Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Defining National Park Service installations in DC as locally or nationally serving

In this piece, "Washington DC has lots of parks and open space, but it's not the #1 City park system in the US," I wrote that Rock Creek Park could be defined as national serving, but I didn't say why. In response to a comment by Edward Drozd:

I'm curious, other than the National Zoo, how is Rock Creek Park nationally serving? Speaking as a complete layperson about planning and all, but it seems to serve similar purposes as, say, Central Park or Boston's emerald necklace system. In Boston's case there is a Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site (which is actually in Brookline, not Boston), but that's orders of magnitude difference from maintaining the system.
I said it was because RCP was one of the earliest parks designated by the federal government, decades before the National Park Service was created. But that is the only reason. It's a locally serving park otherwise.

NPS has a lot of parks, memorials and historic sites in the city. Even their webpage on DC parks doesn't list all the various sites, in particular "circles" and various reservations across the city, although the webpage lists the major sites.

As I argued in the above-cited and other pieces, most of the NPS parks serve local audiences, and restrictions on how these parks can be operated dis-serves the users, in this case, DC residents.  DC should take on the management and operational responsibilities for federally-owned parks that are primarily locally serving.

The list below is not complete.

Park/Site Federal Interest Local
Anacostia Park no yes
Capitol Hill Parks* no yes
C&O Canal National Historic Parkarguable** yes
Circles and reservations outside Downtown***no yes
Columbus Circle**** not as an interest separate from the railroad station Should revertt to Union Station
Downtown Parks+ arguable primarily
Fort Circle Parks Fort Stevens***** mostly
Georgetown Waterfront Park no yes
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardensnot really functions as an extension of Anacostia Park
Meridian Hill Park no yes
National Mall and Monuments yes no, except for use as sports fields
President's Park++yes no
Rock Creek Park+++ yes, as part of the history of the creation of the federal park system, no in terms of use yes
Theodore Roosevelt Island as a memorial yes as a park, yes

* Capitol Hill Parks.  What would be large "circles" or squares have been designed as parks: Lincoln Park; Stanton Park; Folger Park; Marion Park; plus Seward Square on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.  Garfield Park is actually under the control of DC. The grounds of the Capitol are under control of the Architect of the Capitol, not NPS.

** C&O Canal.  Many canal parks across the country are operated as state or regional parks.  If C&O Canal Park were to revert to local control, DC and Maryland should create a joint management plan.
Erie Canal Museum Postcard

*** Circles outside of Downtown.  For example, Chevy Chase Circle; Dupont Circle; Grant Circle; Logan Circle; Thomas Circle; Washington Circle
Logan Circle 1

****The area in front of Union Station.  It's a travesty that it serves a transportation purpose but it isn't maintained to support it, such as during snow events.
Union Station changes
Washington Post graphic.

***** Fort Circle Parks.  A system of forts and batteries were created to defend the national capital during the Civil War.  While the majority of the forts and supporting batteries are in DC, some are present in Maryland and Virginia.  In DC, Fort Stevens is the only one that came under direct attack during the Civil War and President Lincoln actually attended part of the battle.  Therefore the argument can be made that this park and the related Battleground National Cemetery on Georgia Avenue, should be classified as federal.  Although note that other forts, such as Fort Totten and Fort Slocum, and batteries, provided artillery support to the battle at Fort Stevens.  So the number of installations that could be determined to have a federal interest could be larger.

Otherwise, if the parks are used it all, it's by local residents.
Abraham Lincoln at the Battle of Fort Stevens and shelling of Gen. Early's forces in Silver Spring, MD July 11-12, 1864 [NARA RG.66]

+ Downtown Squares.  Farragut Square [The Golden Triangle BID does some stuff there]; Franklin Park {there is an MOU between the Park Service and the Downtown BID so that the latter will operate it]; McPherson Square.  You can make the point that since they "complement" the White House as a park system, they could be designated as federal.  But the users of the parks are local.

++ Parks around the White House: what we call Layfayette Square but the Park Service calls Lafayette Park; Ellipse; White House grounds. They function as an extension of the National Mall.

+++ Because Rock Creek Park extends into Maryland, where on the Maryland side the park is run by Montgomery County, a joint management plan would be in order.


