Something strange and wonderful happened in Washington, D.C., last month. Our beleaguered federal government made a decision that’s indisputably in the country’s best interests. The National Park Service (NPS) announced the short list of designers competing to rework swaths of the National Mall, and there isn’t a loser in the bunch.

Teams were chosen through an open RFQ process for what is effectively three separate-but-simultaneous competitions for three different locations on the mall: Union Square, which fronts the Beaux-Arts Ulysses S. Grant Memorial at the base of Capitol Hill; the open-air Sylvan Theater just south of the Washington Monument; and Constitution Gardens, a naturalistic landscape immediately north of the Reflecting Pool.

The competition sponsor, the Trust for the National Mall, is, in its own words, “the official non-profit partner of the National Park Service dedicated to restoring and improving the National Mall.” The list’s quality demonstrates the value that adviser Donald Stasny, FAIA, brought to the endeavor. And with designers such as Elizabeth Diller and Ken Smith under consideration, the trust’s definition of “improvement” is clearly progressive.

Every team includes a landscape architect, which should affirm that profession’s recent and well-deserved upsurge in prominence among the allied disciplines. It’s satisfying, and perfectly natural, to see great landscape designers play an equal role with architects in the rehabilitation of America’s Front Yard.

The trust’s triple competition derives from a 2010 NPS master plan for the entire mall ( Concerned citizens should know that the plan’s called-for renovations are far from frivolous. The mall got its last facelift some four decades ago, and it has to withstand the use of 25 million annual visitors.

I have just one reservation about what’s happening on the mall. The competition sets an exceptionally high design standard, but the 2010 plan calls for many more interventions, such as restrooms, concession stands, and benches. These may be smaller projects than Union Square, Sylvan Theater, and Constitution Gardens, but when the time comes to select designers for them the NPS and the trust should take just as much care.

In my March 2011 editorial, I suggested that future Solar Decathlons could focus on designing small-scale improvements to the mall, but there are many ways to spread the opportunities equitably, to hard-working and talented designers. Because, like our citizenry, the entire National Mall—from lofty memorial to humble park bench—deserves the Blessings of Liberty.

The Short List(s)

Union Square
Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro and landscape architect Walter Hood • landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson and Carl F. Krebs, AIA, of AEDAS • Harry Cobb, FAIA, of Pei Cobb Freed and landscape architect Ken Smith • landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand of Reed Hilderbrand and Alex Krieger, FAIA, of Chan Krieger NBBJ • Rob Rogers, FAIA, and Jonathan Marvel, AIA, of Rogers Marvel and landscape architect Peter Walker • Craig Dykers, AIA, of Snøhetta and landscape architect Roger Courtenay of AECOM

Sylvan Theater
Landscape architect Diana Balmori and Amale Andraos and Dan Wood, AIA, of WORKac • Elizabeth Diller and Walter Hood • Michael Arad, AIA, of Handel Architects and landscape architect Barbara Wilks, FAIA • Michael Maltzan, FAIA, and landscape architect Tom Leader • landscape architect Skip Graffam of OLIN and Marion Weiss, AIA, of Weiss/Manfredi • Enrique Norten, Hon. FAIA, of TEN Arquitectos and landscape architect Andrea Cochran

Constitution Gardens
Landscape architect José Almiñana of Andropogon and Frank Grauman, FAIA, of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson • landscape architect Jeff Lee and Arthur Cotton Moore, FAIA • Ron Kessler, AIA, of McKissack & McKissack and landscape architect Sheila Brady of Oehme Van Sweden • landscape architect Warren Byrd of Nelson Byrd Woltz and Paul Murdoch, AIA • Skip Graffam and Marion Weiss • Rob Rogers and Jonathan Marvel and Peter Walker