COVID-19 Impressions from the Historic Preservation PPN

images, clockwise from top left: John Giganti, Marilyn Wyatt, Jessica Baumert, and David Driapsa

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of life, from personal interactions to business to learning to recreation. As we all continue to adjust to life and work during the pandemic, we will be sharing insights, observations, and impressions from ASLA members based around the country. Today, we share brief updates from a few of the volunteer members of ASLA’s Historic Preservation Professional Practice Network (PPN)’s leadership team and the PPN’s Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) subcommittee:

  • David Driapsa, FASLA – Naples, Florida
  • Rebecca W. Flemer, Affiliate ASLA – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Ann Mullins, FASLA – Aspen, Colorado
  • Douglas Nelson, ASLA – Mill Valley, California
  • Elena M. Pascarella, ASLA – Rhode Island
  • Barbara Wyatt, ASLA – New York

Magnolia Plantation, Cane River Creole National Historical Park / image: David Driapsa

David Driapsa, FASLA
Principal Emeritus, The Studio of David J Driapsa FASLA
Beautiful Naples, FL

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered federal historic sites, but as we have seen, even when closed they are walkable. Under the stay-at-home-order, exercise and recreation has risen to a priority in the lives of many. Limited automobile traffic has opened the roads as broad lanes for pedestrian and bicycle recreational use. With dining in restaurants no longer available, and many restaurants serving take-out meals, the lightly-visited parks offer many opportunities during these troubling times for picnics.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has left the federal historic sites in solemn silence, except for the sounds of nature.

This landscape view looking west from Reservoir Hill in Philadelphia shows the Fairmount Water Works, originally constructed between 1812 and 1822 after the designs of Philadelphia chief engineer Frederick Graff. Built to supply the expanding city with safe drinking water, the works included an engine house, mill house, and a millrace bridge. Wm. Bowen, 1840. / image: World Digital Library

Rebecca W. Flemer, Affiliate ASLA, MS, Historic Preservation
National Park Service, Region 1. History and Preservation Intern
Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia: Freedom Curtailed

Fairmount Park, which lines both sides of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, was established in 1825 in response to a health crisis. Wave after wave of “malignant fevers” pushed Philadelphia to the brink of ruin. Sewage waste polluted the Delaware River, the city’s main water supply. The odors from the pollution or “miasma” were thought to cause yellow fever, prompting a group of “respectable citizens” to find another water source. They turned to the other side of the city and the Schuylkill River, establishing one of the first public water supplies from its relatively clean water—away from the tanneries and industrial development along the Delaware. The city acquired thousands of acres of undeveloped land to protect this watershed, most of it rural estates lining the river banks. These acres, along with more acquired during the nineteenth century, became a public park, with the Fairmount Water Works safely in its bounds.

A lone cyclist on Kelly Drive, which runs along the Schuylkill River in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. / image: John Giganti

Today, Fairmount Park, with over 2,000 acres, serves the city of Philadelphia in a different way. It reflects the original intent of the park—to improve the health and well-being of its residents—by providing running paths, parkways, and open space for passive recreation. Many local and state jurisdictions (including the Fairmount Park Conservancy) have flagged exercise as a key component for maintaining mental and physical health during the outbreak. In a joint statement released by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), they emphasize how parks provide natural beauty to enjoy, and plenty of open space for individuals to spread out and exercise in accordance with the CDC’s recommendations for social distancing. As runner John Giganti puts it, “I’m so grateful I have a place to go to escape my apartment occasionally. The steps to the art museum make a great public gathering space. And the fresh air and cherry blossoms along Kelly Drive and MLK Boulevard remind me that Spring is here, and it’s not all disease and worry.”

