Anacostia Park is part more than 1,200 acres of parks and wetlands that sit along the Anacostia River. It’s not in great shape, but there are people working to turn it around. If they succeed, residents are set to reap the health and social benefits that come with quality parks.
The waterfront trail running through Anacostia Park. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
Overshadowed by the Washington Monument on the National Mall, the Anacostia Waterfront, which the National Parks Service and District government manage together, is one of Washington’s most undervalued landmarks.
Originally planned nearly 100 years ago, the waterfront was designed under the McMillan Plan to be a grand public park running along the river, featuring promenades, islands, and bathing lagoons.
Over the ensuing century, however, Anacostia Park was neglected and underused. Despite all that it has to offer, Anacostia Park never achieved the kind of recognition from tourists or regular use from residents that places like Rock Creek and Meridian Hill do.
Part of the problem is that much of the park is bounded is by the Anacostia River on one side and a busy highway on the other, limiting access by public transportation and connection to the rest of the city.
Parks can help address public health issues in Anacostia
Communities east of the Anacostia River are plagued with elevated rates of asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, so much so that there’s clearly an expanding the gulf between these underserved areas and the rest of the District. According to the city’s most recent assessment, residents of Ward 8 have the highest rates of obesity and are the least likely to exercise of anyone in the city.
The health woes people in Anacostia face persist despite the fact that many people live within a mile of Anacostia Park or Waterfront Trail.
The Anacostia Waterfront trail has an aast and west branch along both sides of the river, and runs for a total of 15 miles.
There’s proof that the active lifestyle parks encourage mean lower obesity rates and high blood pressure rates as well as fewer doctor’s visits and fewer annual medical costs. Further benefits include lower levels of cholesterol and respiratory diseases, enhanced survival after a heart attack, faster recovery from surgery, fewer medical complaints, and reduced stress.
Recognizing what Anacostia Park can do for residents as well as how much it’s been ignored, recent administrations— starting with Anthony Williams, who was in office from 1999 until 2007— have championed the park and waterfront, slowly shifting investment across the river. In the past decade, new playgrounds have gone up, and 15 miles of new trails have formed the nucleus of the Anacostia Waterfront Trail.
Both what’s coming to the Waterfront and what’s already there make for tremendous opportunity to serve community health needs in Wards 7 and 8.
Anacostia park lacks the public transportation options that other places have. This is the only bikeshare station located along the eastern branch of the Waterfront Trail.
New programing is a great tool for increasing park attendance. Last year, the National Park Service hosted the first annual Anacostia River Festival to promote “the history, ecology, and communities along its riverbanks.” The inaugural event was an opportunity for the community and local politicians to come out in support of the Park and another is in the works for this upcoming spring.
Here’s how DC can connect Anacostia Park to its community
For progress to continue, interest in Anacostia Park has to go beyond these periodic events and promising proposals. The easiest way to support active use is making sure people know about all that Anacostia Park has to offer.
According to the American Planning Association, for a park to increase physical activity it needs to be accessible, close to where people live, and have good lighting, toilets, and drinking water, and attractive scenery. Today, Anacostia Park has some of these things, but others are sorely lacking.
This is the south-eastern tip of Anacostia Park and Waterfront Trail, seen from across the river at Yards Park.
The first thing that would get more people using Anacostia Park would be creating convenient points of access. Creative infrastructure and programs could be replicated in Anacostia Park based on what other cities have used to successfully boost attendance and forge a connection with the community.
In Chicago, The Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance helped community members create a “Quality of Life Plan,” identifying top issues facing the community in order to craft policies that the park to meet the most pressing needs. Since 2005, the initiative has facilitated coordination between local employers, provided employment for 84 local youth, and mobilized over 10,000 residents to support a number of projects.
In New York, a collaboration between the Prospect Park Alliance, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Brooklyn Academy of Science and the Environment (BASE) High School resulted in a curriculum based on the physical and educational resources of the Botanic Garden. Such a partnership could be replicated between the National Arboretum, Park Service, and City if the interest and collective will are demonstrated.
Fortunately, creating new ways to access the park and things to do once people are there does not require large sums of money because Anacostia Park doesn’t need to be built or set aside. What it does demand, however, is public and private support as well as a willingness to incorporate the communities these changes are meant to benefit into the planning process.
To foster dialogue between the community and other stakeholders, The Anacostia Waterfront Trust has recently partnered with 13 other organizations to form the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative.
While still taking shape, the APCC is designed to engage with nearby residents in order to promote active use and develop long term plans. Efforts like these can help ensure that the many projects and initiatives intended to help residents of the Anacostia Waterfront actually serve their purpose.
Other parks are blossoming nearby
Work is ongoing to create an additional 13 miles of trails connecting the park to other sites along the Waterfront, including the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Yards Park, and the National Arboretum.
Another example of a Waterfront project that can do a lot for its community is the 11th Street Bridge Park. The project will include an education center, outdoor performance spaces, and urban agriculture, and when it’s finished, it will be a link Wards 6, 7, and 8.