Why public spaces are so important

Lisa Benton-Short's great book about the National Mall in Washington, D.C., helps us understand why we need areas devoted to honouring society's best

Parks and public spaces are often more than meets the eye.

For example, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is no ordinary public space. That’s true – and it’s also the title of a great book by Lisa Benton-Short (The National Mall: No Ordinary Public Space).

We all can learn a little about our less monumental towns through this book.

Washington is the new Rome with power wafting up from the sidewalks. But it’s also a great tourist destination with countless attractions on the mall. The National Air and Space Museum is a favourite.

The book points out that the mall is also a place for protest.

And it’s very complex to manage in a district that’s not a city, with no state or federal representation. A dozen agencies claim some jurisdiction. That’s a lesson for our towns – who’s running the park, museum, gallery and other attractions?

Then there is the never-ending demand for “memorials, museums and monuments,” which is also true in our towns big and small. Benton-Short calls this “memorial fever” and notes the various good causes and groups lobbying for a corner of the public space. These include proposals for memorials to both Gulf wars, the war on terror, women, the U.S. military in general, poets, scientists and others.

The rich history of the mall is covered well by Benton-Short.

French artist Pierre L’Enfant volunteered in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, was “wounded at Savannah, fought on crutches at Charleston, and was at Valley Forge with Washington.”

George Washington in turn appointed L’Enfant designer of the capital and he had a concept drawn in two weeks. That’s about the only thing that has moved quickly or cost-effectively on the mall. Memorials and monuments now cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take decades to build, and then millions to modify under public protest. The cluttered Second World War monument took longer to build than it did to fight the war. It’s been called “symbols without meaning” and it’s said it contains everything except “a partridge in a pear tree.”

For such a grand and good-looking civic attraction, the mall also has a rough history. It’s hard to imagine slave pens and the buying and selling of people a short walk from the symbols of freedom and democracy. In the 1800s, there was “a slaughterhouse, a tannery, a paper mill, a nickel-plating facility, a glass-eye workshop, a brewery, a tinsmith’s, a petting zoo, a glue factory, a tuberculosis sanitarium,” two opium dens and brothels. There were temporary barracks in First and Second World Wars, not all removed until the Richard Nixon years.

In the early days of automobiles, cars parked wherever they could, including on the grass and White House grounds. There was once fishing and vegetable gardening. In the winter, there was skating on the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, and kids sailing toy boats in the summer. Safety and water quality put an end to that by the 1970s.

The mall has been a great place for protest – for the unemployed in 1894, suffragettes in 1913, veterans in 1932, civil rights and anti-war groups in the 1960s, and now anti-Donald Trump rallies.

The vision for the mall may never have been realized fully, with Michigan Sen. James McMillan, chair of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, pushing for renewal about 1900. He enlisted the help of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., whose father famously designed New York’s Central Park. Architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim also helped, as did sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Some of the resulting ideas proceeded in slow motion.

There was also some new life injected into the mall with a 1966 master plan mainly created by the famous architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

Ironically, near the memorials to freedom and democracy, there are visible restraints on freedom, free speech and democratic activity. For the author, that’s one more important monument, in place for the “terrorists, perversely, who are memorialized in what has been taken away.”

Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities.

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