Environmentally, Los Angeles in the 1950s was a terrible place to grow up. But I was lucky: Most summers, my parents would load my six brothers and sisters and me into the car to visit great state and national parks. At home, kids of all colors and classes struggled to breathe in the yellow smog. But because my parents could take summer vacations and we had a drivable — if badly overcrowded — car, we could enjoy clean air, clean water and abundant wildlife.
National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis recently wrote in The Post that our national parks are the collective expression of who we are. But tens of millions of people — those who live in urban areas and can’t easily drive to see the wonder of the great national parks — are mostly missing from the picture.
Twenty-two months ago, I was part of a group that met with Jarvis and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to discuss Anacostia Park, a 1,200-acre federal property along the Anacostia River, managed since 1933 by the National Park Service. Jewell spoke with passion about how the National Park Service needs to update its brand to appeal more to a younger, more urban and more racially and culturally diverse America. The Park Service has taken steps in that direction by developing an “urban agenda.” But as it begins its second century, it needs to get serious about bringing parks to Americans where they live. That means investing a lot more time, money and energy in its urban parkland.
Anacostia Park is where that should happen first.
Nearly a century old, larger than New York City’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, sitting at the foot of Capitol Hill on a gentle estuary with outstanding natural biodiversity, Anacostia Park ranks among the biggest wasted opportunities in the nation’s capital. This National Park Service property is sadly underinvested, almost entirely unprogrammed, toxic in several places and simply barren in others. Yet its potential to contribute to the District and the nation is stunning. More than 21 million people visit the District each year. Some would seek out a great Anacostia Riverside National Park and bring their disposable income to spend in the eastern part of the District.
What if the park sponsored daily educational enrichment activities for the young people in nearby neighborhoods? What if a section of the park were similar to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, with programs oriented to more contemporary urban music? What if the park had a permanent interpretive display of Washington’s vibrant African American communities of the mid-20th century?
Dreaming aside, there is a great opportunity right now for Anacostia Park. A new superintendent was just named, and the park’s own 100th anniversary is just around the corner. The new superintendent should convene a second-century advisory group of the best urban park experts in the nation to design a truly great Anacostia Riverside National Park, and then put in place the kind of public-private park partnership that has proved successful in New York, San Francisco and many other places. Cutting-edge capital and program investments could eventually be shared among the Park Service budget, private contributors and perhaps the District.
Anacostia Riverside National Park could be a shining example of how to creatively design, build and program a great national riverside urban park in the very heart of Washington.
Anniversaries are occasions to look back and celebrate accomplishments. But the time has come to roll up our sleeves and create permanent, positive change. It is now time for the National Park Service to commit to creating a new generation of great parks for America’s urban citizens, starting right here in the nation’s capital.
The writer, who was D.C. mayor from 1999 to 2007, is chief executive of the Federal City Council and chairman of the Anacostia Waterfront Trust.