April 27, 2006

Program catalogs our fading historic landscapes

  • The Historic American Landscapes Survey is documenting parks, battlefields, cemeteries and other landscapes that are important to our heritage.


    The National Park Service in 2000 established the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) to document landscapes that serve as tangible evidence of our nation's heritage and development.

    In general, HALS achieves this purpose through written descriptions, measured drawings and photographs. HALS does not limit development, no land is purchased, and property rights are unaffected. If the physical character of the region cannot be protected through other means, HALS ensures a record and images of the landscape in its historic context will endure.

    HALS is a companion program to the Historic American Building Survey and the Historic American Engineering Record, which have been administered by the Park Service and funded by Congress over many decades.

    Photo by Liz Austin
    Freeway Park, designed by Lawrence Halprin and Angela Danadjieva, is an iconic and historic landscape in Seattle. Though not a HALS site, the HALS program could provide a framework that would influence the park's revitalization.

    In addition to chronicling significant and increasingly at-risk landscapes for future generations, HALS provides a wide range of practical uses today. For example:

  • Battlefield studies. Over the past five years, HALS has supported efforts to assess the status of and threats to nearly 450 Revolutionary, War of 1812 and Civil War battlefields. The assessment of Civil War sites updates an initial study completed in 1991 by the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, which was established by Congress in 1990 based on growing national concern about the loss of these vitally important landscapes.

  • National cemetery inventories. HALS has developed detailed inventories of a growing number of national cemeteries. In several, including Chalmette in Louisiana and Virginia's Poplar Grove and Alexandria, HALS staff is developing interactive systems that will allow visitors to quickly identify and locate grave sites by typing in the names of their ancestors.

  • Urban parks and plazas. In just the past two years, 16 downtown parks and plazas have been or are currently being documented due to redevelopment pressures. For instance, documentation for Denver's Skyline Park, designed by Lawrence Halprin, was completed just eight hours before demolition occurred. For some plazas, such as Seattle's Occidental Park, it is too late to discern the original design intent due to piecemeal alterations.

  • Hurricane Katrina response. Past efforts to document historic landscapes and properties in and around New Orleans proved invaluable following Hurricane Katrina. HALS staff provided the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local officials with hundreds of maps, in many cases within hours of a request, which literally guided bulldozers and other heavy equipment around and through historic districts during the massive cleanup.

    Since its inception, HALS has established an impressive track record with one full-time staff person and a very limited budget drawn from other National Park Service accounts. Unfortunately, nationally significant landscapes are disappearing or are being significantly altered at a rate that far exceeds the capabilities of the existing program to respond. Without additional resources, HALS cannot provide technical or financial assistance to local groups, American Society of Landscape Architects state chapters, and historical associations interested in completing HALS projects in or near their communities.

    The American Society of Landscape Architects has requested $1.2 million to support HALS in the fiscal year 2007 Interior Appropriations bill. This would support core staff, including landscape architects, historians and GIS specialists, as well as allow the program to provide technical assistance and small seed grants to local communities. With this support, citizens nationwide can initiate HALS projects and help document significant landscapes.

    Duane Dietz is a registered landscape architect at AHBL.

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