The Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. receives 36 million visitors annually. Flooding and foot traffic are taking their toll on the historic site.

The Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. receives 36 million visitors annually. Flooding and foot traffic are taking their toll on the historic site.

The Cherry Blossom Festival brings more than 1.5 million visitors to Washington’s Tidal Basin. But near the trees, locals and tourists may see a not-so-pretty sight: large parts of the walkway flooded with water.

Climate change-induced flooding and foot traffic are causing the Tidal Basin area to deteriorate, and officials have taken notice. The National Park Service has teamed up with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Trust for the National Mall to “Save The Tidal Basin.”

We’ll hear about this D.C. destination’s crumbling conditions, as well as the long-term solutions to fix them.

Produced by Cydney Grannan


  • Rob Nieweg Senior Field Director, National Trust for Historic Preservation's Washington Office; @SavingPlaces


  • 12:00:11

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll talk about the District's newly released cultural plan. But first, the cherry blossom festival draws about 1.5 million visitors to D.C. many of whom go to the Tidal Basin to see its 3800 trees, but they may also be seeing crumbling infrastructure and flooding walkways.

  • 12:00:34

    KOJO NNAMDIOfficials have launched a new initiative called "Save The Tidal Basin" to address the problems. Joining me now to talk about that project is Rob Nieweg. He is the Senior Field Director for the Washington Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Rob Nieweg, thank you for joining us. Good to see you again.

  • 12:00:50

    ROB NIEWEGThank you. Kojo, thanks for having me.

  • 12:00:52

    NNAMDIFirst let's about what the Tidal Basin actually does because it actually serves a purpose. When was it originally built and what does it do?

  • 12:01:02

    NIEWEGWell, Kojo, it was completed in 1885 as a piece of great huge hydrological infrastructure intended to help daily flush out the Washington Channel so that would remain navigable. So it's a great huge piece of public infrastructure and a place where we have these marvelous symbols of our democracy.

  • 12:01:28

    NNAMDIThe Tidal Basin is now part of a park with multiple monuments. What is the history of the Basin since its creation up to today?

  • 12:01:36

    NIEWEGWell, in the 1880s and into the 1890s the wonderful place that we see with the huge seawalls was constructed. In the teens, 1912 and into the teens is when the gift of the cherry trees from Japan was established. So that symbol of international friendship went up early in the last century.

  • 12:01:59

    NNAMDIIs it true that people actually used swim in the Tidal Basin?

  • 12:02:04

    NIEWEGYeah. It was a segregated swimming area and it's, say six to 10 feet deep. So we don't really recommend people swimming today.

  • 12:02:15

    NNAMDIBut it was a segregated swimming area. But I read in 1925 it was closed to swimmers, because they didn't want to allow construction of a beach for African Americans on the western bay.

  • 12:02:26


  • 12:02:26

    NNAMDII was kind of waiting for that other shoe to drop.

  • 12:02:29

    NIEWEGRight. Right.

  • 12:02:29

    NNAMDIThe Tidal Basin is now facing some infrastructure issues. One of which is flooding. The walkway around the Tidal Basin often has pools of water on it. And it's subject to high tides, thus, the name. Why is this happening and how long has it been going on?

  • 12:02:44

    NIEWEGYeah. Well, there has been regular flooding of the Tidal Basin over the years. But it's become extreme lately. And this is a result both of sea level rise due to climate change, but also the urbanization of the Potomac Corridor. So with more volume of water in the Potomac, the Tidal Basin suffers. So there's daily flooding. And I think that many people -- I grew up here. Many people don't associate daily flooding of the walkways there and of the tree roots. So public access to the Tidal Basin is circumscribed and the roots -- the cherry trees that we all love are inundated with brackish water. So they're suffering daily.

  • 12:03:31

    NNAMDINot only because of that, but because of the amount of foot traffic that's taking a toll on the Tidal Basin. What damage is that causing?

  • 12:03:39

    NIEWEGPretty significant. The place was never designed to accommodate the millions of people, who visit every year. This is the most visited unit of the national park service, 36 million people visit the National Mall every year. So millions of those people come and unfortunately sometimes have no choice, but to stand on the roots of the cherry trees. So there's a confluence of things happening to the National Mall Tidal Basin, which we view as a national treasure. With our partners, the Trust for the National Mall, the National Trust is beginning a national campaign and a call to action to develop bold ideas to help deal with the confluence of issues hitting the Tidal Basin these days.

  • 12:04:28

    NNAMDIRobert Nieweg, he's the Senior Field Director for the Washington Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We're talking about a government non-profit collaboration called "To Save The Tidal Basin." In addition to addressing the flooding and the foot traffic problems, are there other improvements or changes you'd like to see made?

