Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A world class water/environmental education center at Poplar Point as another opportunity for Anacostia River programming (+ move the Anacostia Community Museum next door)

Out of the activities concerning the design competition for the 11th Street Bridge Park project in DC, I've been struck by some conceptual and highly visionary opportunities that could grow out of the project, were DC Government to engage with the community and the world at that level.

One is the idea of DC championing the idea of the "International Garden Festival" as a large scale urban revitalization program operating at the national scale in the US and launching the idea with a program around the Anacostia River ("DC has a big "Garden Festival" opportunity in the Anacostia River").
Northwest Branch, Anacostia River
Northwest Branch, Anacostia River.

Another is thinking of the bridges on the Anacostia River ("The Anacostia River and considering the bridges as a unit and as a premier element of public art and civic architecture" and "Saving the South Capitol Bridge as an exclusive pedestrian and and bicycle bridge") in a coordinated fashion in terms of design and public realm improvement and civic architecture.

Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuarine system in the contiguous United States, has a watershed of almost 64,000 square miles. The total surface area of the Bay is 3,830 square miles. Of these, 153 square miles are tidal fresh waters, 3,562 square miles constitute the mixing zone, and 115 square miles are salt waters. This unique ecosystem also contains more than 1,500 square miles of wetlands that provide critical habitat for fish, shellfish, and wildlife; filter and process residential, agricultural, and industrial wastes; and buffer coastal areas against storm and wave damage.

Environmental education element to the Bridge Park design brief.  At the round of meetings last week for the design advisory committee of the 11th Street Bridge Park project, in discussions about an environmental education component it seemed pretty obvious that the amount of space on the bridge park site is constrained and the requirements for a comprehensive environmental center are difficult to meet within the project as currently conceptualized.

The need to bring more attention to water issues of all types. But the desire for an environmental education center there/in DC is a recognition of the need to bring more attention to DC's rivers, the Anacostia especially but also the Potomac, neither of which is safe for fishing or swimming within DC, as well as the broader ramifications of watershed quality for the entire Chesapeake Bay region.

Downtown Peoria, Illinois, 2013.  

And the issues are important locally and regionally as well as nationally.

DC has another opportunity to do something pathbreaking and visionary.

Here are some recent events that demonstrate the need for a high profile urban water/environmental education center:
  • Ongoing water quality problems in the Chesapeake Bay and the Anacostia River
  • Global warming and sea level rise and the impact on coastal and waterfront lands
  • EPA mandates on water quality, combined sewer and outflow systems and discharge impact on rivers in general, and in the Chesapeake Bay
  • EPA mandates on protection of drinking water supplies
  • Green infrastructure 
  • More powerful storms and more frequent flooding (especially in the Midwest)
  • The impact of Hurricanes in the Southeastern United States including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Mississippi
  • Storm surges from Superstorm Sandy destroying waterfront land in New York and New Jersey 
  • chemical discharge in the water system serving parts of West Virginia
  • algae blooms in Lake Erie recently contaminated Toledo, Ohio's drinking water supply
  • drought, especially in the West, which has led to widespread restrictions on water usage (note that 65% of water is used for agriculture world-wide)
  • decline of the aquifer/water table in many parts of the country
  • sinkholes
  • bottled water vs. tap water and environmental impact
  • privatization of water utilities
  • aquaculture
  • North Carolina Legislature's passage of a law forcing an understatement of the likelihood of coastal sea level rise because of a concern about real estate values of beachfront property
  • etc.
Current conditions, Poplar Point.  NPS diagram. The 11th Street bridges are at the top right of the diagram.

Poplar Point has space for cultural facilities adjacent to the Bridge Park site. And there is a great place to locate such a facility, right next to the Bridge Park site, on Poplar Point, which is in the process of being transferred from the National Park Service to the DC Government.

DC is about to embark on a long range planning initiative for Poplar Point--the current agreement allows for 40 acres to be developed while 70 will remain "park land."

One question that needs to be answered is whether or not museums and educational facilities be considered part of the "park portion" of the development), there is an opportunity to complement the proposed program of the Bridge Park onto adjoining Poplar Point lands.

Why not integrate certain elements of planning for Poplar Point and the Bridge Park by including access to some of the adjoining land of Poplar Point to accommodate an expanded environmental education program and related cultural facilities.

Villa Méditerranée and the MuCEM complex, Marseille as a model for a DC urban/environmental education facility.  In last week's discussions, it occurred to me that a high profile best practice urban water education facility could be modelled after Villa Méditerranée in Marseille (and Ecotrust in Portland).
Soirée Orange au MuCEM | Marseille | France | 17 décembre 2013
Villa Méditerranée and the Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) complex, Marseille.  Flickr photo by Franck Vallet.

The Villa is a research, conference, and exhibition center fostering cooperation and cultural exchange within the Mediterranean basin by presenting conferences, lectures, debates, films, concerts, art and cultural exhibitions, and performances. An unusual feature of the building is that the conference center is below ground, under water, with an aquarium-like effect.

