As envisioned by Pierre Charles L'Enfant in 1791, the National Mall was to be the foremost avenue of the city; a “Grand Avenue ... four hundred feet in breadth, and about a mile in length, bordered by gardens.” Unfortunately, not long into the planning, the architect and civil engineer was fired and the National Mall languished.

After serving military purposes during the Civil War, the mall was finally given its proper due in 1901 with a new plan (image below) calling for the restoration, development and implementation of L’Enfant’s "Grand Avenue" concept; the spine of which was an expansive carpet of grass, typical of those in Europe.  


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Which was all fine and good for the more delicate manners and mores of previous centuries — but then came the 20th century with its marches, concerts, celebrations, festivals, fireworks and an onslaught of picnics and softball games. And lo and behold, the National Mall’s once-glorious lawns have ended up looking more "dusty dugout" than "Palace of Versailles."

Overseen by the National Park Service, the agency is tasked with perhaps an impossible feat: How to keep 30 million annual visitors from trampling the lawns into smithereens. This has proven to be a formidable challenge, the result being a lot of bare dirt and weeds, with little left of L’Enfant’s lush expanse.

But now a major renovation of the area is underway. Some of the grass has been reworked, and the mall will eventually see the entire lawn area restored to its former grassy glory.

And along with the new grass comes something else: new rules. As reported by The New York Times, the park service has established new restrictions that place a number of limits on festivals and concerts, as well as a plethora of other rules governing outdoor activities.  

In doing so, they’ve raised many questions.

“The requirements have created an identity crisis for the mall and set off a deeper debate,” notes the Times. “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?”

Calling it our “vibrant legacy,” former first lady Laura Bush, honorary chairwoman of the Trust for the National Mall, said, “In over 200 years, the National Mall has become a unique national treasure … where history is remembered and where history is made.” The mall is a public space, but it has also become a monument in its own right; and the two seem to be at odds.

Festival organizers fear they will be unable to pay for the grass-friendly panels required to protect the new turf, nor will they be able to work with other new restrictions in terms of stages and media towers. Both the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the National Book Festival, two longstanding traditions on the mall, say their continuation there is threatened. 

And aside from long-established festivals, an atmosphere of rules, restrictions and “stay off the grass” signs for the general public doesn’t sit well with those who consider the area to be the nation’s “front yard.”

National mall grass

Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr

"While it is important to preserve the grounds of this national treasure, we must ensure that its spirit is not diminished,” U.S. Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa, wrote to Jonathan B. Jarvis, the National Park Service director.

"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.”

So what to do? Have a beautiful lawn that is mired in rules or have a people’s park that better resonates with the ideals of the nation? And, should there even be a lawn there at all?

The restoration plans call for eight panels of grass that constitute a mile-long stretch of turf. Each panel is larger than a city block. An extensive irrigation system is included in the plans, including cisterns buried 22 feet below the surface.

At a time when some municipal agencies are paying people to remove their lawns (last year the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power offered homeowners $2 per square foot of grass removed) is a mile of grass really practical? When there is a sensible movement to replace lawns with vegetable gardens in front yards across the country, does swathing the Capitol in expensive grasses — which are costly to maintain in terms of money and natural resources and that people can’t even walk on – a viable concept?

Not to mention that grass doesn't like the conditions of Washington, D.C.

"It's one of the hardest areas in the country to grow grass," said Murray Cook, the turf expert overseeing the new grass. He says that Washington is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter for many grasses.

So why not use native ground covers that are anesthetically pleasant and durable in those conditions? (Nobody wants an ugly National Mall, but there’s got to be a better option.)

For now, the restoration is underway and the grass stays; and with the $40 million being spent on the lawn, the rules will most likely remain as well. But maybe someday we’ll realize that this national treasure doesn’t have to be like good furniture that nobody can sit on. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead, the legacy of the nation’s front yard was hospitality, practicality and sustainability?

Or is it just a case of the grass always being greener on the other side?

Related stories on MNN:

How should the nation's 'front yard' be used?
Public playground or pristine park? Along with the National Mall's new lawns come new rules that are raising questions.