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Public Spaces

Reforest underused Fort Circle fields to focus on active areas

The National Park Service owns 90% of the parkland in DC. The City Paper recently found this Google Maps mashup charting all the National Park Service properties in the District.

Image from Google Maps.

Everyone knows about Rock Creek Park, but residents often overlook the arc of parks that form the Fort Circle Parks.

The Fort Circle Parks are mostly grassy patches of land with few other amenities. Federal and District budgets are strained right now but per capita park spending in DC is the highest of any city in the country. NPS could enhance their appeal without significantly increasing their maintenance costs by focusing more limited resources on active recreation areas that benefit local neighborhoods instead of just maintaining empty lawns.

Outside of the original L'Enfant Plan, the federal government acquired parkland largely as a result of the 1902 McMillan Plan, a Senate report advocating a comprehensive park system for the District. One section of the plan proposed a "Fort Drive" to connect all the District's Civil War forts that previously dotted the high points of the city. This scenic roadway was to run along an uninterrupted crescent park corridor that the federal government would later assemble.

These parcels, scattered from Tenleytown to Fort Totten to Eastern Avenue to St. Elizabeths Hospital, form the Fort Circle Parks. These parcels still exist today and I have marked them, along with adjacent triangle parks, in red.

Though the Fort Circle Parks connect the Civil War forts, the McMillan Plan advocated their purchase to serve as local parks, too:

The views from these points are impressive in proportion to their commanding military positions, and they are well worth acquirement as future local parks, in addition to any claim their historic and military interest may afford.
The roadway never came to fruition, but the arc of parkland still exists. Within this massive arc, one will find the occasional playground and the occasional picnic shelter, but too much of the land consists of unprogrammed lawns. These lawns don't serve neighbors as well as ballfields and playgrounds would, and they require regular mowing in the spring and summer.

Over the decades, the National Park Service and National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) have dreamt up plans to enhance the Fort Circle Parks, but nothing comprehensive has ever come to be.

NCPC now has a set of ideas for improving the Fort Circle Parks. They propose interpretive signs, a signed Greenway route, improved recreational facilities, and protection of the park's natural features.

Though it is good that NCPC has put forth an effort to get the ball rolling, it does not have any budgetary or management authority over the National Park Service, an agency that struggles to keep the National Mall in working order.

Within its current budget, the Park Service should consider reconfiguring some of the Fort Circle Parks to prioritize key recreational nodes while returning much of the lawns to low-maintenance forests. Removing the need to regularly mow unused laws will allow the Park Service to focus its efforts on playgrounds, ball fields, and other amenities neighborhoods desire.

Furthermore, restoring these lawns to forests will help the city achieve its goal of increasing the tree canopy to cover 40% of the city. Trees clean the air, prevent erosion, soak up rainwater, block noise, and enhance a neighborhood's beauty.

The NCPC plan doesn't propose what should go where, but each neighborhood should get a say in how its respective section of Fort Circle Parks should be used. For instance, if residents in one neighborhood already enjoy a playground and tennis courts, they might want a basketball court or a community garden on some of the underused land. The rest of the lawns, if rarely used, should then return to forest.

Here are a few pieces of the Fort Circle Parks that sit as unprogrammed lawns:

The Park Service and NCPC should push to make these parks more appropriate for their settings.
Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L'Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park's (only) blog of record. 


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Great post. In order to energize the underutilized NPS lands, they need to make them more accessible by bicycle. The NPS refusal to install bike racks or bike sharing stations is just awful. How can we lobby to have that changed??

It would benefit both the parks and the bike sharing system if we could get bike sharing racks installed in NPS parks.

by Ward 1 Guy on Oct 6, 2010 10:24 am • linkreport

This series has really changed my mind. The map is great. Clearly, far too many of these little triangle parks under NPS jurisdiction.

Given, however, how high DC park's spending is already, how much would it cost to bring all these little parcels into control?

I'm very glad to have NPS run the bigger ones.

by charlie on Oct 6, 2010 10:43 am • linkreport

It would be great if NPS could allow certain places -- like ESPECIALLY the area around Fort Totten -- to be planned for active use in combination with possible TOD, bike connections to the MBT, and the establishment of a higher value recognition of -- and maybe visitation to -- the actual Fort Totten.

It's hard to imagine NPS selling any of its land in return for some design conditions and in return for use of proceeds for "amenitizing" the remaining assets they'd retain....NPS is institutionally pretty stodgy...but it could make for a much better park, a much better bike and ped trail system, and much better TOD.

by jnb on Oct 6, 2010 10:58 am • linkreport

The problem I have with this though is the lack of plain open spaces in DC outside of the mall. I want to go play football or cricket, which are space consuming sports, There are very few places where this can take place. With structured ballfields and playgrounds, it limits they types and varieties of activities that can take place on these parcels of lands. Additionally, with the returning of the balance of the lands to forest, it limits the usage of the land to biking and hiking.

