The D.C. park that holds the Jefferson Memorial might be an early victim of climate change. As an island built on reclaimed land, it has been sinking for decades. High tides already often flood the sidewalk along the edge. Sea levels are rising faster in the area than anywhere else on the East Coast, and twice as fast as in the rest of the world. If sea level rise hits three feet, the whole park would be underwater.
It's the ideal place, then, for a new climate change memorial that would slowly sink as sea levels rise. Called Climate Chronograph, the proposed memorial would plant rows of cherry trees—the iconic symbol of D.C.—on a gentle slope that extends to the water's edge. As the waters rise, a row of trees would die, followed by another, leaving behind trunks that mark the change.
The design was the winning entry in the recent Memorials for the Future contest, which asked architects to consider how monuments could focus on ongoing and future events, not just the past.
"The inspiration comes from looking around at nature and the kind of emergent and successional landscapes that we're seeing as waters are already starting to rise," says architect Erik Jensen from Azimuth Land Craft, who designed the memorial with Rebecca Sunter. At Hanes Point, the southern tip of the East Potomac Park where the memorial is proposed, wetland plants are already starting to grow at the edge of the land.
It's possible that the cherry trees that line the park now could be underwater by the end of the century; the new memorial would point out the slow-moving changes happening now.
In part, the memorial is meant as a commentary on modern attempts to control nature, and what that means in an era of climate change. The East Potomac Park, built from land dredged up from the Potomac River, was an engineering feat meant to help control the flow of water. But the seawalls around it are failing now. The architects question whether it's possible to save the whole park—or whether it's financially feasible.
"Defense is essential in some areas, but strategic retreat and a managed withdrawal is also essential as we cope with this," says Jensen. "If we can make a poetic gesture that can articulate that, and compel people to think about this challenge in a way that might be a little bit different, then 'let's defend,' then we'd be really happy with that."
The design is also meant to make the slow effects of climate change visible, particularly for people who live in areas that are better able to afford adaptation.
If society can respond quickly to climate change, avoiding the worst sea level rise, the memorial would document that as well. "Perhaps it floods just a foot or two, and we arrest it and get control of this and we manage to adapt," says Jensen. "And it becomes a celebration of our newfound relationship with nature. Then on the other hand, if it all goes, it becomes this poetic marker that at least before it happened we knew it was coming."
While winning the competition doesn't guarantee the memorial will be built, the designers are already talking to some potential patrons. If it's not built on Hains Point, a variation may be built elsewhere; the cherry trees might be local, but the problem is obviously not.
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[All Images: via National Capital Planning Commission]