Green Cities

DC’s Anacostia River is a national model for sustainable urban development

For Washington, D.C., recent improvements to the Anacostia River — including a new sewer tunnel and a dredging project— aren’t without social consequences. These developments have sparked fears of environmental gentrification for D.C.’s southeastern neighborhood of Anacostia. 

The Anacostia River, which runs right through the city, has long been known as D.C.’s “forgotten river” and a symbolic division of wealth and race. The U.S. Census reports that nine out of 10 residents of Anacostia are African-American, and the median household income is less than half the general D.C. median income.

Environmental issues have disproportionately affected people of color in the United States, who lack the financial resources and political power to advocate for change. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the transfer of coal ash dust to Uniontown, Alabama and the high asthma rates in inner cities demonstrate this inequality.

But even when environmental improvements take place, especially in urban centers, the area becomes more attractive to developers, rent prices rise and disenfranchised locals find themselves displaced entirely.

With the development — and gentrification — of neighborhoods like Navy Yard on the river’s west side, the Anacostia river has quickly become a cultural center of D.C. Residents get married at Kingman Island, fish near The National Arboretum and kayak the river after work. Now, developers are eyeing the neighborhood east of the river: Anacostia.

Successful river cleanups coordinated by city officials have increased the popularity of these neighborhoods. However, these cleanup efforts have put the residents of Anacostia on high alert.  

Degradation of the Anacostia River isn’t new — it dates back to when tobacco plantations deforested the region, allowing sediment to build up in the riverbed. In some areas, the river still doesn’t flow during low tide. Plus, there’s the rampant pollution: swimming in the river has been banned since 1972, after decades of industrial pollution from military manufacturing in Navy Yard, power plants, the Kenilworth Dump and outdated sewage systems. 

Finally, with a new sewer system and community cleanups, the river is being restored and developers are buying up property. But many advocates want to ensure that Anacostia development both improves the health of the river and protects low-income residents. Developers and environmental groups are listening to local residents and planning to empower them.

The biggest effort is the 11th Street Bridge Park Project, which would build the city’s first elevated park by 2023. The park will span the river to connect pedestrians in Navy Yard and Anacostia, symbolically crossing the wealth division. It will even feature an environmental education center showcasing the river’s polluted history and future improvements.

But the project’s director, Scott Kratz, also aims to serve current residents through community garden plots for access to healthy food, small business loans and home buyer’s clubs to prevent displacement.

Additionally, the Anacostia Riverkeepers offer boat tours from Kingman Island to educate visitors about the history of environmental injustice, and the Anacostia Watershed Society engages the community in cleanups to foster local passion for the river’s health.

We can all agree that a cleaner river will benefit the health of D.C.’s residents and ecosystems. If these developments continue to prioritize justice and equality, the Anacostia River could serve as a powerful example of sustainable and equitable development for cities around the world.

You can encourage sustainable urban development in your city through registering to vote for environmental issues, joining or organizing a local cleanup through Earth Day Network’s Great Global Cleanup, and taking part in EARTHRISE, the global digital mobilization for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020.