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Susan Spain, NPS landscape architect and Project Executive for the National Mall Plan.

Susan Spain, NPS landscape architect and Project Executive for the National Mall Plan.Photo Credit: 

Kevin: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast – the show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology & Training. Today we join NCPTT’s Paul Cady as he speaks with Susan Spain, the National Mall Plan Project Executive and a landscape architect with the National Park Service for more than twenty-four years. In the first of this three part series, they’ll talk about the design of the National Mall turf renovation project.

Paul: Susan, could you describe your role in the design of the project and give a brief history of how it came about?

Susan: My role was to be the lead planner for the National Mall plan. This is an award winning, 800 page EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], that talked about how we’re going to manage the National Mall in the future. The Mall is the component part of the National Mall which contains also the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and so on. It’s about 750 acres overall. The Mall is a portion of that area and it’s the area directly west of the capitol and it’s surrounded on both the north and the south sides by the museums of the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution as well as the headquarters for the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture].

Paul: What were the design goals the project?

Proposed plan for the National Mall, from the National Mall Plan: Summary, Fall 2010.

Proposed plan for the National Mall, from the National Mall Plan: Summary, Fall 2010.

Susan: Well clearly sustainability. We wanted to make sure that we could have a sustainable space. The Mall, and the National Mall, were never designed for the types and levels of use that they receive. For example, the Mall area between the museums held about 800 days of special events annually. It was never designed for that type of use, it was never designed for the level of use, and when we started planning, at this point in time, we had conditions that were unacceptable to virtually everyone. The soil was incredibly compacted (a soil scientist from Penn State University broke his probe the first time he tried to stick it in the ground), our soil conditions were like a concrete block and we didn’t have anything that was sustainable. Our irrigation system was broken; basically we looked pretty bedraggled.

Paul: Since it is such a visible project, with all the museums and other things around, how much input did the public have in the design process?

Susan: We had about 30,000 public comments during the National Mall plan time. The most common comment in our first round of public comments was ‘this doesn’t look good enough for what it means to our nation.’ People would tell us this was our nation’s front yard, or our nation’s stage, and they wanted to be proud of the way it looked and they didn’t feel like they could be.

Paul: What was the process for receiving input from the public?

Susan: We had a dedicated website and we were using the Park Service’s link, cross link to the Park Service’s PEPC [Planning Environment and Public Comment] site which is a internet way to submit comments. We also had a number of public meetings and we had fax comments, we had email comments, that came in to us. But you know, our process was a four year process to complete planning.

Paul: Do you use other examples of historic landscapes to help you with the design process?

Susan: Before we even started planning we undertook two Best Practices Studies. One of the Best Practices Studies was about local historic designed landscapes in the Washington DC area (PDF, 4.3MB). We had identified 7 historic landscapes and how they were managed to maintain high levels of high quality conditions. These could be things like American University, Georgetown University, [The Washington] National Cathedral, Architect of the Capitol grounds, the capitol grounds, so to speak, the National Gallery of Art and so on. We were looking at what techniques could they use to make sure that their landscapes were in good condition. We learned a great deal from that; it’s always desirable, for example, if you can close off an area (that’s not an option for us on the National Mall) or if you can restrict the types of use (which is also not an option for us). The second Best Practices Study we did was looking at heavily used urban parks around the nation, and around the world (PDF, 3.7MB). We looked at four urban parks in the United States: Central Park, Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Golden Gate Park and Millennium Park in Chicago, Golden Gate Park was in San Francisco. And then we looked at international landscapes in London, in Canada, and in Canberra, Australia. We looked at the national capitol because we were looking at places that had the right to protest, and what were things that they did in order to maintain their landscapes. It was very clear, probably early on, that no one had the level/demand that we did on the National Mall and in most cases, when you have gathering space for your nation, they are on hard surface spaces. It certainly rammed forth the challenge we faced in planning a sustainable future for designed historic landscapes within the National Mall.

Paul: How does the turf project fit into the greater Mall design project?

