In 1990 Rock Creek Park will observe its hundredth birthday. Only a handful of national parklands have existed longer as such. The occasion will be something to celebrate.
The century of this urban natural park--almost a contradiction in terms--has been one of challenges. As its birth was achieved only after much effort, so was its extension by the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway and other additions. The natural qualities for which it was set aside have been perennially threatened by pressures for incompatible development and uses--some of which have prevailed. The park will not satisfy those who seek solitude in wilderness.
But it is not supposed to. Rock Creek Park was envisioned to preserve some attractive natural scenery for public enjoyment in the midst of a growing city, whose outer reaches were largely rural in 1890 but whose total urbanization was even then a certainty. It would be set aside from the city, yet it would be of the city. Washington residents and visitors would come on foot, on horseback, by carriage, and soon by automobile to enjoy an hour's or an afternoon's contrast from the neighboring streets and buildings. Increasingly, they would just pass through on their way to other destinations--yet even such brief windshield contacts with natural surroundings would enrich.
The law of supply and demand operates for natural preserves as much as for other commodities. Thus, as the urban and suburban encirclement of the park has become complete, its value has increased. Its presence in the midst of the nation's capital, so much taken for granted, is in fact a marvel. Driving through such a valley in remote country would be a pleasant experience but hardly an extraordinary one. Coming south from Maryland along Beach Drive, knowing that one is bisecting the capital yet seeing only the creek, rocks, and forested valley slopes until one is virtually at the city center--that is indeed an extraordinary experience for those who pause to ponder it. From this perspective, the park's value lies in its context even more than in its content.
A small jewel on a contrasting cloth can appeal as much as a large jewel in a setting of other gemstones. Rock Creek Park is not Yosemite, its fellow 1990 centenarian. But to those who appreciate the wonder of its existence, it gleams no less brightly.
Last updated: April 10, 2015