A page from the Woodlands Guidebook. The articles of incorporation stated this mission: “…Whereby the beautiful landscape and scenery of that situation (Hamilton’s Estate) may be perpetually preserved, and its ample space for the free circulation of air, and groves of trees afford a security against encroachments upon the dead, and health and solace to the living.” / image: Articles of Incorporation of The Woodlands Cemetery Company, 1840

The Woodlands, a historic cemetery in West Philadelphia, was recently featured on the website PlanPhilly as a place to walk while maintaining social distancing recommendations. With 54 acres of open space and winding, wide paths, it is an ideal place to find solace in nature and clear the mind. On a recent warm and sunny day, the crowds of people grew and while most people were respectful of keeping their distance, the influx of visitors has kept the staff on their toes. Those who had always meant to visit the site thought, “Here’s my chance!” So-called “coronavirus tourists” have raised concerns and forced the staff to think about ways to limit visitation to a healthy level while serving the community around them.

Timed tickets for Sunday visits to the Woodlands became mandatory in 1853. See the HALS report for more information. / image: The Woodlands Archive

Interestingly, this reflects the history of the Woodlands as a historic rural cemetery. Visitors to early rural cemeteries, such as the Mount Auburn in Boston and the Woodlands, were encouraged to reflect on didactic moralism and romantic visions popular in Victorian times—to “indulge in the dreams of hope and ambition or solace their hearts by melancholy meditation.” However, for members of the public, the cemeteries functioned as “pleasure grounds” and became so popular with visitors that managers were forced to issue timed tickets to limit the crowds. Hopefully the Woodlands will not have to resort to this, especially as it serves as a much-needed respite for staff members from nearby hospitals.

A friendly reminder from the first day of social distancing at the Woodlands gate. / image: Jessica Baumert

During these trying times, both of these historic landscapes are providing a place for Philly residents to clear their heads, exercise, and reflect on the city’s heritage.

Ann Mullins, FASLA
Aspen, CO
City Council Member

The Political Landscape

The New Landscape Declaration published by the Landscape Architecture Foundation in 2017 states that “we (landscape architects) will work to cultivate a bold culture of inclusive leadership, advocacy, and activism in our ranks.” One way to do that is to enter the political arena, whether as an elected official or grassroots organizer. At the local level, as an elected City of Aspen Council Member I have used my skills as a landscape architect to lead and shape the city. In times of crisis this leadership requires instilling confidence and giving comfort to constituents. As landscape architects we are spatial thinkers and storytellers, able to narrate the journey through a crisis, a response, and a recovery. This video is my message to the citizens of Aspen in response to the COVID-19 crisis:

Douglas Nelson, ASLA
Principal, RHAA Landscape Architects
Mill Valley, CA

San Francisco Bay Area: Parks and Open Spaces a Way of Life

The shelter-in-place order in the San Francisco Bay Area counties was one of the first in the United States. It would be an understatement to say this was an easy transition to a new way of life. It was soon clarified that outdoor exercise was an essential activity, but the consequences of that were underestimated.

The Bay Area is surrounded by parks and open spaces including local and regional parks, national parks, and watershed lands. These areas are where much of the population goes to enjoy the beauty of the region and get outdoor exercise. During the second week of the shelter-in-place order, people were venturing into the parks and open spaces in unprecedented numbers, often without observing social distancing guidelines. Access roads and parking lots to open spaces were overrun with people from around the Bay Area. Beach locations such as Stinson Beach in Marin County were flooded with visitors. Local stores were cleaned out by visitors, leaving little for local residents.

In reaction, Counties and park agencies initially closed many parks and open spaces, but later clarified that local residents were welcome to use parks and open spaces that they could walk or bike to. Parking areas were closed with threats of citations. One of the results of these restrictions is that local parks were more heavily used, leading to additional restrictions to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 virus. These additional restrictions included the closure of playground, sports fields, tennis courts, and similar recreation facilities. Dog parks have now been closed.

