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Public Spaces

Farming will replace parking on the Mall

What's now an ad hoc landscape of parking lots and scruffy lawns could transform into the latest attraction on the National Mall. The US Department of Agriculture is planning to convert its grounds into an outdoor museum of cultivation.

Rendering of the teaching garden and market shelter. Image by OLBN via NCPC.

One hundred years ago, the US Department of Agriculture maintained a world-class arboretum on the Mall. Before the McMillan plan, USDA split the grounds of the National Mall with the the Smithsonian and the Botanic Gardens. Well-loved by local residents, the arboretum was one of Washington's must-see tourist attractions in the 1890s.

The Arboretum in transition on the National Mall in 1906. The half-finished Whitten Building is at the right.

After a big fight, all that remains from the period is USDA's headquarters, the James Whitten Building. The 1908 building is the only office building on the Mall. It's a big monumental edifice that's closed to the public. It's surrounded by a motor court, parking lots, and unexciting plantings. It's a dull spot on "America's Front Yard."

That could change if USDA goes ahead with a plan to turn its grounds into a public place of of interpretation and outreach.

The Whitten Building site plan. The Mall is at the top (north). The bottom is Independence Ave. Image by OLBN via NCPC.

Along the Mall, new landscaping by OLBN will make the ceremonial entrance more attractive. On the west side, a garden of heirloom plants for pollinating insects will surround a future memorial to black patriots. On the east side of the building, a new landscaping will expand the demonstration garden added in 2009.

Near the Smithsonian Metro station, the design proposes a market shelter clad in wood and bronze, on axis with the Beaux-arts building. Already, a farmer's market takes over the eastern parking lot on weekends. With the renovation, the space will become a permanent garden plaza.

Other parking lots along Independence Avenue will be repaved with attractive materials that allow water to percolate into the ground. Over time, the department says it will use these more and more for events like farm equipment display.

Independence Ave. street section, with improvements to keep trees healthy. Image by OLBN via NCPC.

All of the sidewalks will see reconstruction to green public spaces. Stabilized ground, new permeable surfaces, and stormwater retention cells will make growing trees in the area possible again. Along C Street SW, the project will create a timeline of agricultural technologies. A similar exhibit runs around the the Department of Transportation's headquarters at the Navy Yard.

The security plan. Red is a vehicle barrier built into benches, hedges, and walls. Image by OLBN via NCPC.

The interpretive gardens are one aspect. Security is another reason for the renovation. Thankfully, the design tightly wraps attractive security barriers and fences close to the building. Rather than try to expand the security perimeter by absorbing the city around it, USDA secured a Level IV facility in a way that's not just friendly, it attracts the right kind of activity.

Washington's various design review boards have approved the design with minor improvements, specifically, eliminating parking spaces from the formal entrance on the Mall side and adding street trees.

The design is an excellent effort to create an inviting public realm while meeting the needs of federal agencies. Culturally, it brings the bureaucratic mission of the department into contact with the daily life of city folks. As the Southwest Ecodistrict develops and nearby properties change hands, the quality of these spaces will become more and more important to city life.

The USDA knows that biodiversity makes healthier crops than monocultures. This plan shows that USDA understands that the same rules apply to urban spaces. Hopefully, Washington will see more of this line of thought as agencies rebuild.

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He really likes walking around and looking at stuff.  


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by LowHeadways on Jun 19, 2014 10:35 am • linkreport

That would be pretty rad, hope it succeeds.

by BTA on Jun 19, 2014 10:43 am • linkreport

I whole-heartedly support this re-landscaping of the USDA.

On the subject of a memorial to African-American patriots, the website offered doesn't have an envisioned design. Wouldn't it be more appropriate to have this memorial at or immediately adjacent to the new Museum to African American Hostory, across the mall on 15th Street?

At the USDA, I'd welcome a statue to a great American contributor to agriculture, like George Washington Carver (scientist and botanist, born a slave), or Norman Ernest Borlaug (scientist who discovered method to double the yield of many grains, winning him the Nobel Peace Prize). It's not often discussed these days, but The U.S. Has a strong agricultural history and it deserves a statue to one of its great contributors on the National Mall as well.

by Adam on Jun 19, 2014 10:58 am • linkreport

Here's what the document describing the "big fight" in 1908 says:

...the building established the limits of encroachment on the Mall and set the standard for the later structures of the Federal Triangle. Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim of the Park Commission (known today as the McMillan Commission) and the Department of Agriculture Building Committee were at odds over the proposed location of the structure. The Commission wanted to create an open Mall without buildings, as it is today, but the Agriculture Committee disregarded the proposed McMillan plan (which had not been accepted yet) and placed the building at random in the proposed Mall. Burnham and McKim sought the sid of President Theodore Roosevelt to stop construction of the structure and place it on their proposed East-West axis. The President called a meeting to stress the relationship of the building to the McMillan plan East-West axis assuming that the Agriculture Committee would follow the plan. As a result of the meeting, the Agriculture Committee moved the proposed building towards Independence Avenue but disregarded the McMillan plan North-South axis. Burnham and McKim caught the Agriculture Department Committee when the foundations were in place and again asked the President to intercede on their behalf. Roosevelt called another meeting and succeeded in having the Committee move the building 106 feet west to conform with both the East-West and the North-South axis. Thus, the open Mall concept was saved.

