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Designing the Parks: Learning in Action

Every year since 2013, a cohort of interns assembles at the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation in Boston to participate in the Designing the Parks program. Designing the Parks introduces college students and recent graduates to National Park Service design and planning professions through individual and group projects related to cultural landscape stewardship.

The program’s internships are made possible by NPS partner organizations. Each participant works on a project that directly engages with a national park unit.

A group of young adults gathers to listen to two maintenance employees in hard hats, standing along a trail through shady woods
Designing the Parks interns learn about trail building and maintenance at Acadia National Park.

NPS Photo

The Designing the Parks program engages five principles:

  • Respect place
  • Engage all
  • Model sustainability
  • Design beyond boundaries
  • Communicate clearly

The program operates on a design studio format and is project-based so that interns have the opportunity to focus on a single, in-depth project. Each year’s cohort also participates in a group project that encourages collaboration and exploration of different aspects of design and cultural landscape preservation.

Throughout each internship, while the interns focus on completing their specific project work, other opportunities for enrichment are prevalent. Workshops and instruction provide learning opportunities from NPS staff, allied professionals such as private sector landscape architects and horticulturists, and interns teaching each other about new technology and best practices.

A group of people is gathered around a wooden table, looking on as one person points to a site plan.
Designing the Parks Interns learn about new visitor experience improvements at the Charlestown Navy Yard by park Landscape Architect, Ruth Raphael. Interns participated in a design charette to provide the park with input and feedback on how to engage park visitors at the entrance of the park.

NPS Photo

The program isn’t your typical internship. In 2018, Designing the Parks interns made significant contributions to cultural landscape research and inventories, supporting the foundational documents for documenting and preserving cultural landscapes in the National Park Service. In addition to accomplishing this mission critical work, interns push the boundaries of the National Park Service's work by testing new technologies and piloting new practices and methodologies to care for and maintain cultural landscapes.

Building on the core skills of research and documentation, the program encourages the use of the latest digital tools for producing work, like 3D modeling, photo simulations, and video.

This past year’s projects include implementing a new plant record management software at three national park sites, assessing cultural landscape coastal vulnerability from the impacts of climate change, establishing an inventory management system for historic plant propagules, and creating a new initiative for video production for Cultural Landscape Reports.

A woman leans over to look through a camera on a tripod, aimed at a formal garden in front of a two story manor house.
Video Production Intern, Vanessa Hartsuiker, films on the grounds at Chatham Manor at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for a cultural landscape report video.

NPS Photo

In addition to developing hands-on skills in park design and cultural landscape preservation, the program fosters a relationship between the interns and park landscapes. The interns’ perspectives bring new meaning to national parks and, in turn, make parks and park history relevant to their own lives.

Robert Wright, a recent graduate of Bethune Cookman University, developed a lesson plan idea for Teaching with Historic Places at Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park. He explains, “I chose to participate in the Designing the Parks internship to recognize the important role African-Americans played in the development and progress of the United States, and to share these experiences with their communities.” Through his work researching the Eastern Shore, Maryland park, the park and its history came into sharper focus for Robert. Now a first year student in the Master of Education program at Georgia Southern University, Robert says, “I certainly count it an honor to be a part of the crew working for the future preservation of this historic site.”

A diverse team of NPS partners support Designing the Parks interns like Robert for anywhere from 6 weeks to 11 months. With their support, these partners and 20 national park units allowed 10 interns to engage in the 2018 cohort:

By supporting Designing the Parks’s innovative work, NPS partners directly contribute to developing the next generation of cultural landscape stewards.

Last updated: August 13, 2019