This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.

Presentation Video and Transcript

By Ethan Carr, Phd, FASLA


Over the last century, National Park Service (NPS) planning and design has produced compelling landscape and architectural design that structured and helped define the national park experience for millions of visitors. The agency’s centennial provides an opportunity for park managers and historic preservation professionals to assess the significance and influence of this work and to consider the challenges of managing historic landscapes and buildings for the next century. How should this legacy of park buildings, designed landscapes, roads, trails, and facilities be managed and interpreted to a more diverse generation of park visitors? Can this legacy be both preserved and adapted to continue to serve the purposes and goals of the parks in the context of environmental threats, changing demographics, and new transportation and information technology?

The U. S. national park tradition of planning design has always adapted to new social and technological realities while adhering to the fundamental purpose of the parks as written in the NPS Organic Act a century ago. Creative new approaches were required to address changing conditions from the outset. Over the last century, remarkable initiatives led to sometimes radically altered approaches to how to achieve continued resource preservation and public enjoyment. As American society grew in numbers and changed in the expectations of what a national park experience should be, NPS design principles were reinvented to meet new challenges and maintain the place of the national park system in the public imagination.

The papers and case studies presented at this conference indicate that creativity and sometimes bold initiative are still required if the historic developed areas of national, state, and municipal, parks are to be not only preserved, but revived and enhanced for future generations. These landscapes and buildings will continue to be central to the park experience. The management of historic front country landscapes, today, must address many of the most significant new threats and challenges to the century-old mandate to preserve the parks unimpaired for the enjoyment and benefit of society at large.


Ethan Carr, Phd, FASLA, is a landscape historian and preservationist specializing in public landscapes. He has taught at the Harvard GSD, the University of Virginia, and at the University of Massachusetts, where he is a professor. He has written two award-winning books, Wilderness by Design (1998) and Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma (2007), and he is the volume editor of Volume 8 of the Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, The Early Boston Years, 1882-1890 (2013). He is the co-editor of a volume on the history of world park design, Public Nature (2013).

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