Interesting bit of history, thanks, Neil.

by JR on Jun 19, 2014 10:59 am • linkreport

This sounds like a wonderful plan. We need to increase local farming and what better way than having the Agriculture department show how on America's front yard.

by Thayer-D on Jun 19, 2014 11:00 am • linkreport


Why do we need to increase local farming? I'm no shill for big ag, but per pound of output, industrial farming is cheaper and less energy-intensive.

There's nothing wrong with boutique family farming, but most people in the US will be getting their food from a big ag farm.

by questions on Jun 19, 2014 11:05 am • linkreport

The truth is that if the farm area in from of DoA HQ were to reflect the agricultural output of the US, it should be either a corn or soy field.

by questions on Jun 19, 2014 11:07 am • linkreport


I kind of agree but it's not like the land here in question is going to be used for anything more productive so let's go ahead.

Otherwise I'm generally skeptical that "urban farming" will radically change our cities anytime soon.

by drumz on Jun 19, 2014 11:13 am • linkreport

Industrial agriculture is unsustainable. Thousands of years of aquifer storage are being depleted all over the middle of the country. California has less and less water every year it seems. Local farming is a matter of food security and not destroying the environment.

by BTA on Jun 19, 2014 11:15 am • linkreport

Yes, industrial agriculture is doing that, but small scale farming would do it too and be worse.

by Another Nick on Jun 19, 2014 11:20 am • linkreport

Pretty sure inefficient family farming was a prime cause of the Dust Bowl.

Make no mistake...I have nothing against boutique farming. But understand that agriculture in the United States (and Canada for that matter) is industrial farming (and will be for the long-term future).

by questions on Jun 19, 2014 11:21 am • linkreport

"Why do we need to increase local farming? I'm no shill for big ag, but per pound of output, industrial farming is cheaper and less energy-intensive."

My thinking on this is long term. Industrial farming certainly has its place, but in terms of resiliancy in the face of global warming, I think there's room for improvement. Mono-culture farming that industrial farms rely on is more vunerable to disease. Also, it tends to wear out the land faster. Then there's the question of energy consumed to get produce to market. I'm sure cargo ships plying the seas to get us all the produce we'd like regardless of seasons is economically more efficient, but there could be disruptions in global trade for which we'll have to rely on local foods.

To my mind there are other reasons like being more aware of one's environment and therefore making more intelligent land policy decisions. Also, I think locally grown food that get's to our schools quickly (for example) is the best way to feed our children the food with which to learn. But all those touchy feely reasons aside, I like that our government sees the importance of local agriculture for it's health, economic, and envoronmental reasons.

by Thayer-D on Jun 19, 2014 11:27 am • linkreport

>Pretty sure inefficient family farming was a prime cause of the Dust Bowl.

I think the prime cause would have to be farming in a fundamentally dry area without irrigation and being surprised when a string of unusually wet years ended.

by JR on Jun 19, 2014 11:28 am • linkreport

In places like Brooklyn, NY it's actually more cost effective to grow food IN the city. Tolls alone make getting fresh food into the city very expensive.

by SW, DC on Jun 19, 2014 11:54 am • linkreport

I like how much tree cover the Mall had in the 1906 picture. Wish it were still that way.

by jeffb on Jun 19, 2014 11:54 am • linkreport

Classic case of a goverment department that needs to be killed, and keeps inventing new roles for itself. The FBI is the same way. Homeland security is the worst.

So, yes, this is more propoganda than reality. But is coming from GSA or the DoA?

