The National Park Service owns and manages a majority of the Anacostia River waterfront. National Capital Parks-East (NACE), which manages Anacostia Park, relies on local partners, including residents, non-profits and DC government agencies, to help achieve its mission. NACE is currently expanding its capacity to collaborate with new and existing partners.  

National Park Service Administrative Unit boundaries in the DC area. Source: National Capital Region Paved Trails Study / AECOM

National Park Service Administrative Unit boundaries in the DC area. Source: National Capital Region Paved Trails Study / AECOM

The Anacostia River’s waterfront in Washington, DC, is made up of several different properties owned and managed by multiple entities, but the largest landowner by far is the National Park Service (NPS). NPS’ National Capitol Parks-East (NACE) administrative unit manages Anacostia Park, a collection of waterfront parks that includes over 1,000 acres of land. In addition to Anacostia Park, NACE manages all of the National Park Service sites throughout Wards 7 and 8 and in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, including Fort Dupont Park, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and more.

This is a lot of ground for NACE to cover, so park visitors’ first interactions with park staff may be with maintenance crewmembers or U.S .Park Police, but if you’re lucky you can find park rangers roaming in their iconic “flat hats,” offering programs and tours and letting you know that you are somewhere special.

More than just “Flat Hats”

The National Park Service, however, is much more than the rangers you may be familiar with. While there are rangers, maintenance crews, the U.S. Park Police and other employees you may see in your local park, there’s also a superintendent who oversees each park, there are visitor services staff who design the experiences you have in the park, and there are planners, designers, scientists, anthropologists, researchers and more who make up the larger body of the agency.

Together these people create the institution that is the National Park Service, designed to “preserve unimpaired” special places for future generations. While the federal agency is responsible for gems like Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park, they also operate parks in urban settings including right here in DC. In order to respond to the complex and ever-evolving realities of urban communities, the National Park Service often depends on local partners, including residents, nonprofits and local government agencies, to fulfill their mission.

Partnering with the National Park Service

NACE relies on many partners to host additional programming in the parks, lead volunteer events and be champion stewards of the park alongside the NPS. In Anacostia Park, the list of organizations involved in these various aspects is long. Groups like the Anacostia Watershed Society and Student Conservation Association provide experiences for young people in the park, and groups like Anacostia Waterfront Trust and Anacostia Coordinating Council help the NPS connect to local residents. (You can view and filter a list of some of the organizations involved in the Anacostia River here.)

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I recently attended a forum at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum that highlighted ways in which groups can partner with the NPS, and how the agency can serve as a resource for communities along the Anacostia. Dennis Chestnut, who worked closely with the NPS during his tenure as Executive Director of Groundwork DC, said that “It really is a learning curve” to work with a federal agency sometimes, but also that “it’s worth it.” He argued that the National Park Service is well-suited to tell stories about the significance of their parks, many of which residents aren’t aware of, and working with the NPS helped expose the youth involved in Groundwork to a new potential future career.

The “learning curve” of partnering with the NPS can go both ways: not only do community groups need to learn NPS procedures and requirements in order to partner with them, but the NPS also often has a lot to learn about the communities surrounding their parks. NACE is limited in budget and staff and is part of a national organization in which management staff may relocate frequently, so it can be challenging for park managers to create and sustain relationships with local partners.

But the NPS as a whole has evolved to adapt better to working in urban areas, and launched its “Urban Agenda” in 2015. This set of principles guides urban parks to engage with broader groups and collaborate effectively with local partners. Tara Morrison, superintendent of NACE, says that her approach to collaboration is to “take a step back and listen, learn and share information.” She appreciates the help of groups like 11th Street Bridge Park, Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative and DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative that create connections to the neighborhood and that connect the NPS to broader discussions about the community. “There is no one voice of the community,” said Morrison. “Everyone has to know that they are welcome at the table.”

A Summit for Park Service Partners

Back in March, the Anacostia Ambassador and the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative helped organize a meeting between NACE and local stakeholders to discuss the draft Management Plan for Anacostia Park. Several local nonprofits and community groups attended and expressed interest in working with the NPS to implement the Management Plan. In order to keep this conversation about potential partnerships moving forward, NACE recently hosted a Partnership Summit on October 10th during which community stakeholders and organizations learned about various ways to collaborate together and with the NPS to achieve shared goals. (Check back soon for a report on that event.) 

In order to achieve a shared vision of a healthy, resilient, high-quality signature waterfront, the many organizations and individuals working on the Anacostia River corridor will need to work together. NACE is a crucial partner in this effort not only because it is the primary landowner along the river but because the National Park Service is dedicated to making the park and river a place of unity.