Land Unlocked

Land Unlocked

University of Washington students visiting the San Juan Island Park site.
Courtesy University of Washington

The last century has seen our national population triple and suburbs sprawl. But one institution has remained true to its original creed to preserve the American landscape: the National Parks Service (NPS). Just four years shy of its centennial, the NPS has teamed up with eight diverse organizations devoted to reconsidering the potential of design to sustain public parks. The result is Parks for the People, a national student competition that challenges nine academic studios to create a vision for the future of America’s national parks.

Presented by New York–based Van Alen Institute with the NPS, Parks for the People seeks to reveal and propose solutions to contemporary issues of preservation. In 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson created the agency, its goals were to conserve nature, beauty, wildlife, and recreation. However, after nearly a century and an acquisition of over 80 million acres of managed parkland, the additional challenge of scale has forced NPS to reshape its approach. Van Alen’s brief challenged teams “to creatively rethink our National Parks’ connections to people and their role as revered natural, social, and cultural destinations.”

In a statement following the announcement of the first-round competition winners, National Parks Service director Jonathan B. Jarvis promoted cooperation: “Now [the teams] must collaborate with the parks to find ways to promote sustainability, inspire stewardship, empower youth, and foster dynamic connections among parks, communities, and natural systems.” The nine schools have one semester to work toward their final submission on May 15.

The University of Washington team is focusing on the San Juan Island National Historical Park, just north of Seattle. The students are working to “re-frame the image, narratives, and processes of SJI-NHP.” The diverse site, which encompasses over 2,000 acres, requires a diverse approach. The group has isolated four integral focal points—site, structure, technology, and identity—and is working collaboratively toward an ecologically responsible resolution.

The City College of New York’s landscape architecture students have been researching the small settlement of Nicodemus, Kansas, the sole remaining all-African-American town west of the Mississippi River. In proposing solutions for this site, City College must take into consideration the social legacy that binds this historic community. One student acknowledged the challenge that Nicodemus has “a dwindling population of direct descendants, so we have to respect their sense of ownership.”

The second-round winners will be announced this summer.