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Revitalizing D.C.’s “Forgotten River” with Parks and Trails

Urban rivers, though cities often owe them their very existence, are accustomed to neglect. The enduring image of the 1969 inferno on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, a catastrophe that helped launch the modern environmental movement, is perhaps the most striking example, though many others have suffered through less dramatic but equally devastating decay.

Washington, DC has been blessed with two rivers. The Potomac, though it suffers from pollution issues of its own (the Potomac Conservancy gave the river a D+ rating, in part because of the growing population of genetically mutated fishes),  provides the backdrop to the capitol’s most famous monuments and the springtime explosion of cherry trees. It’s also a hub of recreational activity, lined with parks and trails – one of which, the C&O Canal Trail, follows the river northwards for 184 miles.

The Potomac River looking towards the city center. Photo credit: Flickr user ktylerconk

The banks of the Potomac gained even more greenery with the recent completion of Georgetown Waterfront Park. The 9.5-acre, $24 million project, designed by renowned landscape architecture firm Wallace, Roberts, and Todd, makes the most of its cramped location under an elevated highway with dramatic lighting, a labyrinth, and an interactive fountain. Situated between two rowing centers, Thompson Boat Center and the Potomac Boat Club, it also includes a pergola and river stairs built to accommodate spectators of rowing regattas.

The recently completed Georgetown Waterfront Park. Photo credit: Flickr user NCinDC.

But there’s momentum growing across town, too.

D.C.’s other river, the Anacostia, which forms the southern tip of the city where it flows into the Potomac, has long been an afterthought. Its banks, and the neighborhoods around it, have suffered (a 2008 report by the DC Office of Planning puts median income in the area at 47% below the city’s average, and unemployment continues to far exceed that of the city as a whole).

It is in many ways the opposite of the esteemed Potomac, as captured in this Washington Post description:

“To most Washingtonians, the Anacostia is a very remote presence — that dirty glop of water under the 11th Street Bridge, the Potomac’s ugly cousin, the barrier that sets off the city’s poorer sections from Capitol Hill.”

Once forty feet deep and clear, it is now so choked with sediment and pollution that it is shallow enough to walk across in places.

But if it’s a waterway on life support, the prognosis is good. The Washington Post reports that over the past decade, Congress has appropriated $130 million for Anacostia cleanup. It is also the beneficiary of the District’s 5-cent tax on plastic bags dubbed the “Anacostia River Cleanup Initiative”. The program began in 2010, and has been a major success, dramatically cutting plastic bag litter, and raising $2.5 million for building trash-blocking grates and supporting local cleanup efforts.

Unfortunately, not every attempt to resuscitate the area has been as immediately impactful. Several high-profile efforts to revive the riverfront with parks and mixed-use development emerged just as the recession was beginning, and have since sputtered to a halt. One notable exception, though, is the Capitol Riverfront, a city-created Business Improvement District at the base of the Anacostia that in a few years has become home to over 3,000 residents, 35,000 daytime employees, and seven parks. Two are on the waterfront, including The Yards Park, a new 5.5-acre space with a popular water feature, a pedestrian bridge, and a riverfront boardwalk.

Map of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail

Extending upwards from the Capitol Riverfront is a 16-mile system of trails on either side of the river in various stages of completion, dubbed the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. The Anacostia offers something to planners and developers that is increasingly rare, which is space. (The District’s population surged past 600,000 residents in 2010, during a growth spurt not seen since the end of World War II). Compared to the built-up areas along the Potomac (where it took 40 years from planning to construction to carve out less than 10 acres for the Georgetown Waterfront Park) the Anacostia offers a nearly blank slate for big, new ideas.

The Yards Park water feature. Photo credit: Flickr user Mr. T in DC

D.C. is not exactly starved of park acreage – 19% of its land is parks, the second highest among dense cities. The area to the east of the Anacostia is particularly park-dense, but the abundance of overall space masks some deficiencies that a well-connected system of riverfront parks could help address.

Most obvious is the demand for more trails and linear parks. The roads in Rock Creek Park are closed to cars on weekends, bringing huge numbers of walkers, runners, and cyclists into the park. West Potomac Park is bursting at the seams many weeknights, as packs of cyclists and runners wind their way around a 3-mile loop. And more important than the length of the Anacostia Riverwalk is the fact that its trails will link both sides of the river and be connected by a system of bridges (6 are planned or already have pedestrian access) which will allow users to create loops of various lengths.

Further, once completed, the Riverwalk could offer far more than the sum of its parts by leveraging the value of currently disjointed and underused parks along the river. The 446-acre National Arboretum, far from a Metro stop and difficult to reach by bike or foot, could greatly benefit from waterfront pedestrian access. And adding paths to Langston Golf course could better integrate it into the park system, as we discussed in a Landscape Architecture Magazine piece. Just to the south is Congressional Cemetery, through which paths currently run, a great example of integrating public use into a park-like space.

One of the more intriguing possibilities, to mirror the rowing-centric Potomac, is that the Anacostia could offer a place for exploring the city by kayak. Portions of the Potomac are already popular amongst white-water kayakers as well as those who prefer more placid waters, and numerous cities (see Milwaukee, Houston, and Detroit) have established water trail systems that are closely integrated with riverfront parks.

And for the boldest visionaries, there is RFK Stadium, which sits in the middle of the riverfront and is maybe the most conspicuously underused space in the area. A recent article in the Washington Post invited thinkers to discuss the future of the mostly-unused, fifty year-old stadium, and four of the five contributors pondered its potential as a park (often mixed with mixed-use development), offering active amenities like rock climbing or a velodrome to complement the mostly passive recreation areas alongside the riverbanks.

With development starting from scratch in many areas, there is a unique opportunity to create and improve parks in concert with development and transit improvements. The popular Circulator bus routes recently began operating in Anacostia, and the streetcar system that is set to start running through northeast DC along H Street, which is helping to drive the revitalization of the area, may one day cross into Anacostia on the 11th Street Bridge.

Bike trails along the Anacostia. Photo credit: Flickr user TrailVoice.

Anacostia already has many acres of parkland, but amenity-rich, well-connected riverfront parks are a totally different creature in terms of development potential. There is no shortage of inspiring precedents for an overhaul of the Anacostia and its parks:

  • In Minneapolis, a $55 million in investment in parks on the previously industrial riverbanks, along with $150 million in other public improvements, leveraged $1.2 billion in private investment and the creation of thousands of jobs and new residential units.
  • Houston is putting its system of Bayou greenways (expected to cost $490 million) at the forefront of its efforts to attract a young, well-educated population, and a recent study led by John Crompton estimated an annual return of $117 million.
  • Columbus turned a 160-acre brownfield along the banks of the Scioto River into an urban outdoors destination, featuring a climbing wall, an Audubon center, access for watercraft, and trails that lead to the Scioto Mile in the downtown core. Now the nearby Brewery District is witnessing a revival in residential development.
  • Chattanooga, Tennessee was labeled as having the dirtiest air in the country in 1969, and during the 1980’s the city lost 10% of its population. Its dramatic turnaround (it was just celebrated in Outside magazine as the best city to live in, alongside the titans of outdoorsy urban meccas like Portland and Seattle) is in large part attributable to the park-centered $120 million redevelopment of its riverfront and downtown.

With a consortium of 19 agencies comprising the overarching Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, and the slowdown in real estate since the recession, it’s no surprise that development is occurring ploddingly. But as the river itself is cleaned and its channels deepen, there’s a growing sense that so too is the commitment of the city to making the Anacostia a springboard for livable urban development.

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