NPS managed parkways in DC are Shepherd Parkway and Suitland Parkway.  As their primary purpose is transportational, they should revert to DC with the proviso that they be maintained as parkways, not converted into traditional roadways.

A joint management plan with Maryland should be developed when these roadways extend into Maryland.

Same with Rock Creek Parkway as a roadway. The park should be run by DPR, the road by DDOT.  There should be a corridor management plan for the roadway ("Transportation network service interruptions part 3: corridor/commute shed management for Northwest DC and Montgomery County, Maryland," 2016).

The same is true for the parkways in Virginia and Maryland, they should revert to the states, with the one possible exception being Mount Vernon Parkway, which connects to Mount Vernon.

Other Historic Sites

Include the Frederick Douglass House, Carter G. Woodson House, Mary McLeod Bethune Home, Old Stone House in Georgetown, etc.  These sites serve national audiences and should remain under the control of NPS.  Although Old Stone House is arguable.  It does interpret the history of the city before the federal district was created and helps to tell the story of the creation of the federal district (Georgetown predates the creation of DC.)

Show me the money.  The problem is that "Home Rule" is costly.  Were DC to take on the financial responsibilities for these parks, and operate them to the level they ought to be operated, the cost would be many millions of dollars annually.  The city doesn't want to take on these kinds of financial responsibilities.  But if you want to be a state...

Labels: , ,


At 5:06 PM, Blogger Edward Drozd said...


Editing as I go... not first, but zeroth, I'd like to thank you for this extended response to my question. This is why I try to check on your blog and comment when I have something to say; the thoughtful responses in return are at least as good as anything I raised.

First, in re whether locally serving, thinking about it, I wonder what should be the goal of the National Park Service. Clearly part should be iconic areas. But, I do think selected locally serving areas, whether National Parks or National Historic Parks, might be important as well. Not just as outreach between the NPS and most people, but also to connect people to history and/or environment.

Part first amended: my wife lives near the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (full National Park) between Akron and Cleveland. I've been in it, and have been underwhelmed compared to, say, Acadia or Glacier, but it is truly lovely and can connect people to the environment like few other places in the area can.

But, why there but not places in NJ where I grew up? Granted there are National Historic Parks, but those are tied to history. However, in the grand scheme of things, perhaps it doesn't matter because of the programming.

Second, in DC, were I someone who lived outside of the region, I'd stick with the "yes" Federal Interest parks in your table. As someone living in the area, I'd add the arguables and maybe Rock Creek. To be honest, Rock Creek Park, other than the Zoo, feels just like a large local park in Baltimore, Phila, NYC, or Boston. Why should the city not pay for upkeep? My only answer is that locals from outside DC use it. But, why not a park equivalent of Metro?

Eh, why not a park equivalent of Metro might answer its own question given the management failures (speaking more about the board) of Metro...

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Not in order...

First, the Park Service is really set up to run wilderness parks and major historic sites. There are a lot of books and writings about this. An important book on the 50th anniversary of the park system, the National Parks Conservation Association, etc.

NPS claims they want to do a better job running "urban parks" but I think that they will never be able to change. The big western parks dominate the service.

Plus the various national laws that limit for profit activities hinder them, and getting Congress to change those laws is very difficult.

Second, as a mention from time to time, I used to be very critical of NPS, but now recognize that in the DC area specifically, they are under hyper scrutiny in that all of Congress, the Executive Officers, the DOI, and the NPS executives are all here. That reduces their span of control.

Third, there is no rhyme or reason to the park system as most parks and sites are added in response to local and Congressional interests.

But, Fourth, your idea about what about having national parks everywhere so to speak is interesting and important.

Theoretically, the "National Heritage Area" program could be a way to do that. Getting designated an NHA doesn't provide a lot of money, and then NPS people become "in charge" and given the points I make wrt DC area parks, that isn't always necessarily a good thing, but because the NPS doesn't usually own properties, but manages, the kinds of restrictions on for profit activities that would actually augment the experience don't exist in the same way that they do for DC area parks.

But currently, there is no systematic way for doing this. The drive to create NHAs is driven by local interests, and facilitated by Congressmembers who like the idea of "bringing federal bacon home."

There should be a systematic program for creating such. (And note, an article in the Boston Globe on the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area many years ago influenced my thinking about these kinds of issues. It indicated that the farther away from DC, the easier it is to do stuff.)

