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Landscape Architect Urges Congress to Look to Alternatives to Permanent Fencing

ASLA sent a letter to Congress opposing permanent fencing or fortification of the Capitol Complex and offering the expertise of landscape architects in site security design that is both effective and obtrusive.

2021-06-14

On June 1, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC) hosted a roundtable on alternatives to permanent fencing around the U.S. Capitol Complex. Experts on the panel included landscape architect Faye Harwell, FASLA, co-founder of Rhodeside Harwell; Dede Petri, president and CEO of the National Association of Olmsted Parks (NAOP); architect Thomas Vonier; and Errol Schwartz, former Commanding General of the D.C. National Guard Major General . ASLA has worked with NAOP and Rep. Norton on opposition to permanent fencing and was honored to participate in this important event.

After the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, twelve-foot fencing topped with razor wire went up around the entire Capitol Complex – roughly four miles of fencing cut off Capitol Hill to foot, bike, and vehicular access. While temporary fencing has gone up around parts of the Capitol Complex for select inaugurations, it was always on a short and publicly announced timeline. As of June 14, the Capitol itself remains behind fencing patrolled by members of the U.S. National Guard, making the historic Capitol Grounds and the Capitol building itself inaccessible to visitors.

ASLA sent a letter to Congress opposing permanent fencing or fortification of the Capitol Complex and also offering the expertise of landscape architects in site security design that is both effective and obtrusive. ASLA government affairs followed up the letter by meeting with Congressional staff and the Architect of the Capitol to discuss the work of landscape architects and how they can help with any security redesign that also take the historic landscape into account.

Thanks to ASLA’s advocacy efforts, language was included in a security spending bill that passed the House of Representatives on May 20 that forbids permanent above ground fencing while promoting the use of funding for landscape architecture as a security option – a rare use of the full term “landscape architecture” in legislative language.

The bill specifically states “…that funds made available under this heading may be used for design, installation, of landscape architecture …as part of an interconnected security of the United States Capitol Grounds and such funds shall not be used to install permanent above ground fencing around the perimeter, or any portion thereof, of the United States Capitol Grounds…”

Rep. Norton opened the roundtable making the case that fencing in the Capitol Ground was a local issue important to her constituents' everyday lives, a national issue that runs counter to America’s open democracy, and an international issue that threatens the symbolic beacon of freedom that America shines across the world.

While Rep. Norton does oppose permanent above-ground fencing, she has been supportive of Gen. Honore’s report to Congress recommending retractable or pop-up fencing. Harwell and Petri both spoke on the issues with retractable fencing and how it can still be disruptive to the landscape as well as difficult to maintain. By the end of the roundtable Rep, Norton admitted she was unaware of these issues and would rethink her support of underground fencing.

Harwell concentrated on her role as a landscape architect and her vast experience in site security design. She highlighted six principles she believes need to be considered if the Capitol Complex must be redesigned:

  1. Cast a broader net – The Capitol Grounds are part of a large campus and in the midst of a major city. Landscape architects must integrate security design into this broader fabric and look to examples, such as the grounds of the Washington Monument and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
      
  2. One size may not fit all – The Capitol Grounds, as designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, took existing buildings and urban context into account, including roads. Solutions may vary along different areas and sides of the Capitol Complex.
      
  3. Capitol Grounds as public landscape – Since the 1870s, the Capitol Grounds have become an important public space not only for civic purposes but also for locals and visitors alike. The Grounds are a respite from urban life while also symbolizing the openness of our government as a beacon of democracy.
      
  4. Deter or prevent – Unfortunately, our nation has seen multiple attacks on public spaces and buildings with different types of weapons. The January 6 insurrection involved a mob on foot that would not have been prevented by fencing. Breached fences are known worldwide. Fencing is meant to act as a deterrent, a way to slow down an attack, but alone can't prevent one. This must be taken into account when redesigning the Capitol Grounds.
      
  5. Make the Most of Landscape Opportunities – There are other methods of secure landscape design besides fencing, such as strategic changes in terrain, use of plantings, water features, and technology. Gen. Honore’s report mentions that landscape strategies should be studied as a priority.
      
  6. Collaboration – Any design must include all components of the landscape, including security, access, details, and the experience of place. This work cannot be done alone and requires landscape architects working with architects, engineers, Congressional and Capitol staff, and preservation and security experts.

During the question and answer portion of the roundtable, Harwell spoke eloquently about how landscape architects use subtle changes to the site to enhance and help with security. She explained how technology is important and landscape architects, alongside arborists and horticulturalists, can work with security experts on sight lines and laying cable and wire without damaging tree canopies and roots.

ASLA thanks Faye Harwell for her participation in this roundtable and sharing her expertise on common-sense site security design that is both effective and unobtrusive while also promoting the profession.

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