Lisa Benton-Short, author of The National Mall: No Ordinary Public Space talks about overlooked urban national park sites, getting inspired by her own neighbourhood, and more.
How did you become involved in your area of research?
My first book, The Presidio: from Army Post to National Park, explored the challenges in converting an army post into one of the newest parks in the national park system. I learned a great deal about the politics of park planning and development, and about the unique role that urban parks provide. Since that book, I’ve been fascinated with the issues that confront the urban parks in our national park system. When I joined the faculty at GW I realized I was only a few blocks from one of the most important urban national parks, the National Mall. It seemed like a great opportunity to continue to learn about the wonderful diversity of our national park system.
What inspired you to write this book?
When I first started researching about the National Mall, I thought I would publish a paper or two that looked at the controversy over the design and location of the World War Two Memorial. But as I became more involved with the research I realized there were other significant and unexplored challenges such as continued demands for new memorials, security post 9/11, and numerous planning and development issues. So what started small became a larger book project.
How did you become interested in the subject?
On my commute to the GW campus I would drive down 17th street, which runs right in front of the Washington Monument. The first time I drove past the Monument I remember feeling very humbled and awestruck. The soaring obelisk is inspiring. To me, the Mall has been a place where I connect to American history and identity, and our country’s founding principles and ideals. It is place where you can feel the power of the monuments and memorials, the legacy of events, marches and protests. The Mall is an incredibly meaningful place. This book is the result of my intellectual curiosity as a scholar, but also my personal attachment to this place.
What do you find most interesting about your area of research?
I am a geographer. In the US, this means explaining what I do, since Americans have not had much exposure to geography in school. My research is a blend of urban studies, urban planning and the environmental. I’m interested in how people influence and are influenced by cities and important places. I’m driven by questions such as “How do places become sacred, meaningful and enduring? What is the role of public space in fostering community and identity? Why are many cities redeveloping their waterfronts? How are immigrants changing the economic, social and political processes in cities? How are cities planning for climate change?” These are the types of questions that fascinate me, and that I’ve been exploring for many years.
What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?
When most people think of “national parks” they imagine Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon—the big nature parks that epitomize the national park ideal. Most people don’t appreciate how diverse the national park system is. National parks include monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the many urban units—such as the Mall, the Statue of Liberty, and Independence Hall. The national park system includes 412 sites that cover more than 84 million acres in every state! Many do not realize the significant role of the urban units in the park system. I think of them as the “poor stepchildren” of the park system. They are often overlooked and underfunded. In reality, the urban parks contribute tremendously to educating people about the history of the U.S. They promote public use through convenient and often much less expensive access. For example, about 4 million people visit Yellowstone each year, but some 25 million people visit the National Mall. For many people a visit to an urban national park may be their only experience with the national park system.
What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?
I have been surprised by how difficult it has been to generate meaningful debate and change in either the Congress or White House on really important and long-lasting decisions that impact the Mall. In the years that it’s taken for me to write this book, I’m amazed that most of the issues I began exploring in 2004 are still issues in 2016. And this is despite the advocacy of many individuals and organizations.
Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?
Not really, this project was literally in my backyard!
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The hardest part of writing this book was that many of the issues I explore have not been resolved. I had to learn to let go and stop waiting for resolution. I came to realize that the primary role of this book is to introduce a lot of questions to which we don’t yet have answers.
What are your current/future projects?
Given that there are hundreds of national parks in the US, there are many more stories to tell! I can’t wait to get started on the story of another urban national park.
What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?
Since I spend my days reading non-fiction for work, I love to read fiction. I’m in a book club, which gives me a great excuse to read a good book every month! In addition to reading, it’s in a geographer’s nature to travel. I just returned from a fantastic trip to Rwanda and Kenya. I’ve been reading some excellent histories on these countries to better understand the context!
What is your favourite book?
I don’t have a favorite book—that’s like asking if I have a favorite cat! I love them all. Some women collect shoes or accessories, my husband and I collect books. As Thomas Jefferson said “I cannot live without books” and I’m trying to live up to that. In our house, there isn’t a room that doesn’t have books.
If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?
I think I would have a found a job that allows me to travel and explore for a living!
Last thoughts: This year is the National Park Service Centennial, which was established in 1916. This is a great excuse for everyone to visit a national park this year!