Originally Published in Planning Magazine (Jan. 2018)

rethinking how we do green urbanism

By Tim Beatley

An audacious piece of urban infrastructure is under way in Washington, D.C.: a $45 million pedestrian “bridge park” that will span the Anacostia River, running parallel to the car bridge replacement on 11th Street. Just a short distance from the U.S. Capitol, the 11th Street Bridge Park promises to be a popular new park and city destination, just like the High Line in New York City — except for one key feature.

The High Line has showed that displacement and gentrification are often a result of green urbanism projects. But in D.C., the park’s designers are working to neutralize that affect. By seeking the community’s input during the design process, they’re planning to minimize the negative — and maximize the positive — impacts on underserved neighborhoods east of the river.

I spoke to Scott Kratz, who coordinates planning for the 11th Street Bridge Park under the auspices of the nonprofit Building Bridges Across the River. Now in its preconstruction phase, the bridge’s innovative design is the product of a public design competition. The winning entry was a productive collaboration between OMA and the OLIN landscape architecture studio.

From the start, Kratz says, they were dedicated to consulting with the community; Kratz himself organized more than 200 meetings with community stakeholders. Much of the input gleaned from the community made its way into the programmatic elements of the design.

“It’s not just going out and showing the pretty design after it’s done and [then] asking the community for their input,” Kratz says. That consultation needs to be earlier, he explains, and far more extensive.

When it opens in 2023, the park will help connect Wards 7 and 8 to the rest of the city.  Rendering Courtesy of OMA + OLIN

When it opens in 2023, the park will help connect Wards 7 and 8 to the rest of the city. Rendering Courtesy of OMA + OLIN

Aligning priorities

A community design oversight committee was formed to guide finalists — a fairly unusual practice — with blocks of time set aside for design teams to meet with the committee and incorporate their input. The committee membership included a range of stakeholder interests from the U.S. Navy Yard to the Anacostia Watershed Society, and the resulting design reflects many changes directly responding to the stakeholders’ concerns.

11th Street Bridge Park includes a few unusual features, drawn largely from input of the community: new pedestrian and public spaces, a café, an environmental education center, a public amphitheater, and even a dramatic waterfall. Many of these constituent elements will be run through long-term agreement with other local organizations. The environmental education center, for example, will be run by the Anacostia Watershed Society, a local environmental group with a deep history of working in the area. The urban farm will be run by the University of the District of Columbia, which has been working hard on developing a network of community food hubs throughout D.C.

Early on, Kratz tells me, they asked the question, “Who is this for?” Community stakeholders were clear that benefiting the underserved neighborhoods east of the river was a key priority.

To that end, the bridge is wider on the east end, enhancing green public space in a neighborhood with significant health concerns. The urban farm and food production elements will address the difficulties of finding healthy food in the area, and physical access for kayaks and canoes will be provided on the east end. Steering many of the programmatic elements of the bridge park to its east end was intentional, given the paucity of existing community amenities there compared to the west side.

Community stakeholders also expect these efforts to bring in businesses. Through an innovative Equitable Development Plan, spearheaded by Kratz and an Equitable Development Task Force, and with some 19 recommendations, it is hoped that the project’s impacts will be uplifting and positive, and that the neighborhood is ready to take full advantage of economic opportunities.

“How do we make sure that we’re spending the next year and a half [before construction begins] building the skill set and capacity of local residents so they can have the wherewithal to apply for and succeed at construction jobs and in jobs after we open?” says Kratz. “One of the ways that we’re going to be judged, I know, and appropriately, is if we’re going to spending be $45 million dollars on this park, how do we make sure as much of that goes into the local community as possible?

Some of the 19 recommendations are already being implemented, including a home buyers club (to help residents buy their own homes now, before property values increase, to “capture some of that rising equity.” Katz says); tenants’ rights workshops (so that renters will be ready to purchase their units — D.C. residents have the right of first refusal when rental properties are converted to condominiums); workforce training and development to ensure residents are eligible for as many of the jobs generated as possible (construction and beyond); and creation of a Bridge Park Community Land Trust.

The trust will own the underlying land (where much of the increase in housing prices derives), while future home owners own the structure and pay a small land rent. The latter device is vital for creating the ability to purchase vacant development sites and convert them to more affordable forms of housing in the neighborhood. Kratz and his team are also working with other actors, notably the D.C. government, which has created a housing trust fund allotting $100 million each year for four years.

Whether these measures will fully work, and whether they will fully insulate east side neighborhoods from the price effects and displacement, while maximizing jobs and other social and economic benefits for residents, remains to be seen. Through there is considerable fund-raising left to be done, the project could be completed as early as 2019 — leaving little time to get ahead of the economic forces such a project sets in motion. But the comprehensive Equitable Development Plan and extensive consultation with the community give the project a fighting chance.

Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit organization that founded, funds, and maintains the High Line in New York City, has joined forces with representatives from projects around the country to create a resource for cities to reclaim infrastructure as public space.