As the Thomas Jefferson Memorial turns 80 on April 13, its stewards are taking steps to ensure that visitors can continue to enjoy it and the beauty of the Tidal Basin where it is situated for decades to come.
The Tidal Basin, adjacent to the National Mall, is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, attracting huge crowds each spring when its cherry blossom trees — a gift from Japan to the United States — are in bloom. The Jefferson Memorial, dedicated in 1943 to the third U.S. president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence, anchors the site.
But as sea levels rise, the walkways flood frequently. What’s more, the ground beneath the Mall is dipping due to heavy traffic. In places, pathways have become too narrow, forcing pedestrians onto grassy areas, where too often tree roots get trampled.
‘A sacred civic space’
Over the past 80 years, the Tidal Basin and National Mall area have “evolved to become a highly symbolic, national landscape, a sacred civic space,” says Teresa Durkin, project director for the Trust for the National Mall. But “this landscape is fragile and vulnerable.”
The National Park Service is taking a big step to confront rising water levels with a $5.7 million project to fix the seawall around the Tidal Basin. Spokesman Mike Litterst said the Park Service seeks to fix the immediate problem and handle rising sea levels “for the next 25, 50, 75 years.” Construction will begin in late 2023.
Recognizing the larger problems, the Park Service has joined with two organizations — the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Trust for the National Mall — to create the Tidal Basin Ideas Lab to put forth innovative, longer-term solutions.
The Lab has asked five landscape architecture firms for proposals to tackle ecological challenges, rebuild outdated infrastructure and craft guidelines to implement changes.
Different visions for the area
Proposals submitted by the five landscape architecture firms — DLANDstudio, GGN, Hood Design Studio, James Corner Field Operations and Reed Hilderbrand — reveal varied approaches.
- Hood Design Studio, based in Oakland, California, recommends embracing the area’s rising sea levels and rebuilding urban ecologies. “Let the waters be free,” its proposal states. “Start with living in a wetland rather than draining it.”
- New York-based James Corner Field Operations offers three options, one of which would allow visitors to observe the monuments and nature’s flooding cycle from an elevated circular walkway.
- The Seattle-based firm GGN calls for small changes that would buy time to adapt to shifting circumstances and suggests introducing new flood-plain forests that would “slow flood waters while fitting into the national capital aesthetic” and preserving nearby cultural institutions.
- Reed Hilderbrand, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, urges a “disciplined” development of a vast recreational complex, including “the harmonious migration of people, plants and animals — especially the cherry trees — to fertile grounds.”
- New York’s DLANDstudio advises creating new wetlands and green walls to absorb rising waters, while protecting the cherry trees and the nearby Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials by moving them.
As much as $500 million in upgrades may be needed for the Tidal Basin area to remain viable for future generations, according to Lab estimates. The National Park Service will invite public feedback on proposals and collaboration on new ways to interpret the Jefferson Memorial and make it ever more inviting to visitors.