Meridian Hill Park

Discovering Placemaking: Washington, D.C.

I’m not a REALTOR®. Two months ago, I couldn’t have told you the first thing about “placemaking,” or what it is.

But picture this: I’m sitting in the shade of Dupont Circle’s outer ring of benches. To my left, two women in a conversation that wings its way from yoga, to work, to teaching in one of D.C.’s local high schools. To my right, a pair of men hunch-shouldered at a stone chess table. In the grass, a man naps with his head on his backpack. And in the central ring—where the fountain pours from tier to tier on this muggy day—a father lowers his tiny girl hands-first into the water.

And as I’m sitting there, I’m thinking: what makes a space into a place? Because it matters. Even though I’m not a REALTOR®, I’m still invested in my community.

So I made it my lunch-hour mission to visit as many of D.C.’s “placemaking” sites as I could manage before my feet gave out. Here’s the route I took:

Map of D.C.

My route through D.C.

I started at the National Association of REALTORS’® own building near Union Station. At the street level, this is the first spot I encountered:

Outside NAR

Outside the National Association of REALTORS® office.

The seating is open to the public, which often ranges from NAR employees to Georgetown Law students to patrons of the nearby Billy Goat Grill, and Starbucks. And every time I come through here—morning, noon or evening—there are always a few seats occupied. Also, ducks; they rove from the fountain to the tables, foraging for french fries.

I followed E. Street down to the Judiciary Square Metro, which is actually directly next to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial:

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

The memorial was built as a pensive place, with a long length of stone seating directly across from the names etched down both ends. At its center, a rectangular fountain. I got here a little too early for the lunch crowd, but even so, there were people around. It was kind of a beautiful mix: some few visiting the memorial, some chatting in the shade, and some just sitting to rest.

From there, I hopped the metro up to Dupont Circle, where three streets converge to form a traffic circle and park. It’s also one of D.C.’s most frequented midday spots, and it was there I found myself sitting with the women to my left, the chess players to my right, and what felt like the world passing through the little park at the crux of everything.

Dupont Circle

Dupont Circle.

It’s a fantastic spot, which owes to a mix of factors: the nearby metro stop, which makes for easy access; the convergence of restaurants, shops and residences; and, of course, all the park’s different features, from the chess tables to the rings of benches to the grass areas to the fountain.

It’s worth soaking in.

After some time, I followed New Hampshire Avenue up to 16th Street and to Meridian Hill Park, what might be the most beautiful place in all of D.C.

As evidence, my quick snapshot:

Meridian Hill Park

Meridian Hill Park.

Yes, that’s a staircase of water, a stepped fountain from the park’s wide grassy area all the way down to a pool at the bottom and clusters of stone benches. The whole place is enclosed from the rest of D.C. by a fringe of trees and the natural slope of the landscape, which means that you have to climb a series of steps or a long path to enter. And once you do, it is a different world, with little of the typical noise (car horns, sirens, engines). Instead, I’ve seen people picnicking and reading on blankets, tossing footballs or frisbees, jogging the paths that encircle it.

I’ve heard that a drum circle forms in the park on Sunday afternoons, and locals spend hours making music or dancing.

All of this, and it’s only four blocks off the U. Street Metro. That was where I headed to finish my route, and—passing Ben’s Chili Bowl, & Pizza, all the wonders of U. Street’s eateries—I was still thinking, “what makes a space into a place?”

Well, the common factor in D.C. seems to be fountains. Even the little spot outside NAR had a small fountain. It does get brutally hot here in the summer, and fountains tend to hold real appeal for kids. (Case in point: three of the places I visited had children playing by the water.) They also tend to attract animals; I saw a gaggle of tiny birds bathing themselves on one of the high steps of the Meridian Hill fountain.

There’s also the bench factor. Benches are ubiquitous, and if there’s one thing I’ve come to associate with placemaking, it’s simply having a place to sit.

Another thing unique to D.C.—though perhaps common in  major cities—is ease of metro access. If it’s easier to get to a spot, it’s more likely to be a “place.” And in D.C., the metro is pretty much the gold standard of transportation.

Finally, shade. It could be the shadow of a building, or just a couple of well-grown trees, but five minutes at Dupont Circle, with its long swathes of empty benches in the direct sun, makes it obvious: basic comfort is a priority.

And that might be at the root of any public spot: spaces are subject to the elements; places have been cultivated for comfort and enjoyment.

So for those who are REALTORS®: discover your community; find the spaces around you that ought to become places, and transform them.