A rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park design, which got final approval in October (Courtesy of OMA+OLIN and Building Bridges Across the River)
A rendering of the 11th Street Bridge Park design, which got final approval in October (Courtesy of OMA+OLIN and Building Bridges Across the River)

After more than a decade of planning and prep work, construction for the 11th Street Bridge Park is scheduled to begin in 2023. The park, situated on the pillars of an old highway bridge, will connect Navy Yard and Capitol Hill with historic Anacostia and Fairlawn when it opens to the public in 2025. 

The bridge park project has attracted local and national attention for its multifaceted approach to equity and years-long efforts to head off the gentrifying and isolating impacts of similar amenity-filled park projects like the High Line in New York City. The organization behind the park, Building Bridges Across the River, released its Equitable Development Plan in 2015 and updated it three years later. The organization has coordinated new projects and helped direct millions in funding towards workforce development, small businesses, and affordable housing and homeownership primarily in Wards 7 and 8. 

Scott Kratz, Building Bridges Across the River’s senior vice president and 11th Street Bridge Park director, met with hundreds of Ward 8 residents over the years to find out what should go into the park’s design. The National Capital Planning Commission approved the final plan — which will cost about $92 million — in October. 

Building Bridges’ equity-focused programs and partnerships — which include at least 20 initiatives such as the Ward 8 Homebuyers Club and a network of community gardens — will continue to invest in communities on both sides of the bridge park. Meanwhile, the physical park will also have equity benefits, providing access to nature and the Anacostia River for D.C. residents who have long faced barriers. 

“The beauty of the bridge park is that it will be a green space,” said Brenda Richardson, a longtime Ward 8 community activist and eco-feminist. “And green space has health benefits. It will give folks from our disfavored community an opportunity to just breathe. And to reduce our blood pressure and reduce the numbers for diabetes.”

The District boasts some of the nation’s best city parks, and 98% of all District residents live within a 10-minute walk to a park, according to mapping by the Trust for Public Land. But that same mapping identified places where access needs improvement, and many of them fell in Ward 8. In addition to open green space, the Bridge Park’s plans include a butterfly garden, art installations by local creators, a 250-person outdoor amphitheater and a mussels-themed playground celebrating the marine animals’ contributions in filtering the river.

Using community input to guide every element, the 11th Street Bridge project aimed to provide not only public space but also opportunities to connect with the Anacostia River. 

Check out three of the innovative environmental access opportunities the park will include.

  1. A hammock grove 

More than 170 native trees, planted both along the bridge and in a grove next to the river, will provide shade for people to relax in. Moreover, parkgoers can relax in hammocks, which will hang between the trees. 

Richardson said this is the element she’s most excited about.

“Imagine Brenda Richardson in a hammock between two trees — you have to come and take a picture of that!” she said. “Just to know that you can go there and be at peace is what I’m really, really looking forward to.”

Ward 8 currently has the lowest level of tree coverage of any of the District’s wards, according to a study published in Science Direct in March. That makes an important difference on several different fronts. Places with fewer trees experience higher temperatures, causing some neighborhoods in the District to get up to 20 degrees hotter than neighborhoods with more greenery. Urban trees also improve air quality, reduce stormwater runoff and cut down on noise pollution.

“The sirens from the fire department and the police department, and those loud ATVs, and the fireworks that sound like explosions — that’s an environmental justice issue, the noise pollution that we’re exposed to here in Ward 8,” Richardson said.  

The trees planted will include a variety of species native the D.C. area, including a grove of red maples, according to Kratz. Red maples are known for turning particularly brilliant colors in the fall.

  1. An environmental education center

The Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) has provided educational programming and other opportunities to engage with the Anacostia River for 20 years, said the group’s director of river restoration programs, Ariel Trahan. But that programming has never had a physical home base along the river. 

“We take thousands of people out on the river every year, out on a boat, for our education programs,” Trahan said. “Having a place that people can then come back to, that main central location, is so important for fostering that continued relationship with the river.”

Kratz said that the idea of an environmental education center came up over and over again in conversations with residents about their vision for the bridge park. So his team added it into the plans: the 8,500-square-foot center will sit on the east side of the river.

AWS plans to hold workshops for youth and adults there, but the center will also serve as a community meeting place, said AWS president Chris Williams. He also hopes to see it become a “center for excellence for river conservation,” where people involved in water conservation issues in D.C. and beyond can connect about the work they’re doing.

  1. A boat launch for kayaks and canoes

In conjunction with the environmental education center, AWS will also operate a boat launch where kayaks and canoes can cast off. The dock will serve as a consistent beginning and end point for the organization’s educational boat tours, which allow participants to learn about the natural and cultural history of the Anacostia River while floating along it. The free program is available for kids and adults.

The new boat launch will join only a small, though growing, handful of boat access points on the east side of the river. Kratz said the project aims not only to connect neighborhoods on either side of the river, but also to connect those communities to the river.

“Historically, [city developers] have done an amazing job at building as many barriers as they can between humans and the waterfront — with not one but two freeways,” Kratz said. “But if we can’t get down to the river, you can’t get to know it. You can’t get to love it. You can’t protect it.”

Kayla Benjamin

Covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine writing stories...

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