All images from the National Park Service's April 4 canal design presentation unless otherwise noted.

Should urban spaces be “sylvan” and “riparian” or an “active” “people place”? Is the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal in Georgetown a “treasured” “wild place” or “dangerous and falling apart”?

In July, the Commission of Fine Arts, a federally-appointed board which reviews certain projects in DC inculding many on federal property, heard early-stage designs for renovating and restoring the one mile of the 184.5 mile canal which lies in Georgetown. Supporters (including me) and critics of the project both competed to employ vivid language to illustrate their view of the park.

The draft plan, from nonprofit Georgetown Heritage, the National Park Service, and Georgetown Business Improvement District, would create some public spaces suitable for people to gather and enable mule-drawn boat tours. Perhaps most of all, it would enable people with disabilities to better access the canal where now there are unusably narrow towpaths or steep stairs lacking ramps or elevators.

But some nearby residents and the Committee of 100, DC’s oldest and a generally change-averse planning organization, had criticized the plan for being “a glorified ‘tot lot’ — a DC version of the wildly popular Manhattan High Line.” While to many people the High Line seems to be a success to emulate in part (and there’s no way the C&O would see the kind of volume that the High Line does), chair Stephen Hansen decried any effort to pave the path as “shopping-mall-quality” (even though nobody has yet determined what pavers might be used) and “over-the-top and out of character.”

I’d called opposition “misanthropic planning” for the philosophy, pervasive in many DC debates, that DC’s “monumental” public spaces are best empty, stately places, impressive from the air or driving through but which need not offer people anywhere to sit, any place to eat, or anything to do. Hansen’s metaphors, of kids’ playgrounds, shopping malls, and other popular places for people as bad things to avoid, exemplifies that.

At the meeting, some call to keep the canal “wild”

Speaking for the Committee of 100 at the CFA meeting, de Teel Patterson (“Pat”) TIller bristled at the “misanthropic” label and sounded much less extreme in his view than he or Hansen had thus far been. He said the group does support improving the canal, but doesn’t want to “overwhelm the historic.” But the committee still opposes this plan.

Other speakers waxed poetic about the “sylvan” and “riparian” places along the canal, where they can currently enjoy quiet walks. Another, contrarily, said the canal used to see more use and now is “dangerous and falling apart”; at the moment, said one, it’s “a dry ditch filled with invasive plants, weeds, and trash.”

Joe Sternlieb, head of the Georgetown BID, said that, quite simply, no economic case can be made to preserve all 184.5 miles of the canal, most of which can no longer hold water. But the plan for Georgetown — which balances preservation with places for activities, interpretation and recreation — could justify greater investment, and ensure that the structure has the ability to hold water. He and other supporters also emphasized the need for access for people with disabilities, with strollers, and others.

Anne Lewis, who’s sat on multiple DC historic review boards over her career, said she was representing a nonprofit that pushes for “wild places” in DC, like at “Mile Marker Zero,” now a barren spot behind the Thompson Boathouse. The plan suggests making this area more accessible so people can see the marker itself; Lewis opposed these changes.

Mile Marker Zero today.

Access to nature is important, as is preserving wildlife. Moments of quiet contemplation do enhance our quality of life. But keeping a place right in the city, like this, closer to rural in character inherently means only a few people get to enjoy it. Especially in an area like Georgetown, it becomes another highly exclusive yet taxpayer-funded space.

The region contains plenty of spaces a short trip away which are wild, quiet, sylvan, riparian, or whatever flowery adjective you think of. The C&O Canal, in particular, has 183.5 miles which can be contemplative. Rock Creek park has 1,754 acres not even counting tributary parks, most of which is “sylvan.” City spaces should be accessible and usable for all, not empty or exclusive.

This part of the canal, near Paw Paw, is "wild" and will stay that way, whatever happens in Georgetown. Image by Payton Chung licensed under Creative Commons.

Cities need many parks, but a good city park is full of people enjoying it. Good landscape architecture creates many spaces people can experience without bumping into each other; the new Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York, for instance, offers many diverse opportunities, some even contemplative and even riparian (which means at the river’s edge, often specifically relating to plants which grow in the water). You’re just not alone.

I said opponents of the plan wanted to keep people out. In essence, the opponents didn’t disagree; they indeed value the canal’s current emptiness. They simply argued for emptiness in the heart of the city as a good thing.

One concept for the Mile Marker Zero includes nets like these. Or are they too fun?

Commisioners don’t think the plan is crazy

Members of the commission generally didn’t share the Committee of 100’s alarm at renovating the canal. Edward Dunson, an architecture professor at Howard University, said the canal should be “a people place.” Alex Krieger, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, called it “a pretty good balancing of preservation and interpretation” and didn’t see as “a trashing of the environment by some ridiculous new ideas. I don’t see it as outrageous,” he said.

Liza Gilbert, a DC-based landscape designer, said a “unifying element is curated approach to decay, and people,” and called the plan a “move away from sameness.” Elizabeth Meyer cited the concept of “curated decay,” coined by Caitlin DeSilvey, and suggested the choice of plantings can improve the canal without making it seem overly new.

Have you ever seen these locks? This view is usually blocked by vegetation.

Meyer cited San Francisco’s Chrissy Field, an Army airfield turned active urban park under the stewardship of NPS, as a good example to create a park that works for “different stakeholders.” In essence, she argued the canal could preserve the biodiversity that several speakers defended without opposing any change.

Meyer herself has done work integrating urbanism with pieces of wildness, like native plantings and pollinators or boardwalks over marshes, which don’t fetishize a lack of people but rather help ecological systems coexist with human places.

On the other hand, Harvard’s Krieger, after saying he’s not from DC and therefore isn’t as familiar, also asked if perhaps the canal, lying between bustling M Street and the active waterfront, could be a less active middle space. He didn’t fully explore the question of whether this mile of the canal, lying at one end of 184.5 miles, could simply be the one active and lively mile while keeping the rest of the park quieter.

Georgetown Heritage and the Park Service will revise their plans and come back to CFA and other review bodies many times in the coming years.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.