I like most of the McMillan plan, but the turn the mall into a giant, unkempt lawn was a huge mistake. Trees are out friends. Lawns are artificial.

by charlie on Jun 19, 2014 12:03 pm • linkreport

I've always thought that the Ag building would eventually make a great museum about the American landscape.

by Payton Chung on Jun 19, 2014 12:52 pm • linkreport

Shouldn't this be high-rise, dense, mixed-use infill development instead? DC needs more high end apartments on top of Five Guys.

by Alf on Jun 19, 2014 12:53 pm • linkreport

I support this plan as it makes us all think more about where our food comes from, and/or could. It's also the perfect complement to the rest of the monumental core's open space. I think some sort of display or even small planted area discussing the country's "industrial agriculture" may also be appropriate here, as that would complement this plan. I agree that the Mall's vast lawns are sterile in their own way, but we need to think twice about reducing "America's front yard" that is also used for various large gatherings, festivals, etc. etc. Perhaps minor tweaks such as a few more planted arbors, gardens, etc. might be OK.

by DaveG on Jun 19, 2014 1:56 pm • linkreport

LOL @Alf's sarcasm

by DaveG on Jun 19, 2014 1:57 pm • linkreport

Local farming is increasing, in New England in particular. (You can find data here:

Why is it increasing? Who knows. But I had a friend who worked in IT for some decades and left. He bought a few acres, and began growing a variety of crops and got into beekeeping. He now markets his own honey, and sells his goods at local markets.

I've known two local DC bloggers who have left the city and established farms. One is the Slow Cook: He operates out of upstate New York.

Look at the various farmers markets in DC -- if those weren't ongoing advertisements for working your farm, I don't know what is.

Big Ag wants to all die eating processed foods.

by kob on Jun 19, 2014 2:22 pm • linkreport

Maybe USDA can add an urban farm animal display section (including live goats, chickens, etc.) to their HQ plan (I'm serious).

by DaveG on Jun 19, 2014 2:52 pm • linkreport

Animals would fit in perfectly between the farmer's market/Lincoln Garden area.

by DaveG on Jun 19, 2014 2:54 pm • linkreport

The National Liberty Memorial is roughly supposed to look like this:

I think it's safe to say that the design will change a lot before it gets built, DC being what it is. The design above doesn't look site-specific. Also, the statue is pretty cartoonish, and I think the topic deserves better art.

As for moving the statue to in front of the African-American history museum, I don't think that's possible, because that's in the "Reserve" area.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 19, 2014 3:14 pm • linkreport

I'm blown away by the tree cover on the Mall in that old photo.

by NikolasM on Jun 19, 2014 3:31 pm • linkreport

The Mall used to be one of those picturesque parks like Central Park in NYC before the McMillan plan restored the open mall idea from L'Enfant. They also 'tarted' it up with white wedding cake buildings, a few of which got built. Then again, the old train station used to be on the Mall.

Neil, that statue design is a bit strange.

by Thayer-D on Jun 19, 2014 3:37 pm • linkreport

Industrial agriculture is a failure, at least on a global scale. Despite the best efforts of chemical companies and vast, energy-guzzling irrigation projects, there are still a billion hungry people in the world, and about three billion undernourished.

Fortunately, just as we're seeing fewer Aswan Dams, there are more and more local agriculture projects in places like South Asia.

by David R. on Jun 19, 2014 4:58 pm • linkreport

The links in the article to the NCPC's PDF of the plan didn't work for me.

This one did:'s_Garden_Site_Improvements_and_Perimeter_Security_Decision_Notice_6458_Jun2014.pdf

by Kevin C on Jun 19, 2014 5:48 pm • linkreport

I love plants, I STRONGLY dislike the narrow placement of bollards and planters around the Mall because of wheelchair access.

by asffa on Jun 19, 2014 8:56 pm • linkreport

Borloug now has a statue inside the Capitol. Iowa just swapped out Kirkwood for Borloug. How about remembering Cyrus McCormick at USDA?

All four sides of the Whitten building are currently dominated by cars and ugly infrastructure. Their museum in the Whitten building doesn't hold much interest for tourist either ... such a shame since we all eat.

I'm glad that USDA is thinking greener and look forward to a better learning opportunity. I am also looking forward to more and better public bike racks.

by tour guide on Jun 19, 2014 8:58 pm • linkreport

tour guide - I think there should be a nice bike rack on every block. I mean it - on every last block. :)

by asffa on Jun 19, 2014 9:14 pm • linkreport

I bet it will never happen. The hidebound NPS will find a way to squash it.

by Martys on Jun 20, 2014 9:01 am • linkreport

NPS was part of the team that developed the plan, and their representative on NCPC, Peter May, voted for it.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 20, 2014 9:10 am • linkreport

Thanks. Glad to hear that NPS is on board.

by Martys on Jun 20, 2014 9:18 am • linkreport

I can see a lot of Republicans having mixed feelings about that statue.

by David C on Jun 20, 2014 1:54 pm • linkreport

This is bull-sh!t. There is no parking near the Mall. My visitors and I cannot enjoy a quick visit to the Mall anymore because of the hassles of parking.

by lisa on Jun 27, 2014 10:40 am • linkreport

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