The National Mall Tidal Basin Is Sinking; Experts Unveil Solutions With increased car and foot traffic, the ground underneath the Tidal Basin — home to memorials to Thomas Jefferson, FDR and MLK Jr. — is sinking. As sea levels rise, the walkways flood daily.
NPR logo

Landscape Architects Unveil Plans To Save The National Mall's Tidal Basin

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/926042188/926329383" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Landscape Architects Unveil Plans To Save The National Mall's Tidal Basin

Landscape Architects Unveil Plans To Save The National Mall's Tidal Basin

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/926042188/926329383" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you've ever gone to the Tidal Basin here in Washington, D.C., for the Cherry Blossom Festival or to visit the Jefferson or Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, you might have noticed the flooding. The earth under the basin is sinking from the weight of increased car and foot traffic as climate change causes sea levels to rise. Today five leading landscape architects unveiled proposals to save the Tidal Basin, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: At high tide, there are some parts of the Tidal Basin where the walkway leads you to the edge before submerging underwater. Ironically, the Tidal Basin was built to solve flooding.

TERESA DURKIN: If the Tidal Basin wasn't built in the 1880s, we would be standing in the Potomac River right now.

BLAIR: From the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, Teresa Durkin, executive vice president for the Trust For The National Mall, says some 1.5 million people come to the Cherry Blossom Festival alone. As more monuments have been built around the Tidal Basin, more people are coming.

DURKIN: The pathways are too narrow. The trees get trampled. The trees get flooded with the brackish water from the flooding, so there's a myriad of issues and problems here.

BLAIR: So the trust, the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation joined forces last year to create the Tidal Basin Ideas Lab. American Express donated $750,000 to cover the costs for five architecture firms to come up with proposals. The results range from conservative to radical, but all of them address the ecological challenges. To slow the flooding, the Seattle firm GGN calls for developing natural landscapes, like a floodplain forest. Walter Hood of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, Calif., writes, it could start with living in wetland rather than draining it. He imagines letting the Potomac flow in and surround the monuments in water. This is from his video presentation.

WALTER HOOD: All tours now will be by boat. And each tour is led by a boat that would take you over to a monument. It's a very different way of seeing this landscape.

BLAIR: One of the most radical ideas might make historic preservationists tremble. James Corner imagines letting nature take over the manmade Tidal Basin.

JAMES CORNER: The monuments in this scenario will gracefully age and decay.

BLAIR: Visitors would view the ruins from an elevated walkway.

CORNER: The vision is definitely melancholic, perhaps even dystopian, with views across the marshes to the skyline of D.C.

BLAIR: The Tidal Basin Ideas Lab is not a design competition. The goal, says Teresa Durkin, is to foster dialogue with other architects, environmentalists and the general public.

DURKIN: We really want to hear from the public about how they use the Tidal Basin right now. Do they have childhood memories of it? We have to begin thinking and designing and planning for this place that puts it on a trajectory to change and adapt.

BLAIR: The situation is pretty dire. Some of the cherry trees, a gift to the United States from Japan in 1912, stand in three feet of water at high tide. The Tidal Basin Ideas Lab projects that by 2040, the Jefferson Memorial could be submerged in four feet of water at high tide; by 2070, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in six feet of water.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.