  • 12:04:47

    NIEWEGWell, there are. There is a national differed maintenance problem with the National Park Service, almost $12 billion in the backlog. So the Tidal Basin has its own share of that. The cost of the changes that are necessary at this point range from between 300 and $500 million. One element of that is the security perimeter. After September 11th the Washington Monument and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials were identified as being at risk. And lovely esthetically pleasing and effective barriers have been created at the other two. At Jefferson there's a ring of Jersey barriers, which don't do justice to the symbolic value of the place and they impede public access. So security barrier is a major thing.

  • 12:05:41

    NIEWEGThe public views the Tidal Basin as a place to visit the memorials, reflect on the American ideals there, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from fear, freedom from want. It's a marvelous set of memorials that are intended to be in conversation one with the other. One can imagine standing on the steps of the Jefferson, Jefferson being a slave holder and look across the Tidal Basin at Dr. King and seeing where our nation has risen to the occasion and met our ideals and in those instances when we don't.

  • 12:06:20

    NIEWEGThe Tidal Basin can be that kind of site of conscious where we can delve into how we can be a better nation, but if the sidewalks are flooded, if the seawall is collapsing, if the place is so crowded that we can't find that peaceful moment to reflect, then the place is not working for the public.

  • 12:06:42

    NNAMDIThis initiative to say the Tidal Basin hopes to address these problems. Who's involved in the project and what is the project hoping to achieve?

  • 12:06:49

    NIEWEGWell, the heart of our campaign is an ideas lab, which is about a seven month process starting in September, which will involve five first rate high caliber design teams from around the country. We hope with young people. We hope with diverse people. We hope with people, who aren't afraid of big ideas, to gather, immerse themselves in all of the issues facing the Tidal Basin and come forward with solutions some of which will be so far out of the box that they may provoke us.

  • 12:07:25

    NIEWEGThe whole Tidal Basin ideas lab is presented through the generosity of the American Express foundation. And completed in coordination with the Trust for the National Mall, our partner, and also the National Park Service, which to say invited the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Trust for the National Mall to do just this. So it's a really wonderful collegial effort.

  • 12:07:52

    NNAMDIYou, I noticed have been engaging with visitors to the cherry blossom festival. Your people talk with -- it would appear thousands of people, who were here for that. Was there any indication that there's support for this initiative among the people you talked to?

  • 12:08:08

    NIEWEGYeah. This first moment of public engagement, you know, when you go to the cherry blossom festival you find two huge groups of people, some people going clockwise and some people going counter clockwise. And so we were engaging with people who had just come from the flooded areas and who were about to go to the flooded areas. And so it was first to say, where are these people from, why are they here, and how do they value this space? So it's really a foundational kind of questions. We're also engaging with agencies and organizations that have a stake in the place to get their more technical take on the place. But public engagement, because this is a remarkable public place, public engagement is first in order.

  • 12:08:57

    NNAMDIA radically different design or would it stay true to its current style with just a light makeover?

  • 12:09:04

    NIEWEGWell, so I represent a historic preservation organization, right? So in the end we know that whatever change is made there to make more accessible to make it more meaningful need to respect the historic nature of the place. And I think that that's going to be part of the essential goal. But, you know, in seven months we could see proposals that would reshape the Tidal Basin itself that could create pedestrian walkways and bridges to ensure safety, separation from cars, bikes, that kind of thing. Certainly there's a security perimeter integrated into the landscape in a way that it's seamless. We could imagine monuments and memorials to great women in American history. When you take a walk all there around the Tidal Basin, you're seeing great men. What about great women?

  • 12:10:07

    NNAMDIWe were having a conversation about that last week in the District of Columbia where they're trying to pass legislation to introduce monuments around the city where people can see more women and more people of color in general than the current monuments we see around here. But the Tidal Basin has been flooding for years, why was it not addressed before?

  • 12:10:28

    NIEWEGWell, I know that when the Park Service was engaging between 2006 and 2010 in a master planning process, flooding was top of mind. I think it's now that we're started to see real damage to the seawall in particular, if you go to the Tidal Basin at high tide you'll have to wear your waders. If you go at low tide, you can see that this late 19th Century wall is suffering. These are immense blocks that are sort of dry stacked one on the other. And there's subsidence and settlement happening because the whole place is landfill. The whole Tidal Basin, every landform there is made up of silt from the Washington Channel.

  • 12:11:16

    NIEWEGThere are places where we're walking where the silt, where the landfill dredged from the river is 100 feet deep. And this means that the place moves. Well, now it's moving more than ever and if we don't do something meaningful and potentially dramatic 50 years from now we may not recognize the place. A hundred years from now it may be gone.

  • 12:11:39

    NNAMDIBecause 36 million people visit the National Mall every year even though peak bloom is over. Rob Nieweg is a Senior Field Director for the Washington Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:11:53

    NIEWEGThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:11:54

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come we'll talk about the District's newly released cultural plan. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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