By Gordon Binder
Those of us who live in Washington, DC, are used to crowds gathering for Inauguration Day every four years. It was no different this time around, Friday, January 20, 2017, for the swearing in of our country’s 45th President, Donald Trump, and his inaugural address. Although a fierce, public controversy erupted over the estimated size of the crowd, in no way does this discord diminish the prominent role played by the setting for a peaceful transition of power, the National Mall, America’s Stage for Democracy.
If any doubt lingers as to the Mall’s central role in America’s political life, the next day, Saturday the 21st, witnessed what commentators say may have been the largest protest in the country’s history, the Women’s March. Throngs of women, men, and children took part, asserting their first amendment rights at a time of upheaval in the country’s leadership and amidst national disunity and profound anxiety felt by many Americans for what may come.
If past is prologue, in coming years this iconic landscape will draw many more celebrations and protests, make no mistake. Besides the March for Life on January 27, plans already are under way for a citizens’ march on climate, one on immigration, another on science. The breadth of causes and interests that are taking to the National Mall underscores the value Americans place on it to make their voices heard. (Not to mention proposals for new museums and monuments, all of which value a Mall location as a boon to raising needed funds.)
Which underscores a central tension that lies at the heart of the National Mall Coalition’s mission: to ensure the Mall remains attractive, resilient AND accessible for generations to come.
The Mall’s stewards, which include the National Park Service, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian, and others, rightfully tend to the condition of their facilities and the large lawn and landscaping over which they have a say. For the inauguration, the Park Service mobilized to protect the newly restored turf, installing more than 800,000 square feet of white plastic panels along the central panel of the Mall. That’s a lot of resources and time to protect the turf.
Yet the events inaugural weekend speak well to the Mall’s larger purpose in American life. It’s not just about well-tended lawns, a priority for the Park Service. Not that there’s anything wrong with healthy and attractive lawns, far from it. But with the removal of the longstanding National Book Festival from the Mall proper, with rumblings that the Park Service wants the Folk Life Festival to secure another venue, and overtures to recreation leagues to find other fields, one is left wondering what will take precedent: preservation of the lawn or public access and use? Can’t we have both?
This and other tensions need to be resolved. Currently, there is no mechanism by which the many fragmented overseers, the District of Columbia Government, the Architect of the Capitol, and others already cited can come together to discuss and consider plans and activities and chart a future course for the Mall. The last such comprehensive plan came from the McMillan Commission in 1902! A new McMillan-type Commission is needed to create the next plan for the Mall in its 3rd century.
We can do better. We should do better. We must do better if this Stage for American Democracy is going to thrive in its 3rd century, continuing to tell the full measure of our country’s story and to accommodate the crowds that come to celebrate, to protest, or to do both.
• Gordon Binder is a Senior Fellow at World Wildlife Fund.