Fifth, Congressmembers aren't incentivized to give a s*** about parks and sites outside of their districts and states. And "anti-DC" Congressmembers have no interest in properly funding DC parks and sites specifically, even if according to the survey about national attitudes towards DC statehood, the sentiment was stated that "DC belongs to all of us."

Sixth, wrt your parks equivalent of Metro, there are many examples of such systems. Being from Detroit, even as a child I knew about the Huron Clinton Metropolitan Authority, the supra-regional parks authority running big parks in the Greater Detroit area.

I was just reading about the Rock Island Conservation District in Illinois, which was created over 100 years ago to deal with flooding, which they did by creating dams and parks as areas to capture water (they specifically legislated against using dams to generate power). There are examples in New York State, dating to Robert Moses and Al Smith (Moses got his start with parks).

Here, the idea of the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, unifying planning in MoCo and PGC to complement DC was along those lines, although fundamentally each county does its own thing these days.

And there is the Northern Virginia Parks Commission. Each jurisdiction still runs some of their own parks, but "regionally serving" parks are supposed to be under their jurisdiction.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Trying to find that Boston Harbor Globe article I came across this:

Which has lots of good ideas about how to better manage parks "around here."

this about the value of distance from DC:

But I might not be remembering the right article, the right park, and the google search function within my blog is somewhat limited.

I could be thinking of the Gateway National Recreation Area in Greater NYC, and wrt your point about a system of national parks "everywhere," this article makes the point that a survey in 2006 found that almost half the respondents didn't know that there was a national park in the NY Metropolitan area.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I called the Boston Harbor Islands NRA to try to find out something (my memory is faulty..) and the recording said I called the "Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park.

I asked the ranger about it and he said the legislation creating the park, an NRA, required the NPS to work closely with the other "property owners" in this case, the State, the City, nonprofits, and the Coast Guard.

I guess they really do.

2. WRT your point about Ohio and NJ, there are some big state parks in NJ too.

But it would be helpful for parks agencies to do cross-park/public lands planning and information provision.

e.g., state + regional + local (as relevant) + NPS + USDA Forest Service + BLM.

3. A few years ago I realized that NPS needs to have a master information center in the DC area, even more than one, that goes across the technically separate units, e.g., George Washington Memorial Park system is all in VA, except for Theodore Roosevelt Island Park; there are various units in DC, some of which include Maryland parks, Maryland units, etc.

At 10:23 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

It looks like I was thinking of the Essex National Heritage Area.

I was only able to find it because I wrote to some urban design journalists who had written articles about NPS issues relevant to their cities, and how they could work together to do some overarching writing, and I managed to find it in my email.

I guess I'd say it reiterates that maybe the NHA model is better, because it is more collaborative.

Note that when I did my brief stint with the Anacostia River Conservancy, I kept pushing them to think about the issue in NHA terms, and to do an annual conference on parks issues, to lay the groundwork for reconceptualizing the relationship with NPS and for building the capacity and knowledge base of DC residents and advocates on parks issues.

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

At 10:30 AM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

In trying to organize my s***, I mean archives, in preparation for moving (we are renting the house out and are able to store a lot of stuff in it in the interim), it happens that when I travel I go to visitor centers and collect brochures, including of federal, state, and local parks, if offered.

At the same time, while I figured out how to organize these brochures, it's a project only about 20% done. I figured out to organize them by state and sometimes city, but then there should be subfolders by topic (e.g., transportation) and then I need to go through and identify great examples, models of information provision.

Anyway, as I have been "processing" boxes of miscellaneous paper, I come across many examples of great brochures.

although I've written about the ones produced by the Knoxville based graphic designer too and sadly I don't have physical copies.

At 10:37 AM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Technically too, wrt RCP you mention the National Zoo. But that's part of the Smithsonian. Arguably, you could say that could be a local function too. But it is part of the research function of the Smithsonian too, which is international. (E.g., some of the scientists there consult on fauna around the world, help other zoos, etc.) But I think the big zoos have a kind of research and mutual assistance network and that doesn't necessarily require that the zoo in Washington, DC be federally sponsored.

At 12:56 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

NPS backs down on charging security costs to demonstrations/events on the National Mall


Post a Comment

<< Home