Many people are now walking and biking in their local neighborhoods. The large reduction in vehicle traffic made streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. As the crisis elevated, the number of people realizing the critical nature of this pandemic seemed to increase the level of compliance with travel and outdoor recreation restrictions. It remains a dynamic situation with public agencies reacting to the pandemic crisis on an almost daily basis. People are adapting also, but what is increasingly clear is the value of local, regional, and national parks and recreation areas. These sacred places were well used prior to the pandemic, but nothing can increase the appreciation of parks and open spaces as the loss of free access, even if only temporarily.

Elena M. Pascarella, PLA, ASLA
Principal, Landscape Elements LLC, and HALS Liaison for RIASLA
Rhode Island

COVID-19 has changed the way everyone interacts. All of us in Rhode Island are being asked to maintain a social distance of six feet as we interact with others. Most of us are working remotely from home. And we are seeing that the majority of our public spaces are empty of humans. However, this has not stopped many people from enjoying the fresh air, from visiting parks, beaches, cemeteries, and other open spaces, and from using bikeways and greenways.

I have observed many people biking through parks and walking along the beaches, streets, and within parks. Of course, everyone is keeping distant from the next person. Some friends are scheduling “socially distant walks” in places such as Roger Williams Park, which is a Horace Mann design and is considered the “Jewel of Providence.”

COVID-19 has, however, created a number of cancellations relating to parks and historic events:

  • The RI Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission’s annual Historic Preservation Conference, scheduled for the last weekend in April, has been cancelled for 2020.
  • The Providence Preservation Society is considering rescheduling their Festival of Historic Houses, which regularly occurs in June.
  • The Roger Williams Park Zoo and Botanical Gardens are closed to the public. Both facilities have a number of special events in the spring.
Spring in Central Park, March 20, 2020 / image: Marilyn Wyatt

Barbara Wyatt, ASLA

A missive from my sister Marilyn Wyatt about Central Park during the time of COVID-19

My sister Marilyn has the good fortune to live near Central Park, and she walks in the park frequently. Marilyn sent me this description of the beauty of the park, juxtaposed against the pandemic ravaging New York. She wrote in late March:

“Central Park is glorious all year round, but right now its beauty is at its height. Snow drops, forsythia, and daffodils are in bloom, birds are singing and soaring through bushes, buds are coloring the tips of trees, and mallards are pairing in the ponds and streams. The contrast of the park with the illness among us is poignant, but every walk there offers restoration for the body and soul. Even as COVID is confining New Yorkers to neighborhoods, streets, and apartment buildings, our use of Central Park seemed hardly to have waned before last weekend, when I stopped going. Families were strolling, runners were filling the main avenues, and children were running and playing in the grass. People sat at a good distance from each other on the benches, which are plentiful, but most people weren’t wearing masks. It’s one of the few New York City sites where a six-foot distance from others is pretty easy, no matter how many people, and the park has generally felt like the safest place to be in a pandemic.

About five days ago, I decided it was time to stop going to Central Park. Guidelines for protecting ourselves and others haven’t been clear, and there were widespread complaints that parents are still letting their children use playgrounds, and team contact sports like basketball were still being played. The combined lack of discipline and clear instructions for the use of outside spaces felt like a universal hazard, even in Central Park. Sadly, I felt I had to eliminate my walks that so recently had offered such welcome relief.”

Postscript: Just a few days later, my sister sent me an article from the New York Post with the title “Massive field hospital for coronavirus patients going up in Central Park,” excerpted here:

An evangelical Christian relief organization on Sunday began setting up a massive field hospital in Central Park to help New York City cope with the crush of patients sickened by the deadly coronavirus. Samaritan’s Purse—which is led by Franklin Graham, son of the late televangelist Billy Graham—trucked in four trailers of gear, including tents, beds, personal protective equipment and 10 ventilators for the most seriously ill. A team of 70 health care workers from around the US will be led by Dr. Elliott Tenpenny, who’s previously treated Ebola patients in West Africa, Syrian refugees in Iraq and earthquake victims in Ecuador. . .By mid-afternoon, three had been erected. The tents will accommodate 68 patients, including 10 in makeshift intensive care units that will have a ventilator for each patient.”

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