Erin Garnaas-Holmes is the Anacostia Ambassador under the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, which focuses on connecting urban communities with their waterways and collaborating with community-led efforts to revitalize water systems and promote their economic, environmental and social benefits. 

This is the first of several planned “Notes from the Anacostia Ambassador” on this topic.

What role can the Anacostia River play in equitable community development?

Thanks to the hard work of many community advocates and government agencies, the health of the Anacostia River is swiftly improving and long-held negative perceptions about the value of the river and its parks are beginning to shift to the positive.

Yet as river advocates encourage people to visit and enjoy the increasingly restored riverfront during the Year of the Anacostia, the Anacostia River continues to maintain its historic reputation in Washington as a stark dividing line for wealth, health indicators, race and more.

Some advocates fear that the improvement of the Anacostia River may not serve residents who suffered through its darker years. By raising the desirability and value of land near the river, some fear the restoration itself could contribute to patterns of inequitable economic growth, gentrification and displacement that loom over the DC region and many U.S. cities.

Cranes dot the sky west of the Anacostia River. 

Cranes dot the sky west of the Anacostia River. 

Groups like the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative (APACC) have called for the improvement of the river and its waterfront parks to be coordinated with efforts like the pursuit of equitable community development, preservation and expansion of affordable housing, and celebration of local culture.

11th Street Bridge Park's Equitable Development Plan. 

11th Street Bridge Park's Equitable Development Plan. 

A member of APACC, the 11th Street Bridge Park project has championed this notion with its efforts to design and implement an Equitable Development Plan that has led to significant investment in affordable housing in Ward 8 of DC. Examples like the 11th Street Bridge Park project call for the conversation around public spaces and natural resources to include the larger social and economic context.

Members of APACC also recognized this when they weighed in on the District Elements of the Comprehensive Plan last year.

“The Anacostia River corridor is a complex, multi-layered physical, ecological and social place. While working to improve the whole river corridor, we have to talk about many issues (e.g. transportation, housing, environment) and many places (Wards 5, 6, 7 and 8, local neighborhoods and federal land) all at once.”

Acknowledging that it is the role of groups like APACC and networks like the Urban Waters Federal Partnership to connect the conversations around environmental restoration, housing, and more, I find myself thinking about the people who are in charge of open space. Most parks in Wards 7 and 8 are not like the 11th Street Bridge Park, which is more or less creating its own public space from scratch. Most existing parks or natural resources are instead managed by existing government agencies like the National Park Service, Department of Parks and Recreation or Department of Energy and Environment.

Although a park/resource manager from one of these agencies may be able collaborate with housing planners and community advocates in the vicinity of their projects to discuss larger issues, in the end they can’t dictate housing policy or prioritize transportation improvements. They are limited to the operation, maintenance, design and programming of their own park.

Thinking of spaces like Anacostia Park, Kingman Island and Kenilworth Park along the Anacostia River—and all green spaces throughout the watershed—I am increasingly curious about the role that parks themselves play in equitable community development and broader city-wide issues like gentrification. What can parks do to maximize positive benefits for residents while minimizing the negative possible impacts like displacement?

What kind of benefits might a space like Kenilworth Park provide to nearby residents? 

What kind of benefits might a space like Kenilworth Park provide to nearby residents? 

My next post will investigate: What are all of the possible benefits that green space and/or natural resources can provide neighborhoods in the first place?