Doug Siglin                                                                                                                  photo by Krista Schlyer

Today is the first day of the 2018 Year of the Anacostia – a designation that has been promoted over the past few months by a wide variety of private and public groups, including the DC and Prince George’s County Councils, the National Park Service, and the DC Department of Energy and Environment. Much of the reason for the designation is that 2018 is the 100th Anniversary of Anacostia Park. A good part of it too is that sometime in 2018, DC Water’s massive new Anacostia tunnel will come online, substantially improving water quality in the river and making it much safer for recreation. That should set off a cascade of mutually-supporting improvements to the river itself, the public lands, and the nearby communities.

Not too many people think about it, but the District is blessed with an amazing (potential) asset in the Anacostia River waterfront. City leaders around the globe would covet a slow, gentle river running through the middle of town, surrounded by more than 1200 acres of public parkland.

Think for a moment of the great urban parks – Central Park in New York City, Lincoln Park in Chicago, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The Anacostia’ public parkland is bigger than any of these, with a total of fifteen miles of riverfront. Most city leaders would invest aggressively in such a park to draw visitors with spending money and to play host a variety of programs valuable to residents—education, health, culture, perhaps skills training. And given the reality of climate change, most would try to use it to help mitigate flood damage as well, restoring natural habitat in the process.

The idea that waterfronts are outstanding public assets in urban areas is so commonplace that it has earned mockery from The Onion:

Here in DC, the fact is that we just haven’t done much with our Anacostia waterfront public lands. Nearly fifteen years ago, a visionary “Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan” was developed jointly by the DC government and 19 regional and federal agencies. It has spurred rapid development and new jobs on private land around Nationals Park and nearby, but its vision for a safe, attractive and active string of parklands up and down the Anacostia, including a state-of-the-art Nature Center on Kingman Island, was put on the back burner and never taken off. With the exception of the bike/walking trail and the small Yards park, not much has changed in fifteen years. I have spent a lot of time thinking about why.

Maybe it is because, unlike most cities, much of the Anacostia waterfront—virtually all of it east of the river—is owned by the federal government, which has a whole different set of motivations than city leaders, an interminable planning process, and fewer and fewer resources.

Maybe it is because significant parts of the Anacostia parklands have contaminated soil from past abuses and will cost money to clean up and reuse.

Maybe it is because we simply have too many nice parks in other parts of town – Rock Creek, Georgetown Waterfront, the National Mall, for example.

Maybe it is people have a negative reaction to the Anacostia after years of publicity about how polluted it used to be.

Maybe it is because we don’t have a DC government agency to take responsibility for improving the waterfront.

Maybe it is because the east side of town is less well-off and has a lot of baggage left over from decades of discrimination.

Maybe it is because people around the Anacostia don’t how to mobilize their political influence.

In reality it’s probably a stew of all of these things, and more. These are serious barriers, and it will be hard, but by no means impossible, to overcome them.

I see two big needs as we head into the next few months of the Year of the Anacostia.

The first is for assertive citizen leadership focused on making things better for the lands and communities in the Anacostia River Corridor. Although DC citizens lack power on Capitol Hill, we have an unusual amount of power in local affairs. Our annual budget is more than 13 billion dollars. Only 14 elected officials—the Mayor and 13 Councilmembers—make the decisions on how to spend it. Every citizen in the District is directly represented by seven of those fourteen officials. Most of them are accessible for the asking, are smart and well-meaning people, and will at least listen to ideas. Even a small group of District citizens can make things happen if they recognize their power, organize themselves, and just ask.

The second thing we need is leadership from those very elected officials, as well as the people they have hired and employ. These are people who get paid full-time from residents' tax dollars to develop and propose and work for initiatives to make the District better. With or without citizens’ asking, they should realize the waterfront’s potential and act to take advantage of it.

Here are three important things that our elected officials could do now:

1)      Create a grant fund that could be accessed by nonprofits to activate the waterfront with programs and events. This would be a good way to get more activity going without a lot more bureaucracy. The four Councilmembers representing wards near the Anacostia asked the Mayor to do this more than four months ago. An extraordinary 65 nonprofits wrote to the Mayor asking her to do it in October. Nothing has happened. But then again, the Councilmembers and the 65 nonprofits have not been pushing it hard, and it wasn’t yet the Year of the Anacostia. Now it is.

2)      Fully fund the proposal for a modest environmental education campus on Kingman Island that the DC Council commissioned last year. I’ve written a lot about this in previous blogs. There have been plans for a kid and family oriented park on Kingman Island for more than 50 years, but little has happened. It is clear to me that the Year of the Anacostia is the right time to get on with this.

3)      Institute a planning process, deeply involving the community, to try to work out how to prevent widespread displacement in the neighborhoods just to the east of the Anacostia River. For better or worse, the Anacostia River has served as a barrier for many decades—since DC was founded, really—but it is about to be obliterated by a wave of economic development. Economic development the river’s east bank should not and cannot be stopped, but there are ways to do it with a human face, and to get the community integrally involved in guiding the process.  The Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative, which we helped to establish in late 2015, would be a good base for such an effort.

On January 11, the DC Council is holding a public hearing on the Year of the Anacostia resolution. The hearing will be a great opportunity for citizens to tell their officials about their programs and their dreams and aspirations for the river. It would be great if the turnout for the hearing was huge and passionate. The impact could be sensational.

The first day of any year is a day of hope. We all can and must hope that in the coming months the trend – let's borrow Dr. King's phrase and call it the arc of justice – will continue to bend upwards. But we also need to understand ourselves as agents and help make it so. Let’s begin the Year of the Anacostia by not only hoping for better days, but by resolving to make the river, the public lands, and the nearby communities more active, more productive, and more useful for those of us privileged to live or work in the District of Columbia.