While you're proposal is interesting and theoretical plausible, it must be considered that is it in the best interest of the majority of the population or is it in the best interest of your specific goals and wants.

by SquirrelBoy on Oct 6, 2010 11:33 am • linkreport

Surely the main problem here is that because the NPS is a federal agency, we have zero ability to influence what they do with their land. The parks are in DC, so we might feel we should have a say in what happens to them, but really, I imagine we have just as much influence as to whether NASA does another moon shot as we do into what happens to NPS parks. Same goes for putting bikeshare on NPS grounds.

by renegade09 on Oct 6, 2010 11:48 am • linkreport

I believe the reasoning behind maitianing the "lawns" is that during the Civil War the land was cleared so incoming troops could be spotted and they would have no place to hide. Thus maintianing the "lawns" maintains the historic character. I think this is especially true of Ft. Stevens where Pres. Lincoln went to see actual fighting, making him the only sitting Pres to see his troops in combat action. (Washington wasn't Pres. yet).

Not that I wouldn't rather see forests and better use.

by Tina on Oct 6, 2010 11:59 am • linkreport

@Tina: interesting and strange! Who knew that historical preservation could mean preserving negative space like that (lawns).

@renegade09: so true. Yet another way our plantation suffers. We cannot appeal to our elected members of COngress, who oversee NPS.

@Squirrelboy: I wish there were more places to play pickup sports activities. RCP is mostly wooded and not good for this. Meridian Hill/Malcolm X actually *banned* team sports. The Mall, schools, Anacostia park, Potomac Park, and some rec centers are the only places where residents can get together and toss around a baseball, football, or frisbee or whatever in any kind of group fashion.

by Ward 1 Guy on Oct 6, 2010 12:10 pm • linkreport

@Ward 1 Guy: Have you considered moving to narrowly outside the District solely so you can get your Congressman to put pressure on NPS? It'd be a good idea even if you lose money in Maryland's high taxes but it'd pay off in a better everything for DC.

by Jason on Oct 6, 2010 12:19 pm • linkreport

There actually is a piece of Fort Drive; it runs from Nebraska Avenue just east of Tenley Circle to Brandywine Street. The part above Albemarle Street is essentially the northbound lanes of 40th Street.

by Herschel on Oct 6, 2010 12:19 pm • linkreport

SquirrelBoy, actually I'm agnostic as to what amenities should be provided. In fact, if a neighborhood wants to preserve an open field as an open field, it should remain as such. However, I suspect that many Fort Circle neighbors are dissatisfied with these fields and small lawns. Many of the spaces are too small for football, rugby, and cricket, especially since they border on high-traffic thoroughfares.

My main motivation is actually not to promote tree cover, but to provide a financially feasible way to fulfill neighborhood wishes for these parks. Per capita park spending in DC is already high, the DC government can't afford more spending right now, and the NPS budget can barely sustain the Mall, Congress's front yard. Ideally, we might keep all the fields open and simply dot them with more playgrounds and other amenities, but current budget constraints preclude that.

You're right that large, unprogrammed spaces have value. In fact, I was happy to find a good field in northern Rock Creek Park for kite flying. We certainly don't have to plant trees on every field, but selective reforestation with neighborhood input is our best chance to improve these parks for residents considering current financial and political limitations.

by Eric Fidler on Oct 6, 2010 12:20 pm • linkreport

Good post. I think America, in general, is overmowed.

by David C on Oct 6, 2010 12:25 pm • linkreport

@Ward 1 - I'm not a historian. Its just what I remember from an NPS presentation I attended a few years ago.

Who knew that historical preservation could mean preserving negative space like that

pretty sure that parking lot in CP on top of the metro is preserved this way too. Its not the stores that are considered historic since they've changed hands multiple times and have been renovated. Its the parking lot thats protected. but that's off topic.

by Tina on Oct 6, 2010 12:30 pm • linkreport

I think the key argument here is that we should use the parks more. Let people know that these parks are great places to visit and use. Before we spend untold dollars on adding how about having NPS and DPR advertise, perhaps have a less arcane registration program, have more community events on the fields?

by R. Myers on Oct 6, 2010 1:04 pm • linkreport

IIRC the "lawn" between Gallatin and Galloway sts NW near Fort Totten was at one time supposed to be part of the I-95 corridor. From central DC, I-95 was supposed to follow the Metropolitan Branch railroad tracks -- today's Red Line/MARC/Amtrak/CSX -- north to Fort Totten, then the Gallatin/Galloway "lawn" out to the Maryland border, and then the NW Branch stream valley most of the way out to the Beltway/I-95 junction that was actually built.

by pagodat on Oct 6, 2010 1:54 pm • linkreport

@Jason: As a matter of principle I don't think taxpaying American citizens should sell their house and move to obtain basic democratic rights.

by Ward 1 Guy on Oct 6, 2010 3:06 pm • linkreport

Native plantings only, please.

by Molly Wei on Oct 6, 2010 4:24 pm • linkreport

Is there a way to look at the map without the blue balloons?

BTW: Home rule anybody?

by Jasper on Oct 7, 2010 11:57 am • linkreport

This is an important issue, and I thank you for drawing attention to it. You don't mention the circle fort parks east of the river, which are by far the best in city because they ARE heavily forrested and connected into a six-mile continuous greenway with a hiker-biker trail running through it. It's one of DC best kept secrets, but I encourage everyone to check it out.

by Nathan Harrington on Nov 13, 2010 6:10 pm • linkreport

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