Doug Siglin

Today, all 13 members of the DC Council, following the notable leadership of Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, introduced a Sense of the Council resolution to declare 2018 “the Year of the Anacostia.” The resolution also says that the DC government should “identify resources and policies that create opportunities for recreation within the Anacostia watershed, ensure sustainable development on and along the Anacostia River, and continue improvements to the water quality of the Anacostia River.”

 This is very cool. DC is blessed with a resource of extraordinary potential for our residents, largely hidden in plain sight, right in the heart of our city. It’s great that the Council has shown a light on it.

 Challenged to design a great twenty-first century international city from scratch, you could do a lot worse than to build it around a gentle river and an enormous riverside park, an easy bike or bus or Metro ride from hundreds of thousands of residents.

 We already have that. It’s Anacostia Park and Kingman/National Children’s Island. It is more than 1200 acres. That’s bigger than New York City’s Central Park, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park or Chicago’s lakefront parks. Think of all the great educational, and health, and recreational programs that could be done there. 

 Our great riverside park isn’t new; in fact, it will be an actual Centenarian next August. During the summer of 1918, in the middle of World War I, a visionary Congress declared that most of the Anacostia River waterfront would henceforth be public parkland, frustrating those who wanted it for industry or other uses. The new law built on the 1902 “Anacostia Water Park” vision of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, Daniel Burnham, and other members of the Senate Park (McMillian) Commission. It was Burnham who reportedly said, “make no little plans…make big plans”. He and his colleagues did. The Commission of Fine Arts wrote that the proposed Anacostia Waterfront Park would be of “exceptional beauty and value” for Washington.

Our Anacostia public riverfront hasn’t yet made it to exceptional beauty and value, although it’s certainly a standard to strive for. Other cities with waterfront parks apparently understand what they have and invest in infrastructure and frequent activities. But unlike most of those, DC doesn’t have an agency responsible for helping to generate waterfront events and programs. The National Park Service, which manages most of the riverfront parkland, would like to do more, but has billions of dollars in deferred maintenance around the nation and pretty much struggles to keep the lights on and the bathrooms operating in its less popular parks. That doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon.

The Council’s Year of the Anacostia resolution was triggered by the 100th Anniversary of Anacostia Park. But there are other reasons, too, the most important among them that in 2018 DC Water will open its massive underground Anacostia Tunnel to detain and clean up polluted water from houses, buildings, and streets. The day DCWater flips the switch, the Anacostia River will be a lot cleaner. You will be able to safely wade, float or swim in it. Really.

One of the best things happening on the Anacostia waterfront is the compelling vision for a children’s outdoor environmental education campus on Kingman/National Children’s Island. Last year, the DC Council commissioned an updated plan for nature education infrastructure that was first proposed three Mayors ago. The kids’ outdoor education campus plan is modest, but very important. It envisions a floating lab, some shelter, some bathrooms, some storage, some trails, and a dock. It would give kids on the eastern side of the District a lot more opportunity to learn about nature close to home. There is plenty of evidence that outdoor learning helps children to succeed in a lot of unexpected ways.

Funding the Kingman/National Children’s Island children’s campus would be a great move in the Year of the Anacostia. So would funding a lot more activities in our huge riverside park. There are many nonprofits that would gladly develop more kids’ programs and other events and activities on the waterfront. All they need is some help.

Doing something significant and lasting to implement the Year of the Anacostia is a great political opportunity for Mayor Bowser. She should embrace it. The Anacostia has always been a divider of the District, but now the river and the lands around it could become a uniter and an equalizer. The Mayor could have an exceptional win for herself and the District if she would take it on in this notable 100th Anniversary year.