NPS DESIGN TRADITION IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Tuesday, June 4, 2013 | Posted by Ethan Carr
This essay first appeared in the George Wright Forum, published by the George Wright Society.
Centennial celebrations, like most historical commemorations, express apprehension for the future as much as pride in the past. While retrospection on an important anniversary can forge renewed identity or purpose, the need for such definition seems most pressing when new realities call old certainties into question. The National Park Service (NPS) has important reasons to celebrate its centennial, in this sense. It comes at a time when social, technological, and environmental changes have already altered basic assumptions about national parks and their management.
This is not the first time the NPS has made such use of the anniversary of its 1916 Organic Act. In 1955, Director Conrad L. Wirth anticipated the agency’s fiftieth anniversary as the deadline for a ten-year expansion and modernization of the national park system, and of the NPS itself. Then as now, demographic and technological changes were shifting how, where, and when people visited parks, and the kinds experiences they had when they did. Wirth and his cadre of park planners and designers were prepared to rethink fundamental aspects of how park visits should be facilitated. He named the effort “Mission 66,” and the program is best known today for the many construction projects—visitor centers, park housing, utilities, road widenings—completed through increased annual appropriations during the decade leading up to 1966. Many of the developed areas of the national park system still rely on the automobile-oriented infrastructure of the Mission 66 era. But Mission 66 also provided for an increase in the size and professional training of NPS staff, and it permanently raised expectations for overall levels of annual funding per unit of the system. Initiatives in the identification and restoration of historic sites prefigured the preservation legislation of the 1960s. The planning and development of national recreation areas and national seashores stimulated further recreational planning on the federal scale. Critics have condemned Mission 66 for relying too heavily on park development to meet the challenges of post-World War II war levels of use. But as a ten-year long, billion-dollar fiftieth birthday party, it will be an hard act to follow.
Of course the “mission” in the twenty-first century is very different than that of the mid-twentieth. The baby boom may be over, but demographically we are a more diverse nation and that trend will intensify. While the construction of the Interstate Highway system made parks more accessible to the public than ever before, today new sources of information and experience available through the Internet make it possible to “visit” places without actually traveling at all. As the seemingly endless rise in visitor numbers slows or even reverses, fears that parks are being “loved to death” are accompanied by another apprehension: that parks are being ignored, and are becoming irrelevant to the younger generations who must become their stewards. And if it once seemed to be possible to protect a park’s integrity with physical redevelopment plans meant to minimize visitor impacts, new threats such as climate change, sprawling urbanization, and habitat loss make it clear that ecological threats are global in scale and are neither contained, nor entirely mitigated, within park boundaries. The twenty-first century already mandates a new “mission.”
To the degree that NPS officials have articulated goals for marking their agency’s centennial, it is fair to say they have not yet done so with the emphatic clarity that Wirth gave to Mission 66. Neither has Congress indicated it might initiate a new era of capital investment in the national park system. The NPS today is in a completely different position politically, legislatively, and administratively than it was in the middle of the last century. Federal environmental legislation and agency policies, for example, long ago determined that another Mission 66 could not, as well as should not, be attempted. Wirth’s NPS was still a park development agency, as it had been since its creation in 1916. It relied on landscape architects and engineers to design plans for “harmonious” park improvements that would enable growing numbers of visitors arriving in automobiles to “enjoy” scenic and historic places without “impairing” them. By legal definition, the purpose of the national parks was to preserve them unimpaired for the benefits they offered the visiting public.Read more....