Kojo Explores Tension Between Restoring the Grass and Public Activities on the National Mall

Smithsonian Folklife Festival (Peace Corps)
Smithsonian Folklife Festival (Peace Corps)

The National Park Service’s turf grass specialist was the guest on the Kojo Nnamdi Show (WAMU-FM radio) on October 4th. Michael Stachowicz spoke about the new turf installed between 4th and 14th Streets, the area around the Smithsonian museums, which he called the Nation’s Front Lawn. Kojo asked how the Park Service balances preservation of the newly planted grass with traditional public uses such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and recreational leagues? Mr. Stachowicz explained that while the Park Service accommodates public use, its mandate, different from the Smithsonian, is to “preserve and protect” natural and cultural resources.  Of course, Mr. Stachowicz did not cite the Park Service’s mandate in its mission statement, namely, to provide public access to these resources, not merely to accommodate it.

Although all callers agreed the new grass is a welcome improvement from decades of sparse, dusty lawn, some did ask:  Are we really in danger of losing the Mall’s meaning as a public gathering space by eliminating cultural and recreational activities? How can residents have a say in rules and regulations that may eliminate recreation? Once NPS sets its rules, is it even possible for the public to have any meaningful say?

To those questions, we would add another sent by email (the phone line was busy) not included in the show: When the needs of the Smithsonian, curators of our nation’s heritage, come into conflict with the Park Service’s “preserve and protect” interests, who decides?  Who represents the public in determining what can take place on this great stage for American democracy?   It’s not just a “front lawn.”

Mall management is divided among so many agencies and interests — Smithsonian, Park Service, National Gallery, Architect of the Capitol, the District of Columbia — that questions of who can use the public open space must be part of a national conversation. That is why we continue to advocate creation of a new McMillan-type Commission (the last time there was comprehensive planning for the Mall, in 1902!) to bring all constituencies to the table to help decide the future of the Mall and to plan for that future – where new monuments and museums can be sited, where the grass should remain off limits, where walkways and benches and restrooms should go.

[One point of clarification: Kojo asked, what about the problem of stormwater runoff and flooding in the Mall area? Mr. Stachowicz cited the new irrigation cisterns NPS installed to collect 1 million gallons of rainwater for turf irrigation. As useful as they are, these cisterns have nothing to do with stormwater runoff and flooding such as that which inundated the Federal Triangle and Mall in 2006  The stormwater problem requires a 24 million gallon capacity, as stated in a 2011 DC and federal study. To address that need, which is not being solved by DC or federal actions, we propose the National Mall Underground parking garage/flood reservoir project.]


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