The National Park Service “Workshop”

“The trouble with socialism is it takes too many evenings.” And the trouble with democracy, as practiced by the National Park Service, is that those evenings aren’t worth the bother.

On Monday I drove out to a dark and inaccessible patch of East Potomac Park to attend the NPS public meeting on the security designs for the Washington Monument. I saw taxis and zip cars pulling up because, of course, there was no access to mass transit. It was rush hour and the bridges were jammed.

But the room was full, and people clearly were passionately engaged with how–and whether–the grounds of the Washington Monument will be redesigned to accommodate a magnetometer screening facility. Much of the official presentation was a perfunctory walk through of the legal parameters for public comment. After architect Hany Hassan spoke the Park Service announced that despite the efforts of several audience members to ask questions and make comments at the microphone, the public was very definitely NOT going to be heard except in what the NPS called a “workshop” format.

And what is an NPS workshop? Do you imagine, say, experienced moderators with flips charts, soliciting, clarifying and recording audience ideas? A report back to the whole meeting at the end, with each group sharing its insights? Dialogue? NPS officials making a list of ideas, repeating them back to the audience in a way that assures people they have been heard? A clear statement of how those ideas will be incorporated and used during the decision-making process? An invitation to a regularly scheduled, accessible next meeting, with a clear agenda for future installments of the “workshop” process?

No. The NPS employees didn’t even bother to take notes–and were, in fact, told not to take notes. There were no formal workshop procedures, and the “groups” they asked the audience to join weren’t even given designated places to sit and engage. Instead, people milled around, then left.

It was a farce. The best you can say of this process is that the NPS is incompetent at public engagement and workshops. But I fear it is much worse than that, the process is designed to thwart any chance of a public back and forth between the audience and the NPS. They didn’t even keep a transcript of the meeting. What’s the point of coming out?

We live in a busy, complicated democracy. People don’t give up two hours of their evening easily unless they are very committed to a cause. If you call a public meeting, then use it to thwart the very reasons that people come out and engage–the right and the opportunity to be heard–you are abusing the public and the public trust. The NPS should be ashamed of this kind of event, and they should change their policies to institute a clear, meaningful and effective platform for true public engagement.

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9 Comments

Filed under Architecture, Culture, Security, urban design

9 responses to “The National Park Service “Workshop”

  1. Thank you for your vigilance and candor. Good joisting with you at the Cosmos “Washington Past and Future” discussion.
    M

  2. Betsy Bailey

    Thanks for the eye-opener; unfortunately it’s nothing new to the followers of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. When excavation causes the Monument to crack and crumble it will be due to the philosophy of our “stewards” at the NPS: Seek no comment, Hear no comment, Speak “No Comment.”

  3. Fred Hogaboom

    Maybe the NPS figures if they ignore the public long enough they will get bored and just go away. Continued public interests need continued publication by Washington Post of pertinent information regarding ALL ideas, plans and designs.

    A write in campaign, aimed at informing the NPS that they are an arm of the public and therefore subject to public input in planning and design selection for a project as important as the National Mall.

    Disregarding public opinion will create an atmosphere of distrust for any future projects.
    Bringing the public on board will assure public support for now and in the future.

  4. Greer Gilka

    Thank you, Philip Kennicott, for being so concerned and well spoken in your columns about architecture, security implants, memorial placement, etc. Washington is a wonderful city which I think the government has ruined with its paranoia about security, and its caving to Congress regarding placement of monuments, “visitors’ centers (Vietnam!), memorials (WWII!) and whatever else Congress wants. It is good to have you on the correct side.

    Regarding the Washington Monument
    “workshop,” we had a similar experience in Arlington when the Virginia Dept. of Transportation held one for the 3 “spot improvements” along Route 66. They had already made up their minds that they wanted a third lane and the “spots” were not just small enhancements of exit lanes, but mile long increases which, when connected, basically formed a 3rd lane. No matter what most of the people at the well attended meeting thought. Do they all think we are STUPID? I guess it doesn’t matter what they think since they have the power.

  5. Philip:

    This is a persistent problem with government officials who apparently never have been taught how to actually listen to members of the public. It isn’t rocket science, but some workers probably do need a (paid) training session or two to get up to speed.

    I still haven’t been able to find a description on-line for the proposed security options for the Washington Monument. So it isn’t easy to find a virtual public presentation either.

    I’m also still awaiting responses to my request for an on-the-Mall public meeting from officials at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation or the National Capital Planning Commission who are supposed to help make sure meaningful public comment occurs when alterations to historic sites are proposed.

  6. Dr. Cynthia R. Field

    A farce with tragic overtones. The historic and aesthetic character of the Mall at the Monument cries out for a monumental approach and a placid execution. What must be determined is the idea the monument represents and the vision it presents from all sides. Once these are determined, design should be developed.

  7. Hopefully, this experience will lead you to more writing about the issue of the quality, nature, and context of planning processes, how they are structured, and the level and quality of public participation.

    I wrote this blog entry in part as a response to your piece in the Post.

    http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2010/11/most-of-time-it-isnt-technology-its.html

  8. Pingback: Friday links | Tyler Green: Modern Art Notes | ARTINFO.com

  9. As a licensed DC guide who is deeply concerned with the logistics and vagaries of tourism, security issues, ADA, aesthetics, and architectural integrity, I felt insulted by the choice of time and venue. For the ordinary person who does not own a car or has to work until 5:00 PM, the meeting was virtually inaccessible. It lead me to believe that the NPS is not interested in the input of professionals who actually have to arrange visitation and shepherd large groups.

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