We don’t have a vision for our river.

Cities around the world are reclaiming their urban rivers and doing amazing things with them: turning them into economic engines, recreation hubs, natural wonders, tourist destinations, outdoor classrooms, flood management tools and drivers of equity, all at once.

Many community advocates and government agencies are doing their best to make this happen on the Anacostia River here in Washington, but these groups don’t necessarily have an agreement about what the river corridor should become. There is no explicit shared sense of how the many individual projects along the river will collectively create an experience greater than the sum of its parts: there is no “vision” for the Anacostia River corridor.

 The Anacostia River runs for miles through the District, and changes drastically in character from the booming Buzzard Point to the quiet and verdant Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. But is that spectrum of character intentional?

The Anacostia River runs for miles through the District, and changes drastically in character from the booming Buzzard Point to the quiet and verdant Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. But is that spectrum of character intentional?

 Do we have a vision for what the river should “feel” like for visitors? Do we have a metaphor for the role river? Is it a seam between east and west? A corridor from urban to natural? Do we have a vision for how to balance the ecological role of the river with its social function?

Do we have a vision for what the river should “feel” like for visitors? Do we have a metaphor for the role river? Is it a seam between east and west? A corridor from urban to natural? Do we have a vision for how to balance the ecological role of the river with its social function?

When I was hired as a planner with the Anacostia Waterfront Trust, I immediately searched for the single “plan” for the river. I couldn’t necessarily find one.

The Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan was the city’s last published plan for the waterfront, but the document is over 15 years old. While that plan drove much of the development along the river we see today, DC has changed a lot in 15 years.

The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative is still alive, but it seems to be dedicated to highlighting past progress more than paving a way to the future. The regional Anacostia Watershed Restoration Partnership is similarly focused on implementing its plans to restore water quality, but it doesn’t present a vision for land use along the river’s main stem. Meanwhile, the Comprehensive Plan addresses the waterway in some ways, but doesn’t have a single element dedicated to presenting a vision for the entire river corridor.

Instead of a single document, I found dozens and dozens of plans that in some way address the Anacostia River, its parks or the neighborhoods along its shores. In an attempt to wrap my head around all of them at the same time, I knitted just a handful of the projects coming down the pipeline on the Anacostia waterfront into an interactive map - see below or visit the map here.

This is a problem. Resilient DC, the nascent agency tasked with building “DC’s resilience to catastrophic shocks and chronic stresses,” even identified the need for a new comprehensive vision for the Anacostia corridor as a crucial task for DC to “thrive in the face of change.”

As the map above demonstrates, the Anacostia River is poised to drastically transform in coming years. If we want to anticipate and manage that transformation to achieve our goals, then we need a strong shared vision for what the river corridor should look like in the future.

We need a vision for our river.

Looking closely at the plans for various sites along the river starts to raise questions about how all of these individual pieces fit together.

 There are bridges designed in the  Kingman and Heritage Island Feasibility Study  and in the  RFK Campus Future  plan. Which ones are we actually going to build? Do we need them all?

There are bridges designed in the Kingman and Heritage Island Feasibility Study and in the RFK Campus Future plan. Which ones are we actually going to build? Do we need them all?

 If DDOT builds the new pedestrian bridge from the Landscape Arboretum to Kenilworth Park, what happens if the remediation plan for Kenilworth Park calls for  removal of material where the bridge lands  or the plan for future use of the site doesn’t line up with the bridge location?

If DDOT builds the new pedestrian bridge from the Landscape Arboretum to Kenilworth Park, what happens if the remediation plan for Kenilworth Park calls for removal of material where the bridge lands or the plan for future use of the site doesn’t line up with the bridge location?

 Both the 11th Street Bridge Park and the Kingman Island plans include an environmental education center (right and left, respectively). There is already an existing center in Anacostia Park. How will they be different? How will they relate to each other?

Both the 11th Street Bridge Park and the Kingman Island plans include an environmental education center (right and left, respectively). There is already an existing center in Anacostia Park. How will they be different? How will they relate to each other?

 With all of the development planned immediately adjacent to Boathouse Row, is there a way to increase public access to the river without displacing the historic private clubs?

With all of the development planned immediately adjacent to Boathouse Row, is there a way to increase public access to the river without displacing the historic private clubs?

The District doesn’t necessarily need any new plans for most of the Anacostia River, but it does need a vision for how the many many discrete and disconnected parts fit together. A new, updated vision for the Anacostia River could help make the riverfront cohesive on a granular level, and help ensure that these many plans are all working together to achieve overarching goals for the District.

For example, Minneapolis’ RiverFirst Vision establish guiding principles that tied the city’s many riverfront spaces together.

A shared vision could also prevent unnecessary overlap between projects, and prevent scenarios in which one completed project is later ripped up for new construction. The District Department of Energy and Environment has recognized this possibility and called for a shared restoration plan among agencies so that, for example, no group plants a restored wetland on a shoreline site that is later slated to be dredged.

A publicly transparent vision for the Anacostia could also help people like me (and even people who aren’t planning nerds!) understand what the heck is going on with the properties along the Anacostia. My map above is a start, but a “living vision” could include a central location for live updates that keep everyone up-to-date and informed.

 A “live” central timeline for projects can help DC get a grasp on what is coming down the pipeline on its waterfront. IMAGE:  Rebuild by Design .

A “live” central timeline for projects can help DC get a grasp on what is coming down the pipeline on its waterfront. IMAGE: Rebuild by Design.

A lack of vision, centralized leadership and easily-accessible public information about the status of waterfront sites in the District has created some free space for groups like the residents who called for athletic fields at the RFK site to see their own priorities implemented, or for the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative to start building a community-based vision for Kenilworth Park, both positive examples of community-based planning.

But the lack of an established vision also means that agencies have room to shift gears from one draft proposal to pursue other opportunities as they arise. For example, EventsDC has produced exciting renderings of recreation facilities at the RFK Stadium site, but DC’s Mayor has also pushed for building a new NFL stadium on the same site. An established vision would help to manage expectations for the future of various projects.

We need to be visionary

Not only does DC have an opportunity be more coordinated and transparent in how it plans to maximize the value of its up-and-coming river, it also has an opportunity to be a national leader in its approach to doing so.

Like many cities, the District is facing big challenges, like growing social and economic inequity, climate change, flooding, and other shocks and stresses. Many have called for the Anacostia River to become the “essential arena” to tackle many of these overlapping issues.

As the unsolved challenges associated with gentrification make their to the Anacostia Corridor, the District has an opportunity to capitalize on one of the nation’s best leading examples of equitable development (the 11th Street Bridge Park), and set a national precedent for intentionally linking the restoration of open space and the strengthening of equitable communities.

There is a way to create world-class, visionary, community-serving parks along a swimmable, fishable river that all District residents and visitors are able to enjoy, but only if we set out with the shared intention to make it so.

We have the networks in place: we have the District interagency working group on the Anacostia River, the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Partnership, the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative, the network of entities involved with the Year of the Anacostia, the Anacostia Watershed Urban Waters Federal Partnership, and anyone reading this piece. Agencies at all levels, advocates and neighbors, all poised to create a new vision for the Anacostia Corridor.  

And we have a platform to start these discussions: Resilient DC has already organized dozens of stakeholders to begin thinking about these issues, and you can engage with them online here as they draft a Resilience Strategy for the District.

This is where it should start - with inter-agency, inter-disciplinary, transparent collaboration that involves agencies, residents and stakeholders, in a creative space in which we can discuss hard issues like race and equity at the same time that we propose visionary ideas.