Taking Action to Defend Historic Landscapes – McKinley Park Case Study

by Douglas Nelson, ASLA, LEED AP

Rose Garden
McKinley Park Rose Garden / image: Douglas Nelson

Historic parks and landscapes are regularly viewed as opportunities for one good development idea or another. As landscape architects we must defend historic landscapes. The first step is to ensure that they are recognized as historic by their managing public agencies. We will look at a current threat facing McKinley Park in Sacramento. It is California’s second oldest urban park and is under threat by the city that is supposed to be its steward.

Is that an old, tired landscape in need of redevelopment, or is that a cultural landscape with historic significance? That would seem to be a simple question, but, as is too often the case, parks, often historic parks, are seen by some as open land waiting for a good idea. Think of the Metropolitan Museum in New York’s Central Park, or the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park. While these may be worthwhile institutions, using valuable and historic park lands may not be the best way to manage parks.

In Sacramento, California, historic McKinley Park was selected as the best location, not for a cultural institution, but for a sewage holding tank that is more than an acre in area and 40 feet deep. Sacramento is one of only two cities in California that has a combined stormwater and sewage system. That means heavy rains can overload the system and flood, with sewage, various neighborhoods including those around McKinley Park. No doubt this is an important infrastructure project, but why in the park? While the city gave many technical reasons, in reality it came down to being the easiest and cheapest solution. But to do this, the city turned a blind eye to the fact that this park, the city’s oldest, is an important historic resource. At a minimum, the city should have recognized it as such.

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