The Anacostia River corridor is poised to play a crucial role in the future of the District of Columbia as it ramps up its efforts to become a more resilient city.

Despite the federal administration’s June announcement of its intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, the District of Columbia is amplifying its local and regional efforts to address climate change and mitigate its impact on residents’ lives. Days after the President’s announcement, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser signed an executive order binding DC to the to the commitment to combat global warming and climate change, and DC Councilmember Mary Cheh called upon the Mayor to seek membership in the newly announced United States Climate Alliance.

“The effects of climate change are already here,” Bowser said at a press event. “And without proper planning and collaboration, they will continue to get worse.” These effects include increased frequency and intensity of heavy rainstorms, rising water levels, and increased flooding due to storms—all of which could threaten the Anacostia waterfront and neighborhoods adjacent to it.

When I think about climate change, I often think about the alarming images that come from reports like Climate Central’s study based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, worst-case-scenario projections show areas along the Anacostia River inundated by rising water levels by 2100.

Screenshot of the Anacostia River taken using the Surging Seas Extreme Scenario 2100 tool. 

Screenshot of the Anacostia River taken using the Surging Seas Extreme Scenario 2100 tool. 

But communities adjacent to the river not only face the specter of potential flooding in the distant future: residents Wards 7 and 8 also face many other challenges in their daily lives today.

Building resilience means addressing inequality

“Resilience” is the relevant buzzword du jour, and it’s an important concept when talking about these issues. Resilience means the ability to recover from shocks, which includes climate change and potential terrorist attacks, but also stresses and difficulties like a lack of affordable housing or unreliable public transportation. Resilience is a crucial topic for the Anacostia River corridor, not just because the river may overflow in 100 years, but also because communities living along the river stand to suffer the most from these negative shocks and stresses today.

 
 

Thankfully, local leaders recognize the importance of focusing on Wards 7 and 8 when talking about resilience. As DC launches its participation in the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) network, its inaugural e-magazine on the topic commits DC’s resilience efforts to focus on confronting various forms of inequality that threaten to undermine the city’s long-term financial and social stability, including inequalities in income, educational attainment, social capital, health outcomes, and exposure to violent crime.

Not only are disadvantaged neighborhoods more vulnerable to stresses and shocks, but a recent report highlights that inequality actually drives climate change - unequal societies inflict more environmental damage than more economically even societies.

So: building resilience in DC also means addressing inequality.

The Anacostia River corridor is an “Essential Arena” for building resilience in DC

How does all of this relate to the Anacostia River? The river corridor is the place in DC where all of these issues collide: where we truly have an opportunity to strengthen our resilience on many parallel fronts at once.

“With a growing understanding today of the environmental vulnerabilities of the waterfront in terms of flooding and climate change impacts, DC’s waterfront also represents an essential arena to bolster the District’s overall resilience going forward,” writes Tracy Gabriel, Associate Director of Neighborhood Planning with DC’s Office of Planning in the 100RC newsletter.

The Anacostia River is the “essential arena” for building resilience in many ways. Not only is the waterfront an arena to address flooding, but the neighborhoods are also arenas to address other shocks like heat waves and affordable housing. 

Residents in Wards 7 and 8 are have been identified by the District Department of Energy and Environment’s Climate Ready DC effort as the most vulnerable to risks. DOEE’s Vulnerability and Risk Assessment states that:

  • Wards 7 and 8 are home to the largest number of residents with a higher vulnerability to climate change impacts – especially an increase in extreme heat – due to the socioeconomic factors that increase sensitivity to heat, and limit the ability to adapt, including unemployment, age (seniors and young children), and income.
  • Ward 7 is also home to the largest number of vulnerable community resources such as schools, medical services and human services, particularly in the floodplain of the Watts Branch tributary.

So what can we do about it?

For one, the Anacostia Ambassador program has been actively involved in discussions about making DOEE’s ClimateReady DC plan more relevant to Ward 7 and 8 residents’ daily lives. Those discussions revealed a need for the District to transform how it talks about climate change to be more immediate and include actionable steps residents can take to become more resilient. It also led to the conclusion that the District needs to work with social workers, healthcare providers, faith-based organizations and neighborhood leaders to engage residents and consider the emotional burdens that climate change impacts place on individuals already struggling to meet basic needs.

Participants at the National Adaptation Forum, including the Anacostia Ambassador

Participants at the National Adaptation Forum, including the Anacostia Ambassador

Angele Doyne of the ERFSC presents about the overlap of climate change and social services. 

Angele Doyne of the ERFSC presents about the overlap of climate change and social services. 

The social service organization East River Family Strengthening Collaborative has been elevating this discussion alongside the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative (APACC), Anacostia Waterfront Trust, Anacostia Watershed Society, DOEE, and Groundwork DC at recent conferences including the National Adaptation Forum in Minneapolis, MN, and at the Choose Clean Water conference in Charlottesville, VA. ERFSC argues that addressing equity and resilience depends on meaningfully engaging diverse partners, particularly those who are vulnerable to climate change, in decision-making and planning.

On a policy and planning level, DC’s Office of Planning is incorporating a new resilience element (or, chapter) into the upcoming Comprehensive Plan update. This plan could have an impact on how the District approaches resilience around the Anacostia River corridor, and you will have an opportunity comment on it when it is released later this year.

Another city plan, DOEE’s Sustainable DC 2.0 frames bigger citywide goals like cutting greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2032 (currently the District has cut its carbon footprint 24% since 2006).

Finally, as the 100RC project launches, it will lead to more projects that could have a direct and immediate impact on local DC neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the Anacostia Waterfront Trust is also be keeping its eyes on the future. As other cities like Boston, San Francisco, New York are creatively re-thinking their riverfronts and infrastructure in response to increased flooding, storms and projected sea level rise, we here in DC may have an opportunity to, as the 100RC newsletter says, use “a range of adaptive solutions, such as green infrastructure and restoring wetlands and natural floodplains that can help to further a world class, resilient waterfront while delivering a multitude of benefits to the District and its residents.”

"New Meadowlands" concepts for waterfront resilience strategies. Image: MIT CAU + ZUS + URBANISTEN

"New Meadowlands" concepts for waterfront resilience strategies. Image: MIT CAU + ZUS + URBANISTEN

Ultimately, though, the quest for resilience will consist of more than big infrastructure projects: it will be quest to include the people who live along the Anacostia River in discussions about potential futures and ways to improve their lives -- both in the long-term, and immediately.