along an uninterrupted crescent park corridor that the federal government would later assemble.
These parcels, scattered from Tenleytown to Fort Totten to Eastern Avenue to St. Elizabeths Hospital, form the Fort Circle Parks. These parcels still exist today and I have marked them, along with adjacent triangle parks, in red.
Though the Fort Circle Parks connect the Civil War forts, the McMillan Plan advocated their purchase to serve as local parks, too:
The views from these points are impressive in proportion to their commanding military positions, and they are well worth acquirement as future local parks, in addition to any claim their historic and military interest may afford.
The roadway never came to fruition, but the arc of parkland still exists. Within this massive arc, one will find the occasional playground and the occasional picnic shelter, but too much of the land consists of unprogrammed lawns. These lawns don’t serve neighbors as well as ballfields and playgrounds would, and they require regular mowing in the spring and summer.
Over the decades, the National Park Service and National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) have dreamt up plans to enhance the Fort Circle Parks, but nothing comprehensive has ever come to be.
NCPC now has a set of ideas for improving the Fort Circle Parks. They propose interpretive signs, a signed Greenway route, improved recreational facilities, and protection of the park’s natural features.
Though it is good that NCPC has put forth an effort to get the ball rolling, it does not have any budgetary or management authority over the National Park Service, an agency that struggles to keep the National Mall in working order.
Within its current budget, the Park Service should consider reconfiguring some of the Fort Circle Parks to prioritize key recreational nodes while returning much of the lawns to low-maintenance forests. Removing the need to regularly mow unused laws will allow the Park Service to focus its efforts on playgrounds, ball fields, and other amenities neighborhoods desire.
Furthermore, restoring these lawns to forests will help the city achieve its goal of increasing the tree canopy to cover 40% of the city. Trees clean the air, prevent erosion, soak up rainwater, block noise, and enhance a neighborhood’s beauty.
The NCPC plan doesn’t propose what should go where, but each neighborhood should get a say in how its respective section of Fort Circle Parks should be used. For instance, if residents in one neighborhood already enjoy a playground and tennis courts, they might want a basketball court or a community garden on some of the underused land. The rest of the lawns, if rarely used, should then return to forest.
Here are a few pieces of the Fort Circle Parks that sit as unprogrammed lawns:
- Triangles at Nebraska Avenue and Van Ness Street in Tenleytown.
- Lots and blocks north of Tenley Circle.
- Lawns beside Missouri Avenue
- Fields between Gallatin and Galloway Streets NE.
- Expansive medians along sections of Eastern Avenue
The Park Service and NCPC should push to make these parks more appropriate for their settings.