The idea behind Villa Méditerranée was to position prominently France's national agenda with regard to the Mediterranean countries in Northern Africa and Europe and to push forward Marseille's claim against Barcelona as the unofficial capital of the cross-national Mediterranean region.

The Villa is complemented by the Museum of European and Meditterranean Civilizations, which is the first national French museum located outside of Paris.  The Villa + MuCEM combination is a model for how a Poplar Point cultural complex could include not just a multifaceted Water/Urban Environmental Education Center but also other cultural facilities.

Anacostia Community Museum.  To complement the Environmental Education Center, I'd recommed moving next door the Anacostia Community Museum, which is poorly located and as a result has extremely low patronage--just over 100 people visit the museum daily.  A much more accessible and prominent site on the Anacostia River in Poplar Point, next to the proposed water-focused environmental center, would be a much better location.

Originally the museum was located in a vacant theater on Martin Luther King Avenue, but then moved to its current location in Fort Stanton Park, which is somewhat distant from the commercial district as well as the Metro Station, and is significantly uphill.

While the Museum is only 1.3 miles from the Anacostia Metro Station, it's difficult to walk or bike to, has limited transit connections (a shuttle bus runs from the Metro), and there are limited opportunities to leverage the presence of the Museum for ancillary neighborhood revitalization.

A new location would provide the opportunity for a fresh start and an update of the Museum's mission, approach, and exhibits.  It could also be involved in shaping and presenting the exhibit program in the DC Villa.

Programming the DC Villa.  Another example of a facility to use as a model for a DC program is the Ecotrust Natural Capital Center in Portland.

Long before the creation of the LEED system, they took an old warehouse building, rehabilitated it with best practice green building and earthquake-proofing practices, and made it a center for environmental organizations.  Today more than 24 environmental and social enterprise organizations are based there.  It's located in Downtown Portland, rather than in a distant suburban or exurban location where most people get to the center via motor vehicle.

Programming could include:
  • conferences, lectures, debates, presentations, films, concerts, art and cultural exhibitions, and performances
  • environmental education programming by government and nonprofit agencies
  • consolidated space for the environmental programs of various DC government agencies
  • space for environmentally-related nonprofit organizations
  • space for university academic research programs
  • cafe and gift shop
Creating a formal DC marine/environmental extension program.   DC has a seemingly pathbreaking Sustainability Plan, although I have questioned the ability and willingness of the government to make significant changes in its approach and practices in accordance with the document's stated wishes ("goals").  See "Realizing all aspects of Sustainable DC."

DC Water Authority truck branded with their "drink tap water" campaignIn association with a new "Water/Urban environmental center," DC Government could reorganize various agency programs concerning the environment and elements of the University of the District of Columbia's cooperative extension program into an integrated and comprehensive marine/environmental extension program.

Cornell, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Minnesota are examples of university "agriculture" extension programs with extensive "environmental and sustainability" components.

Broken water main, Prince George's County, Maryland. 

Some universities have marine extension programs as well, such as the marine program of Cornell Extension in Suffolk County, NY.  

Most of these programs tend to be focused on the ocean side of water, including commercial fishing and aquaculture (Georgia, Oregon) and are affiliates of the federal Sea Grant program arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US Department of Commerce.

The model is extendable to the interior of the country and rivers, bays, and watersheds.

Given the recent discussion of what's missing from the Clean Water Act and the regulatory structure that has developed in response ("Behind Toledo's Water Crisis, a Long-Troubled Lake Erie," "The Threats to Our Drinking Water," and "The War on New York's Waterfront," New York Times), it's worth raising the issue of creating a formal Marine Extension Program focused on the interior of the country and involving the EPA as well as other government agencies like the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, and harvesting best practice programs from around the country (such as the Texas "Major Rivers" children education program, and the Urban River Visions planning initiative of Massachusetts (which is now defunct).

-- Mid-Atlantic Ocean Regional Research Program, Sea Grant program

Besides UDC, units could include DC Water and Sewer Authority, DC Department of Environment,and the Department of Parks and Recreation Urban Agriculture program.

DC Water and DDOE already have some best practice outreach and education programs, including the "Drink Tap" and River Smart Homes programs.

Note that because the Anacostia River is in Maryland too, perhaps UMD cooperative extension and Sea Grant programs could be engaged in the center's activities. Similarly, because DC shares the Potomac River with Virginia, perhaps the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences could be convinced to participate as well.


1.  Create a multifaceted education, conference, exhibit, research and outreach center dedicated to water issues impacting cities and rivers, with the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay as the primary focus of study, but with the center mounting programs of regional, national, and international interest.

2.  Various DC government agencies and UDC should create a marine extension program as one of the components of the center.

3.  Move the Anacostia Community Museum, a unit of the Smithsonian Museums, to a location abutting this proposed center.

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At 5:44 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Meadow Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University is another example of a water-focused university-based program.

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