It has played host to civil rights marches, presidential inaugurations, fireworks displays and decades of picnics. But in recent years the National Mall, envisioned more than a century ago as a lush carpet of green connecting the nation’s most treasured monuments, has looked more like a West Texas dust bowl.
Now National Park Service officials are trying to teach the nearly 30 million people who gather here each year a difficult lesson: Tread softly or keep off the grass.
With the installation of exquisite, expensive new turf on a little less than half the mall, the Park Service has established strict rules that include limits on festivals and concerts, and even restrictions on when pickup softball and Frisbee games may be played. The requirements have created an identity crisis for the mall and set off a deeper debate.
Should the National Mall remain a utilitarian gathering place, rough and resilient and welcoming to all? Or should it be a more pristine landscape, a monument to the nation’s commitment to parks and preservation?
“It should be used, and it should be heavily used,” said Bob Vogel, the mall’s superintendent. “It’s a place where democracy is in action. But change is difficult on everyone, including us.”
The new lawn, on the portion of the mall closest to the Capitol, is part of a continuing $40 million restoration project that will eventually transform the entire length of the mall from its longtime state of weedy disrepair. The Park Service is enforcing the rules for the new portion of grass and, with exceptions, to the part of the mall that is not yet refurbished.
Festival organizers must pay for turf-friendly panels to protect the grass, event tents are subject to time limits, and stages and media towers have to meet strict weight-distribution restrictions.
A flag system similar to one used in New York’s Central Park — a red flag indicates that a field is closed for maintenance or weather — determines whether pickup softball and Frisbee games may be played. Cleats are discouraged.
Members of Congress in both parties have sent letters to Jonathan B. Jarvis, the National Park Service director, expressing concerns and raising the potential for a turf war.
“While it is important to preserve the grounds of this national treasure, we must ensure that its spirit is not diminished,” Representative Tom Latham, Republican of Iowa, wrote to Mr. Jarvis in April.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, for one, says the restrictions might jeopardize its celebration, which has been held on the mall since 1967. “We feel very strongly that after 47 years, the N.P.S. should consider us a cultural resource, deserving the same protection as the grass and the trees,” said Michael Atwood Mason, the director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which produces the festival.
The National Book Festival, on the mall for a decade, has picked up its stalls and is moving to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center because event organizers could not afford the staging costs caused by the regulations.
But for many of the softball and Frisbee players who dominate the mall on spring and summer weeknights, the new rules are a small price to pay for grass fields that are soft on the knees.
“The new turf is a dream; it’s wonderful to lay out on,” said Patrick Wolfe, 29, referring to diving horizontally for a Frisbee, with little regard for the landing. “You just slide right across — it’s like a carpet.”
The mall’s trustees, who like to say the expanse has been “loved to death,” are hoping the public will adjust. “The turf was designed for heavy use, but we have to treat it differently,” said Caroline Cunningham, president of the Trust for the National Mall.
The Park Service-administered National Mall and Memorial Parks encompass more than 1,000 acres between the Lincoln Memorial and the United States Capitol, along with West Potomac Park and Constitution Gardens. The mall itself is the mile-long stretch running from Third Street at the foot of the Capitol to 14th Street in front of the Washington Monument. The restoration plan calls for the eight panels of grass that make up this mile — each panel is a bit larger than a city block — to be replaced and a new irrigation system installed.
In the initial phase of the plan, three panels of grass — a combination of turf, bluegrass and fescue atop a custom blend of sand and soil — have been installed between Third and Seventh Streets, on the east side of the mall near the Capitol. The five panels in the downtrodden, more heavily trafficked west end of the mall, between Seventh and 14th Streets, will be installed in two phases starting in August. The renovation is to take at least two years.
Before the restoration, the Park Service was lenient about how events were conducted on the mall. “You have a hard time saying, ‘Get off my lawn,’ when it looks like dust,” said Michael Stachowicz, the mall’s turf management specialist.
This is not the first time that the mall’s identity as the nation’s premier gathering place has been tested. In the early 1980s, James G. Watt, then the Interior secretary, banned an Independence Day concert by the Beach Boys, arguing that they attracted the “wrong crowd.” After an uproar and an endorsement of the band by Vice President George Bush, Mr. Watt relented and let the Beach Boys sing to 200,000 people in 1984.
But the new lawn rules will require a rethinking of how the mall is used.
Among the events most affected is the Folklife Festival, which stages its extravaganza on the mall for two weeks. This year’s festival in late June and early July will be held on its usual site, the dusty, western expanse of the mall. But to allow for extensive renovations next year, the 2015 festival has been reduced to a smaller area near the National Museum of the American Indian. After that, the festival’s plans and location are up in the air.
“We are certainly exploring a variety of other options working with the National Park Service,” Mr. Mason said.
The mall’s trustees are exploring ways to help the organizers of all events reduce some of the new costs. The trustees talked to the Washington Nationals of Major League Baseball about how to make the protective panels more affordable. (The Nationals use the panels to shield their stadium’s grass during concerts and other events.)
Amanda Hall, a softball player who frequents the west part of the mall, said she welcomed the new grass. “It’s pretty awful out there,” she said, adding, “There’s one particular hole that they had to put cones around so that people running from second to third base didn’t fall into the hole.”
Ms. Hall said she had not fallen in, yet.