A little more than a century ago, Congress providentially set aside almost 2,000 acres of Rock Creek's picturesque valley "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States." That act guaranteed that the nation's burgeoning capital would always have a heart of green, but it has had the unanticipated effect of making Rock Creek Park one of the nation's most underused urban resources.
Oh, you may have jogged along one of Rock Creek's leafy trails this summer, perhaps taken in a performance at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, or more likely sped down Beach Drive in your car on your way to work. But you probably didn't take your children to the park to play, join friends for coffee at an outdoor cafe or sit on a park bench to watch the world go by. Rock Creek gets a little more than 2 million recreational user-days per year, according to its Web site, which is pitiful for a huge park in thenation's fourth biggest metro area. (A once-a-year picnicker constitutes one user-day, while an every-morning jogger represents 365 user-days.) Compare that with Forest Park in St. Louis, which gets an estimated 12 million user-days, or New York's Central Park, the national leader, which records more than 25 million visits.
The root of the problem will have a familiar ring to Washington's disenfranchised residents. Because it is a "national" park rather than a "city" park, Rock Creek has a superintendent who reports ultimately to the Secretary of the Interior, not to the mayor of the District. Put simply, the Park Service isn't accountable to city residents and doesn't cater primarily to their recreational needs.
Here's what that means for those of us who live near Rock Creek or most of the other scores of parks in the District: For a start, no outdoor restaurants or even vendors' stands. One of the pleasures of an outing to New York's Central Park is buying an ice cream from a pushcart, but that doesn't happen in Rock Creek. Fitted out with a sylvan cafe, Peirce Mill or Thompson's Boat House could be as inviting as the popular boathouse in Forest Park, but the National Park Service won't have such commercialism here.
Another sign of a national park? Few places to play. The almost 7,000 acres of national park land in the District contain a grand total of 11 playgrounds. If you include playgrounds on the 800 acres operated by the D.C. parks department, Washington's total reaches 71. This compares with 129 playgrounds in Baltimore, 162 in San Francisco and 504 in Chicago. And each of the 11 playgrounds on national park land has a political history akin to the passage of some major piece of legislation. The newest one, which opened last winter on Capitol Hill, took a group of Lincoln Park mothers six years of campaigning and resulted in an unfenced tot lot rather than the adventure playground they had hoped for. And it's not just a problem for small children: Even counting the wide open spaces and recreational facilities of Anacostia Park, the Park Service provides only 18 soccer fields in the whole city, compared with, for instance, 75 on a smaller land base in Seattle.
None of this is to suggest that the Park Service does its job badly. Back in the 1970s, when cities were in a downward spiral, some politicians even suggested that the Park Service should take over all city parks. The agency seemed to be doing such a great job with Yellowstone, the reasoning went, couldn't it do the same with Bronx Park or Boston Common? A fledgling "urban national park" movement even got started when New York City gave several thousand acres of beaches and wetlands for a new Gateway National Recreation Area and a string of forts in San Francisco became the urban portion of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. But the Park Service itself was not enthusiastic about changing its mission to cater to the day-to-day recreational needs of an urban population, and, with the growth of anti-federalist sentiment since the Reagan administration, today Boston's harbor is the only urban location with a growing National Park presence.
No, the broader problem at Rock Creek is one of a mismatched mandate. As the National Park Service states, its central mission is to preserve "unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations." It is a noble goal, and if there were something "national" about Rock Creek Park, there might be a justification for the Park Service to manage it for all Americans, putting conservation ahead of recreation just as it does for its other unique natural reserves (think Shenandoah or the Great Smokies), and its other nationally recognized urban monuments (think Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Fort McHenry in Baltimore or our own National Mall).
Rock Creek fits neither of those models. It is an area of undeveloped land in the middle of a 5-million-person metropolis, more like such places as Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Druid Hill Park in Baltimore or Griffith Park in Los Angeles, all of which see their mission first and foremost as accommodating local users. Rock Creek, on the other hand, remains unexplored by many Washingtonians because its edges have been left uninviting and there is so little to do there.
The conflicts inherent in the way the park is now managed are most clearly symbolized by the controversies over Beach Drive. The fact is that the people who make regular use of the park are chiefly commuters cutting through on their way to work. Despite its low recreational use, Rock Creek Park gets about 14 million commuter driver-days a year. Few other city parks have such a dramatic imbalance between people and cars. Even San Diego's Balboa Park, with an astonishing 7,000 parking spaces, can claim more benefits from its traffic -- after all, when cars stop and park, they disgorge walking human beings. But on Beach Drive the constant stream of rush-hour vehicles just passes through. The maxim here isn't "Leave only footprints and take only memories," it is "Take only a byway and leave only ozone."
It seems clear to me that many more people would like to use the space for recreation if only it were managed differently. On weekends, when upper Beach Drive is closed to traffic, you'll find not only cyclists, but folks walking, running, skating, pushing strollers or wheelchairs, fishing, bouncing balls, picnicking, skipping rocks, reading, writing and doing other things that are impossible or unpleasant alongside a road full of cars. Like the cyclists who have campaigned to restrict commuting through the park, many other Washingtonians who have spare time on weekdays would welcome an approach that encouraged more recreational usage while finding alternate routes for drivers. But the Park Service is unable to come up with such a plan. It began a planning process in July 1996 and still hasn't released a document.
If the Park Service had a clear people-oriented mandate -- the kind that most mayors automatically understand because they have to face the voters every few years -- it might develop play areas and a transit system within the park, and look outside the park for traffic solutions. It's been done in other city parks. Think of how New York's then-mayor Ed Koch began to reduce traffic in Central Park in the 1970s and why his work was continued by mayors of both political parties. Today, during non-rush hours, Central Park is virtually car-free, except for the transverse roads that connect the Upper East and West sides.
Conversely, if the D.C. Council had the responsibility to deal with all the city's parkland -- rather than having it ceded to the feds -- it, too, might behave in a more deliberative manner. As it is now, council members can ignore any proposal to change the park's usage by walking away with an "it's-out-of-my-hands-go-talk-to-the-Park-Service" shrug.
What we have is political gridlock. The mayor and the council work to make urban life better without ever considering the many additional benefits we citizens could get from Rock Creek Park. And the Park Service laments the damage from cars without ever being able to figure out a solution based on opportunities outside the boundaries. It is time to recognize that the problem is structural; it is time to begin planning a carefully thought out and gradual transfer of the ownership and management of Rock Creek Park to the District government.
Many of us are skeptical of the city's ability to manage its current challenges without taking on new ones. But don't dismiss this as an outlandish proposal. Though small in terms of the acreage it controls, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation has been on a sharp upward trajectory ever since Mayor Anthony Williams brought in Neil Albert as director in 2001. The department now has a natural resources division, a horticulturist, a computer mapping specialist, an urban park ranger force and a landscape planning team, and it has been given a construction budget of more than $300 million to fix old facilities and build new ones.
Moreover, D.C. Parks and Rec has an impressive record of working in partnership with private support organizations, including Washington Parks and People, Green Spaces for D.C. and the Casey Tree Foundation. The department already plays a role in Rock Creek Park (and all federal parkland in the District) by handling reservations of ball fields, picnic groves and sports leagues.
I'm not talking about paving over the park. I simply believe that the residents of this city should have more of a say in how their park is managed and that it's time to open that debate. With the help of citizens' advisory groups, and with the creation of a Rock Creek Park Conservancy that would bring in resources from the private sector, there is a real possibility of reestablishing Rock Creek Park primarily for the benefit and enjoyment of the people of Washington, D.C.
Author's e-mail: Peter.Harnik@tpl.org