Desire Lines Make the National News!

Eighty-eight years after its dedication, the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on the National Mall in Washington DC is getting a facelift.  The National Park Service is spending $60million on the project–the most expensive undertaking of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  The bulk of the funds will be used to retrofit the Reflecting Pool and make it more sustainable.  Historically, the Reflecting Pool has used potable water from Washington DC’s municipal water supply but will now take its fill from the nearby Tidal Pool and then circulate it into the Potomac River.  Not only does this conserve drinking water, it will also maintain a more hygienic Pool by avoiding stagnation of water contaminated with duck poop and algae.

In addition to the retrofitting, NPS is spending some of the funds on erasing the desire lines that trace across the lawn from the nearby Elm Walks.  These “social paths” detract from the visual quality of the National Mall both from ground level and from above when viewed from the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.  The social trails also create liabilities for NPS by presenting uneven surfaces for pedestrians to navigate as they visit the Pool.  In addition, these paths are contributing to soil compaction which has a negative effect on the root systems of the historical elms.

Public input has been mixed about this project. Views range from relief that the pool will be more sanitary in the future to outrage that NPS will “destroy the natural character” by paving the area.   This project is important to the NPS for at least two main reasons.  Due to evaporation (the Pool is 2,029 feet by 167 feet and contains more than six million gallons of water) and leakage from the old concrete of the Pool, this body of water is an unsustainable one.  The NPS has a responsibility to protect natural resources; potable water is a valuable resource that is facing increasing pressures and water conservation should be promoted.  The Elm Walks are part of Frederick Law Olmstead Jr’s overall design for the National Mall and the Reflecting Pool is in keeping with Henry Bacon’s design from 1922.  Perhaps the social trails have some value as a cultural resource and trying to minimize their existence by adding pavement changes the historical character of the place.  That said, the design plan of the Mall struggles to impose a more formal and ordered design than the one currently maintained. The NPS has to juggle their mandates to protect cultural resources with those to protect natural ones.  While adding pavement might change the overall appearance of the Park, losing trees because of root damage would create an even more obvious change to the space.


About matthewtraucht

Graduate school student at the University of Minnesota's College of Design pursuing a Master's of Landscape Architecture, class of 2013.
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