Sunday, January 25, 2009

America's Front Yard

Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French military engineer who befriended George Washington during the Revolutionary War, “requested the honor of designing a plan for the national capital.” His 1791 plan of grand radiating avenues and ceremonial spaces followed the best French tradition. L’Enfant selected points that would become the location of the Congress House and the President’s House. He projected site lines from these points-west from Congress House, south from the President’s House-allowing for wide-open spaces along each vista. At the crossing of these perpendicular site-lines, this designer envisioned a monument to President Washington.

Several days after the inauguration, our local paper reprinted an editorial from the Washington Post, “Sprucing up America’s Front Yard”. The spotlight was on the inauguration of Barack Obama, but the landscape was the stage for this historic event and is now part of our collective memory. “What gives me hope is what I see when I look out across this Mall.” President Obama’s view of the Mall, filled with the citizens of this country, stretched to the Washington Monument and beyond. This spotlight illuminated L’Enfant’s vision for Washington DC, every citizen’s national capital.

The point of this editorial was to seize the opportunity to “spruce up” America’s front yard. Norman Newton’s textbook, Design on the Land (1971), speaks to this very idea, that Washington DC is “considered one of the handsomest capitals in the world, but it cannot stay that way without the attention of a devoted citizenry.” The spotlight on Inauguration Day not only highlighted this event, but it also exposed to those citizens out on the Mall the decaying sidewalks, foundations, and ponds that have fallen into decline because of deferred maintenance due to underfunding. This is a chance to build on the attention focused on the Mall last Tuesday. President Obama envisions a renewed America and asks its citizens to embrace that vision. I can think of no better place to start that in America’s front yard.

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