Susan: We had identified, right off the bat that this was probably one of the most degraded historic landscapes that we had. We had identified that we needed to restore the soils. We wanted to meet the sustainable SITES initiative. We needed to reduce the amount of potable water that we were putting on any place, because if we would have had an irrigation system that worked we would have been using potable water on that irrigation system. We had mostly gooseweed out there (as opposed to a healthy turf) and so we had the goals of really restoring our health of the turf, and the trees, and being able to still manage high levels of use in the area. That’s putting incredible demands on a turf situation.

Paul: How did you balance designing for the public while also the maintenance needs of the NPS?

Susan: We had identified, right off the bat, that to be sustainable it had to be maintainable. We knew that we needed to then make changes in the way that we managed events in the area. Basically we’re telling our events planners that they have to do things differently: they have to be in different areas, they cannot be on the turf as long as they were on the turf before, they may be required to use turf covers. We would like to disperse our events throughout the year and reduce the impact on the turf area.

Paul: So with these new restrictions in place has there been any positive or negative response?

Susan: There has been a huge positive response. For example, the first event we had after we finished phase one of the turf project was the last presidential inaugural activities. We had just finished the turf project in early January and this is taking place just two weeks later. Using turf covers, and having limitations on the amount of time the turf covers could be down, we came up with a situation where we took the turf covers off and everything, while there were a few dents for awhile, the turf looked fabulous. At this point in time, midsummer, it still looks very healthy and good.

Paul: So what other kinds of sustainable features were you designing into the fabric of the Mall to make it more sustainable?

Susan: We wanted to make sure that we would have a soil system that would be resilient; we did not have soils that were resilient. One of the things that were a result of that was that you would have increased runoff and storm water generation that could lead to some localized flooding. We wanted to be able to have soils that water could penetrate, as opposed to runoff from. We wanted to have turf that was as durable as possible, a mix of turf that would be as durable as possible, and we wanted to make sure that our irrigation system was placed deep enough so that tent stakes didn’t penetrate. That was one of the problems we had had in the irrigation system, but it was starting to look like, it had been punctured so many times that it couldn’t be used.

Paul: So how far along is the project?

Susan: We have completed phase 1 of the project. There’s phase 2 and phase 3 coming, and then adjacent to that will be replacement of gravel walks with another kind of paving. We’ve yet to determine exactly what that paving will be, but we wanted to make sure that we were putting infrastructure in the paving that would encourage people to be using larger paved areas for placement of tents and stages and things like that that have been typically placed on the grass at this point in time. It’s been interesting to see that the people were happy to utilize walkways to put the stages or tents on. We saw that in the new area last week, during the 4th of July, there were first amendment demonstrations up on the area between 3rd and 7th, very successfully using the paved areas.

Paul: What is phase 1?

Susan: Phase 1 was three panels of grass, and they were center panels on the National Mall. The National Mall, just as a reminder, is an area that has five panels that are filled with American elm trees and they are on a grid system (I think about 50ft on center) so it is a lawn framed by panels with elm trees. And it is probably the most historically recognizable landscape in our nation because at one end of the Mall is the Washington Monument at the other end of the Mall is the United States Capitol Building. It has these iconic symbols of our nation that are highly visible, which is what makes it so desirable for first amendment demonstrations and for a variety of activities: they want to be placed between the symbols of our nation.

Paul: When will phase 2 and phase 3 be implemented?

Susan: Phase 2 and phase 3 are under design at this point in time. I think we expect them to be under construction in 2015.

Paul: Ok, well thank you very much. Is there anything else you’d like to add about the design of this project?

Susan: I think that it looks so simple that people don’t realize that it’s a fairly complex system. We had taken a group of people from the Architect of the Capitol’s office up there last week and they were just astounded. While something looks simple, and they had helped us by taking photos during the construction period, they were impressed with the state of the art facilities that come from this project. We really planned on, and wanted to capture and reuse, rainwater; the rainwater was going to be reused to irrigate the turf. The system to do this is what impressed the staff from the Architect of the Capitol’s office, the sense of a real state of the art system that was doing cutting edge work in terms of reuse of water and reduction and the use of potable water.

Paul: Alright, well thank you very much for talking to me Susan, I really appreciate it.

Susan: No problem, thank you.

Kevin: That was Paul Cady’s conversation with Susan Spain. You can find the transcript of this interview on our website. That’s Until next time…