Creating public use policies that welcome and support public activities
For more than two hundred years, Americans have come to the National Mall to celebrate, exercise our First Amendment rights, and simply relax in this powerfully beautiful public open space. But the role of the Mall as the people’s place is increasingly in jeopardy. In recent years, popular public events such as the Solar Decathlon, National Book Festival, Black Family Reunion, and recreational sports have been denied permits and forced to move elsewhere.
Who makes policy for public use of the Mall — and decides what activities can happen there? Once again, as with so much on the Mall, divided jurisdiction among multiple Mall managing entities results in fragmented policies. Since the National Park Service is charged with issuing permits for the open space, this agency ends up, by default, controlling public use policy. But there is a fundamental contradiction between NPS policy and the Mall’s public purpose. Park Service management policies — applied to all national parks without distinction from Yellowstone to the National Mall — mandate protection of “natural resources” over public use. While these rules and regulations may be well suited to wilderness parks, they are wholly inadequate for urban parks such as the Mall whose very purpose is to invite and accommodate public activities of all kinds. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a case in point, has struggled for decades to meet National Park Service permitting rules for the open space and has had to ask Congress for relief.
Current policies that restrict public use threaten the very lifeblood of the Mall and its meaning to our democracy. What is needed is a public, open, and transparent conversation about the purpose of the Mall, and creation of policies that promote, protect, and advance that purpose as the People’s Place.