Interview with Darwina L. Neal

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Darwina L. Neal began her career in landscape architecture with the National Park Service (NPS) in 1965, working on Lady Bird Johnson’s Beautification Program. She was the first woman elected president of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and rose as a leader within the landscape architecture profession.

Through the Darwina L. Neal Cultural Landscape Fund, the Museum is honored to host a talk on April 18, discussing urban cultural landscapes and World Heritage using the 2012 World Heritage City Rio de Janeiro as an example.

We interviewed Neal to learn more about cultural landscapes and heritage sites.

NBM Online: Can you tell us briefly about your background and how it informed your interest in landscape architecture, or perhaps how you entered the field?
Darwina Neal: I grew up on a dairy and poultry farm in northern PA, where we had a large vegetable garden that also included flowers. Our historic farmhouse was surrounded by lawn and many shrub and perennial planting areas. I helped on the farm, as well as in the garden, and then took on responsibility for taking care of the planting beds, adding roses, perennials and bulbs, and transplanting wildflowers and ferns from the woods to shaded flower beds. So when I went to Pennsylvania State University, I started in horticulture, then switched to landscape architecture after talking with landscape architecture students and the Department head, who were in the same building.

The summer before I graduated, I worked for the National Capital Region of the National Park Service, then came back to work there permanently in 1965 and stayed until I retired in 2009 as Chief, Cultural Resource Preservation Services.

NBM Online: Can you define for our audience exactly what a “cultural landscape” is?
Darwina Neal: The National Park Service defines a cultural landscape as “a geographic area, including both cultural and natural resources… , associated with a historic event, activity, or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values.”

There are four general types of cultural landscapes: historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes, and ethnographic landscapes.

A Historic Site is a landscape significant for its association with a historic event, activity, or person, such as battlefields, cemeteries and grounds of historic houses, such as the Frederick Douglas Home. Historic Designed Landscapes are those that were consciously designed or laid out by a landscape architect, master gardener, architect, or horticulturist according to design principles, such as the Mall, the Capitol grounds, or Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, designed by Beatrix Farrand. A Historic Vernacular Landscape is one that evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped that landscape, such as a district of historic farms along a river valley, rural villages, or industrial complexes. Ethnographic Landscapes contain a variety of natural and cultural resources associated with people who shaped them, such as sacred sites of indigenous peoples.

Most simply, cultural landscapes are the combined works of humanity and nature; they are a living legacy of the evolution of people’s lives and their effects on the landscape; thus preserving them ensures that the accomplishments and values of our culture will endure into the future to enrich the lives of those who come after us.

NBM Online: Why did you create the Darwina L. Neal Cultural Landscape Fund here at the National Building Museum? What do you want people to learn or know about cultural landscapes?
Darwina Neal: From the time I started working for the National Park Service in 1965, almost all of the parks I worked on were historic landscapes. After being involved in ASLA, the American Society of Landscape Architects, I became increasingly involved in both IFLA, the International Federation of Landscape Architects, and US/ICOMOS, the US Committee of ICOMOS, the International Council of Monuments and Sites, which acts as an advisor to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in reviewing nominations for cultural World Heritage Sites. Then I became a member of the ICOMOS/IFLA Cultural Landscapes Committee.

The National Building Museum was having programs sponsored by ASLA and the Cultural Landscape Foundation, but these were by contemporary practitioners or on well-known modernist landscape architects, and not on historic or internationally-significant cultural landscapes, so I decided that it would be valuable to support programs here to make people aware of these, and their value, as well as inform them about US/ICOMOS, ICOMOS and World Heritage Sites.

NBM Online: Why do you think that the UNESCO World Heritage Site program is important or valuable?
Darwina Neal: It is important, because it recognizes cultural and natural sites as being of Outstanding Universal Value – i.e., the most significant examples in the world of a particular type of site – and this recognition both helps the countries in which they are located justify allocations of economic and human resources to maintain and protect them, and educates the public about their value and the need to preserve them. They also become cultural tourism destinations and contribute to the economy.

NBM Online: What would you like participants in our program on April 18 to learn or take away from the evening?
Darwina Neal: I want them to know what cultural landscapes and World Heritage Cultural Landscapes are, and that cities can be “historic urban landscapes”, using Rio de Janeiro as an example.

Get tickets to the April 18 talk: World Heritage Sites as Cultural Landscapes.

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