National Park Service (NPS) Director Jonathan B. Jarvis addressed students and faculty at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture on the role of landscape and architectural design in national parks of the 21st century.

Jarvis asked the students to tackle the very concept of the national park visitor center. “We have long believed that the visitor center was the gateway to the park; the first stop to learn all that the park had to offer – where to go and what to see.”  But maybe that’s not necessarily the case today.

“Today’s visitors are more technologically attuned than ever before. Many people – and not just those under 30 – plan their visits online, using the National Park Service’s website and other sources to find interactive maps, watch videos of the trails they will hike, listen to podcasts about the wildlife they will encounter, and study online exhibits on the history of the place.

“They download everything they need to iPhones, iPads, Droid, devices that also tell them where they are and where they want to be, and allow them to share the experience in real time with friends and family anywhere on the planet.”

While there is no question that having a place where a real visitor can talk to a real ranger is vital, is the visitor center, in its current incarnation, the best way to do that? Jarvis asked.

“The visitor center as we know it today was born in the 1950s,” Jarvis said. “After World War II, returning U.S. soldiers found a patriotic country with a strong sense of national identity. America had prosperity, cars, and a new interstate highway system. Veterans saw in the national parks their heritage and their birthright; the national parks saw a surge in visitation. We had a building boom in national parks called Mission 66 to meet demands of unprecedented visitor numbers.”

Today the National Park Service is five years away from its 100th anniversary and U.S. soldiers are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. When they return home they experience the same desire to visit these powerful American shrines.

“While we don’t have a new federal highway system but we do have the Internet, which may bring us closer together than our father’s Chevy ever could,” Jarvis said. “America remains a prosperous nation, but the demands on our federal budget are many, so the likelihood of an ambitious national park building program are dim, especially in light of our now $10 billion maintenance backlog.

Perhaps it is time to reassess some long-held assumptions, Jarvis said.

Jarvis also noted other challenges that threaten the National Park Service’s mission and visitor experiences – climate change, the nature deficit, a national health care crisis and ecological and economic sustainability. Jarvis said the bureau will look to the next generation of design professionals to help overcome these challenges so that tomorrow’s visitors will continue to have experiences to hand down to future generations.

Jarvis’ remarks were delivered as part of the Benjamin C. Howland, Jr. Memorial Lecture series. The lecture is named for former National Park Service landscape architect Ben Howland who joined the faculty of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture in the 1970s.

The National Park Service and the University of Virginia also partner in the Designing the Parks initiative, a way to elevate the conversation about design and stewardship and advance the role of design in parks. Designing the Parks conferences reexamine planning and design in parks and how that ties into the National Park Service conservation mission and public outreach.