Breathing New Life Into America's Front Yard

By Caroline Cunningham

- Huffington Post
Ask anyone where Constitution Gardens is, and they're as likely to say it's in Philadelphia as in Washington, D.C.
 
That's because, while millions actually set foot in this 38-acre area inside the National Mall each year, almost no one knows what it's called. And those who do know about it are shocked at the sorry state it's in.
 
In spite of its name, Constitution Gardens boasts no gardens. Rather, visitors can expect to find dead fish floating atop a stagnant pond, flooded and cracked sidewalks -- impassable to visitors in wheelchairs -- and weed-strewn swathes of dirt where lush lawns and gardens once grew.
 
This is hardly fitting for an area that borders sacred memorials - the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the west and the World War II Memorial to the south - and was built to serve as a living tribute to our country's founding.
 
Constitution Gardens was dedicated as a part of America's bicentennial celebration in May 1976, and unfortunately, money ran out before the design plans could be fully realized. No significant upgrades have been made since that unfinished effort.
 
Today, not surprisingly, some of the granite walls surrounding the lake have begun to collapse. The pond is covered in algae and serves as an ecologically unsustainable space that results in annual fish kills. Many of the trees meant to buffer city noise and create a contemplative atmosphere are instead severely stunted and struggling to survive because of poor soil and lack of adequate drainage. And at the north end of the Gardens, the historic Lockkeeper's House - which oversaw the last lock on the canal that once ran down the center of D.C. - now sits boarded up and abandoned.
 
It's unconscionable that a green space as valuable and useful as this - located in the heart of the most visited memorials on the National Mall has fallen into such disrepair, and unthinkable given today's sustainability know-how. What must visitors think when they see the decay surrounding the memorials meant to remind us all of the principles and values our country's founders fought to achieve?
 
Rather than simply patch up the mess, the National Park Service rightly decided that it was time to reinvent this space by bringing it up to modern standards of environmental sustainability and making it more useful and inviting to visitors and city residents alike, all while respecting the original design.
 
And so, the Trust for the National Mall, the National Park Service's official nonprofit partner, brought together world-class landscape architects and designers in a national design competition to present plans for the space.
 
The winning designs, by Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers and PWP Landscape Architecture, will create a lush setting of rolling hills, gardens, and forest, with state-of-the-art sustainable design features.
 
A beautiful and inviting new pavilion overlooking the refurbished lake will provide a space to soak up the Washington Monument views, eat a meal or attend an event. Visitors will be able to use the pond for model boating in the summer and ice skating in the winter. The island housing a memorial to the signers of the Declaration of Independence will receive a much-needed facelift.
 
The plans also call for moving and refurbishing the Lockkeeper's House, using the historically significant structure as an elegant entryway into Constitution Gardens and a much-needed orientation spot for visitors to the park.
 
This is one of the most important and exciting projects the National Park Service and the Trust for the National Mall are undertaking as part of the historic 2010 National Mall Plan.
 
With the help of private donors, the Trust for the National Mall will break ground on Constitution Gardens next spring and deliver the first phase of restorations as a gift to the nation during the National Park Service's 2016 centennial celebrations.
 
I know that once the public sees this revitalization of Constitutional Gardens come to life, they too will see it as worthy of its iconic and monumental neighbors. This work is a model in public-private partnership; by coming together, all of us can preserve America's Front Yard.