A story on the front page of last Monday’s News looked at the deplorable condition of the National Mall, which stretches from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and asked whether its ongoing restoration should be jealously protected or if it should remain open to virtually all uses.
In Washington, many questions are difficult to answer, but this isn’t one of them. The mall is America’s front yard and for decades it has been a weed-choked, patchy embarrassment. This prominent stretch of public space should offer an attractive welcome to all who use it, visitors and citizens alike.
The debate is largely academic – at least for the moment – since valuable new rules have been implemented for use of the mall. That is a huge improvement over the free-for-all atmosphere that had characterized the mall’s usage for far too long. The change is causing some stress and resentment, but the National Park Service needs to hold firm and help Americans to adjust to the change.
There is no reason this can’t be accomplished. Central Park in New York City was also rescued from overuse and neglect and, under the guidance of the Central Park Conservancy – a private organization that contracts with the city – has restored it to the condition it deserves. Central Park is both a larger and more complex space than the mall, although the mall, unlike Central Park, is largely a big open space, open for a great variety of uses, including tens of millions of footsteps.
The argument is, at least in part, over control versus freedom of activity at the heart of the world’s leading democracy. But that’s really the wrong argument. The issue is protecting an expensive investment and maintaining valuable public property. The are rules that govern the appropriate use of other public – and private – property, and there is every reason to create reasonable rules for the use of a resource that is returning to gorgeous condition.
The project is moving along quickly. The plan calls for installation of eight panels of grass, each one slightly larger than a city block. A new irrigation system will also be installed. Three panels have already been installed, on the east side of the mall near the Capitol. The five remaining panels, for the more severely stressed west end of the mall, will be installed in two phases starting in August. The project is expected to take at least two years and cost $40 million.
For that kind of investment it is not only reasonable, but essential, to create rules of use that balance the public’s burning wish to use this space with the equally urgent need to protect it for future generations of users.