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Ecology and the National Mall

The following is a guest post from EcoWoman Board Member Alison Alford

 I recently attended DC EcoWomen’s EcoHour with Teresa Durkin, Senior Project Director for the Trust for the National Mall.  I was astonished to find that the Trust plans to make over 700 million dollars of improvements to the mall over the next decade, and raised over 350 million to match the government’s funding to get to the 700 milllion dollars needed for the project.  Teresa told us that each year, there are over 3,000 permitted events that bring 25 million people to the the Mall.

How do you capture their hearts? With all of those visitors walking around and through the Mall each day, this is the question on Teresa’s mind. After all, the 700 acre plot that make up the National Mall isn’t just a landmark, it‘s a teaching moment for ecology.

At Templeville University in Philadelphia, Teresa learned that building things right the first time is the key to saving money in the end, and applies that knowledge to projects on the National Mall.  You can’t just throw money at the trampled grass on the Mall and just replace it with new grass; you need to restore it with a working system. The National Trust for the Mall decided to dig four feet down into the earth, re-blend the soil and add turf and native grass plants before replanting the grass.  They also added a curb, and a solar powered irrigation system that grabs weather data from satellites. The reflecting pool was cracked and leaked 6 ½ million gallons of potable water into the tidal basin, but the Trust for the National Mall spent 100 million dollars to fix the cracks and refill the pool with 4 million gallons of fresh water from the tidal basin.  Now, the reflecting pool no longer leaks, and the Mall does not need to waste drinking water to fill an ornamental pool.

Teresa tries to develop learning initiatives, so when people visit the National Mall, they learn a little about ecology and environmental preservation, along with the rich history that surrounds the Nation’s Capitol.

Teresa did not start out as a landscape architect.  In fact, Teresa began as a film producer and went back to school for landscape architecture when she was in her thirties.  She was apprehensive, because she thought she would spend her life designing perennial gardens for “ladies who lunched,” but she became a protégé of Ian McHarg and  learned that “Land Matters.”  Ian McHarg taught her that we need to think of the impact of our designs, and that green roofs and storm water management will make more of a difference to the landscape than just a few ornamental trees planted here or there.

Before working at the Trust for the National Mall, Andrea worked for Andropogon Associates, a design firm that focused on sites covered with invasive species and restoring them to their native and natural habitat.  In fact, Andropogon Associates is named after a pioneer native grass species. Teresa worked on creating infiltration beds, restored sites, and wetlands where no wetlands were before it.   At Andropogon, Teresa learned that, when you communicate creatively with people, you get them to believe in your science and ultimately in your goals.

As a living example, when Teresa worked at global firm in Dubai, she found herself trying to sell storm water management to a place that receives only three inches of rainfall a year.  Since Dubai is built on top of salt flats, in monsoon season those three inches of rainfall actually amount to 4 million gallons of water all at once. Without storm-water management, the city would be wasting over 4 million gallons of water a year.

Teresa told us that we must think of cities and parks as whole systems – not just individual components.  Urban forests are in poor shape, watershed parks in cities now need stewardship because they are too small of a system to take care of them.  Without access to nature, children need to be taught environmental stewardship.  We need policy changes, legislation and management to all come together to get something to work.

It’s wonderful to find out that the people that take care of our National Mall love it and work hard to preserve it for generations to come.  After attending DC EcoWomen’s EcoHour, I can take my out-of-town relatives to the Mall and truly turn the visit into a teaching moment – just as Teresa envisioned it to be.



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