Washington, DC, United States

Seat of Government and Symbolic Heart of Nation

Washington, DC serves as both the seat of government for the United States of America and the symbolic focal point of the nation’s identity. Its inspiring architecture, treasured monuments and museums, and magnificent public spaces have helped shape a world-class city. Like all national capitals, Washington must balance its role as a major urban hub and its role as the seat of government and ceremonial center for America.

To help ensure sound and comprehensive planning for the capital city, the United States Congress created the National Capital Planning Commission, also known as NCPC. NCPC provides overall planning guidance for federal land and buildings in the National Capital Region. This 2500 square mile area includes the District of Columbia and surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia.

Supported by a professional staff of urban planners, architects, and landscape designers, the National Capital Planning Commission reviews the design of federal projects and memorials, oversees long-range planning, and monitors capital investment by federal agencies.

NCPC is proud to play a role in promoting sound planning and mutual understanding in an increasingly connected world. The agency has participated in Capitals Alliance since it helped launch the forum in 2001. NCPC first hosted Capitals Alliance in 2003 and the agency looks forward to hosting the sixth Capitals Alliance gathering the week of September 14-18, 2008.

History of Planning in Washington, DC

In 1791 President George Washington chose French engineer Pierre L'Enfant to lay out the federal center, charging him with integrating a capital within a city. L'Enfant’s plan expressed the separation of powers and equilibrium of federal-state governments. Symbolically balancing the executive and legislative branches, he located the U.S. Capitol on the most prominent elevation between the Potomac and the Anacostia Rivers, and the President's House on a similarly elevated site to the northwest. A grand diagonal avenue (Pennsylvania Avenue) connected the two.

Throughout the Federal City, L'Enfant superimposed a system of broad diagonal avenues over a conventional street grid. Spaced throughout the grid, he designed squares and circles to link neighborhoods visually and physically both with one another and with key federal features. Centrally, L’Enfant plotted a grand four-hundred-foot-wide ceremonial avenue to be lined with imposing houses and gardens, due west from the Capitol to the Washington Monument site. Now termed The National Mall, this stretch of land was to remain a "vast esplanade" to grace and minimize the ceremonial distance between the Capitol and White House.

The L'Enfant Plan's emphasis on integration of built and open space recognized parks and view corridors as essential elements of both urban design and quality of urban life. But shortages of both funds and coordinated planning caused incoherent and disorderly development until 1900, when celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the federal capital's move to Washington provided the reason for a new look at the city plan. In 1901, responding to concerns about reviving, refining, and extending the L'Enfant Plan's framework to manage growth in the national capital, Congress adopted a resolution directing that a plan for the improvement of the entire park system of the District of Columbia be prepared and reported to the U.S. Senate. The McMillan Commission restored and expanded the open spaces and parks introduced by L'Enfant as leading elements in the federal identity of the national capital.

The central feature of the McMillan Commission's plan for the National Capital was itself an open green space. The Mall was reconfigured to frame and emphasize the formal link between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Reinforcing L'Enfant's themes, the McMillan Commission further highlighted the relationship among the grand axial streets and avenues, and the groupings of major public buildings along the Mall. The McMillan Plan also foresaw the future by designating and reserving open space for parkways through and around the city.

NCPC Carries on Washington’s Planning Legacy

The most significant of NCPC’s plans is Extending the Legacy: Planning America’s Capital for the 21st Century. Like the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans, the 1997 Legacy Plan looks ahead 50 to 100 years and offers a framework for future development. Extending the Legacy re-centers Washington on the U.S. Capitol and extends development to the four quadrants of the city. Preserving and enhancing the open space of the Mall is the cornerstone of the plan. The plan expands the reach of public transit and eliminates obsolete freeways, bridges, and railroad tracks that fragment the city. It reclaims Washington's historic waterfront for public enjoyment, and adds parks, plazas, and other amenities to the urban fabric. Some of Legacy’s concepts have already been implemented or are currently in various stages of development. Others will take shape in the decades to come. Just as the McMillan Plan has continued to serve planning needs in the Monumental Core and the L’Enfant Plan has remained largely intact, so will the Legacy Plan serve as a core influence on planning and development in the nation’s capital.