There is a conspicuous disconnect between Washington, D.C. and its rivers. Apart from the lively strip along the Georgetown Waterfront, an area notoriously difficult for the majority of District residents to access, there have been few places for people to connect with the city’s most important resource, its water.
This is because while the city was developing during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the majority of the land bordering the Potomac and Anacostia rivers was dedicated to industrial uses, a fact all too common in industrialized American cities. In addition to erecting a divide between the people and the water, this also contributed to the pollution of the regional watershed. Now, with manufacturing in decline, a real estate boom bringing an influx of capital into the Capital, and advances in environmental science engaging people everywhere to reconsider their relationship with natural systems, D.C. is looking for ways to reverse this history by reconnecting with its rivers.
The city’s urban planners, non-profit organizations, and developers are considering various options for creating environments along the Capital’s waterfront that are befitting of a national destination. With the opening of Yards Park (pictured above) in 2011, and Canal Park a year after, the northern side of the Anacostia River is currently leading the race. However, a distinct lack of vibrancy remains in this corner of the city. The Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District is making progress, but with so many construction projects taking place on different timelines, the neighborhood surrounding the Navy Yard feels like a place stuck in limbo.
On the southeast side of the Anacostia River there is a much different story to be told. The Anacostia Freeway cuts residents off from access to the park and trail along the riverfront, with sparse and inadequate pedestrian bridges offering the only means of entry by foot. While the freeway has been targeted as a potential area for redevelopment as part of the DC Streetcar plan, the realization of this connection is still a long way off, and brings a range of additional concerns with it.
In contrast, a redevelopment project has recently broken ground on the other side of the river which has the potential to transform the Southwest Waterfront in a very short amount of time, even if it is less organic. The Wharf – a twenty-seven acre redevelopment of riverfront just south of the National Mall – has been in the works for nearly a decade. However, there are still major disconnects formed by the infrastructure already in place. While the site will be approachable from the Waterfront Metro Station to east, physical and psychological barriers are erected between the site and the National Mall to the north due to Interstate 395, auto-oriented Maine Avenue, and a barren stretch of road inaptly named the L’Enfant Promenade (pictured above). The Southwest EcoDistrict and the District Department of Transportation note the need to address these barriers in order to create a human-scale environment that provides access to the waterfront, but with so many stakeholders, and such a broad range of initiatives, the question of how long will it take hangs over the ambition.
Is the appeal of waterfront amenities alone enough to overcome these barriers, or is the fate of a projects’ success dependent on what the city does to make it more accessible?
Credit: Images by Chase Keenan. Data linked to sources.