Essay

D.C. Needs to Capitalize On Its City-Like Qualities

At a symposium on Wednesday, Harvard's Alex Krieger said Washington needs to present itself as
At a symposium on Wednesday, Harvard's Alex Krieger said Washington needs to present itself as "a national showcase for urban living." (D.c. Public Library)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 14, 2007

First there was an idea, and then a plan. Then, over the course of Washington's first century of existence, there was a lot of building, a living-up-to the plan and a filling in of empty space. And with the 20th century, there was finally a city of sorts, though it's not clear if Washington really thinks of itself in those terms. What we have here is an identity crisis, a failure of urbanity.

That thumbnail sketch of local history may not seem to have much to do with Monday's planned D.C. Emancipation Day March for District voting rights. But when Deputy Mayor and City Administrator Dan Tangherlini addressed a crowd of about 200 city planners, activists and students this week, attending Monday's march was the best advice he could give to anyone concerned about the District's future.

The problem with D.C. planning, Tangherlini said, is that we are not taken seriously as a city. "The enterprise is illegitimate," he said, at least in the eyes of the federal officials who call so many of the shots.

That may have been the best summation of the strange malaise that hovered over the proceedings of "Framing a Capital City," an all-day symposium held Wednesday at the National Building Museum. It proceeded as so many well-intentioned symposiums often do, a day of tangents and digressions. And again and again, people kept coming to two paradoxical conclusions: That we are a great city, almost a model city, and yet we remain strangely inert, supine in the face of federal intervention, layers of bureaucracy and intellectual inertia.

It was also a day of soapboxes. Lucy Barber, author of "Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition," sagely pointed out that no matter how much the locals may dread the spring season of political protests, the idea of gathering on the Mall to demand something from the government is deeply embedded not just in the city's sense of itself, but in the American sense of identity as well. All those politicians who think "we have to do something about marchers" get it wrong. The marchers' right to make our beloved Mall a barren wasteland of trampled, stubbly grass makes us who we are.

Larry Beasley, a former planning director for Vancouver, B.C., brought this nugget of Canadian wisdom: "The whole world is going mad about security," which has become, in terms of architecture and planning, the most important force shaping our cities. He lamented the return of above-ground parking garages (to prevent a car bomb from taking out a building placed above underground parking) and the use of huge setbacks (they create dead zones in the urban fabric). Cities that are finally reflecting the virtues of density, mixed-use development and walkable spaces are being shoved in the wrong direction by security-mad bureaucrats.

When Beasley advised the assembled crowd (a mix of students, planners, activists and scholars) that it was time to just say no to more needlessly complex, anti-democratic, isolating, intimidating layers of security, the audience broke out into spontaneous applause. It was a hometown crowd.

And Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, gave an hour-long rundown of the ways the District might go "green." We need more solar panels, more green roofs, more bike paths, a restoration of "natural hydrology," that will bring long-buried streams up to the surface once again. He showed slides of "vertical gardens," buildings that are clad in trellises of growing plants. "Is there room for wilderness" in our vision of the city? he asked.

So the day was filled with weary calls for "no more monuments" on the Mall, frustration with public buildings turned into mini Green Zones policed by surly guards with strange, freelance notions of the United States Constitution, and resentment with living in a town that people love to visit but won't allow to have basic democratic rights. But at the end of the day, the entire symposium was really about our basic lack of self-confidence. Washington is a city defined by outsiders, by tourists who come looking to see their little piece of the American pie reflected back at them in a monument, memorial or museum, and by politicians who use the city (both literally as a place to gather and symbolically as a place to hate) but never really live here.

It seems we have internalized all this negativity. No one wants to make big plans for the city, the kind of plan that Pierre L'Enfant made for George Washington, or that the 1901-02 McMillan Commission made to bring the city some imperial splendor. And you see the confidence crisis reflected in small ways. We have the infrastructure of a great cultural city, but so many of the city's cultural organizations play it safe. Our architecture languishes in a cul-de-sac of vitiated classicism. Even restaurants close early, a small but telling symptom of the city's crisis of urbanity. Real cities are filled with people who eat late, mingle late and walk home late.

Unspoken, but lurking behind so much of the malaise at the symposium, is a basic philosophical sense of Washington's relation to the nation. Unlike the world's other great capitals, we are not an exporter of ideas. People come to Washington to do their local business, to refashion the nation and the city to their own image. Ideas are imposed from the outside. Washington is intellectually passive about its sense of self. So many of the arguments we have here about city planning are about balancing the demands of people who don't live here.

It doesn't necessarily have to be that. Yes, as Tangherlini pointed out, the city's self-determination needs to be taken out of the hands of national politicians. But on a deeper level, there's an emotional and intellectual sea change that needs to wash over the city. In many ways, as various speakers pointed out, Washington is a very successful city. We have better mass transit than most cities in the country. We have better cultural institutions than most cities in the country. We have better neighborhoods -- more lovely, more walkable and, for what you get, in many cases more affordable -- than most cities in the country. As Alex Krieger, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, pointed out, the city should present itself as "a national showcase for urban living." Which, despite the confidence crisis, is what we are.

Krieger's talk made the distinction between cities and capitals, and he argued that the American notion of a capital is of a city that is "purified," an agglomeration of clean, orderly citizens that is not, in the end, really a city at all. It took Washington a century to look like a capital. And it took another century to make it feel like a city. Now it needs to start thinking like a city, showing the 25 million annual tourists the cutting edge of architecture, sustainable design and development, and the bustle and bumptious energy of a real metropolis. A good start would be a few restaurants that serve until 4 a.m.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company