National Park Service envisions visitor center of tomorrow

The National Park Service wants to build a better visitor centerThe U.S. National Park Service, working in conjunction with the Van Alen Institute, has opened a unique architectural design competition in which they are inviting colleges of architecture across the country to re-envision the visitor center of the future. The NPS recognizes that times are changing, and that its approach for serving the needs of visitor in the past, may not be best well suited for the future. The challenge it faces is to integrate new technologies and design ideas, while remaining faithful to the traditional national park experience that travelers have come to know and love.

NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis recognizes that the concept of the modern park visitor center traces its origins back to the 1950’s, when it was seen as the gateway to the park that it served. He also points out that many travelers are now researching our park visits online and through a variety of mobile devices, which has changed the way we explore the national parks as well. Jarvis is quick to add “There is no question that people should be able to talk to a real park ranger but is the visitor center in its current form the best way to achieve this?”

The competition will officially get underway this fall, with teams from universities across the U.S. proposing new visitor centers that address design elements, as well as facility management and operations, for one of seven national parks. These parks were specifically chosen because they offer a variety of experiences to visitors, allowing architects to flex their creative muscles.

The parks that are included in the competition include: Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania; Civil War Defenses of Washington, D.C.; Biscayne National Park, Florida; Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, Georgia; Nicodemus National Historic Site, Kansas; Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico; San Juan Island Historical Park, Washington.

A national design advisory committee is being assembled to review the projects based on six criteria. Those criteria include: a reverence for place; engagement of all people; expansion beyond traditional boundaries; sustainability; informed decision-making; and an integrated research, planning, design, and review process. In December, the committee will narrow the selection down to seven teams who will be encouraged to continue working on their projects, with winners being announced, and shared online, next summer.

This is an opportunity for bright young minds to have a direct impact on the future of America’s national parks and how we interact with them. It should be interesting to see what develops from this.