Rivers Rising: Urban Waterways Catalyze Resilience

“Rivers must have been the guides which conducted the footsteps of the first travelers,” Henry David Thoreau mused in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. “They are the constant lure, when they flow by our doors, to distant enterprise and adventure.”

170 years after those words were written, our waterways have been made and remade several times over—but they remain a constant lure. From engines of industry to centers of recreation, some urban areas have seen a dramatic transformation along their shores. In others, revival remains a work in progress. Across the globe, cities are asking how their rivers—as critical habitats, social spaces, commercial hubs, and transportation corridors—can act as conduits for greater resilience.

A recent response to this question can be found in Washington, DC’s Resilience Strategy, released on April 29th. Noting the internationally-recognized progress the District of Columbia has made in environmental restoration and riverfront regeneration, the Strategy foresees a continuing increase in the number of people living, working, and playing along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.

Washington, DC’s Anacostia River

Yet it is also forthright about the challenges on the city’s shoreline. Redevelopment can lead to displacement. Many communities, already confronting significant inequities, are put under further pressure by new investments. At the same time, with 40.8 inches of sea level rise predicted by 2080 and an expected increase in the severity and frequency of tropical storms, waterfront neighborhoods are facing a growing risk of serious flooding.

To respond to these critical issues, DC’s resilience team reached far and wide—and close to home—for inspiration during development of the District’s Resilience Strategy. They convened a cohort of volunteer experts and community groups, who explored anti-displacement strategies, examined best practices in multi-benefit infrastructure, and catalogued public access points along the river. They also co-hosted a conference, “Equity, Resilience, and the Anacostia River Corridor,” bringing together residents, businesses, and other stakeholders, as well as representatives from 100RC Network Cities Atlanta and San Francisco, to consider ways to secure and enhance the area’s future.

The insights generated by these efforts form the basis of the Strategy’s “Resilient Rivers” focus area, which rethinks the city’s relationship to its waterways through integrated place-based efforts. Through inclusive engagement, DC will design capital investments that address climate change while bolstering community services and amenities, especially for vulnerable waterfront communities. At the same time, it will proactively invest in anti-displacement strategies, planning for development with equity in mind.

Resilient Rivers will kick off with two pilot locations. At one, the city will test capital improvements such as parkland designed to capture and treat stormwater, following best practices from New Orleans, the Netherlands and elsewhere. At the second, it will support a community-led process to align investments in some of the city’s most historically disinvested and flood-prone neighborhoods, charting a just pathway to greater climate preparedness.

The Rio Yaque in Santiago de los Caballeros

DC is far from the only place making waterways a centerpiece of its resilience efforts. In Santiago de los Caballeros, a cycleway and ecological corridor along the River Yaque will make the city more welcoming to plants, animals, and people alike. Bangkok is studying the socioeconomic and hydrologic conditions in the Chao Phraya basin to develop a holistic vision focused on livability, not just flood control. In revitalizing the Los Angeles River, LA is prioritizing community as much as ecology. The city is investing in integrated efforts to advance affordable housing, homeless support services, risk awareness, and arts and culture along with the restoration of native habitats.

River resilience efforts don’t end at basin boundaries, either; cities have much to teach one another. Through the EU’s International Urban Cooperation program, Surat and Rotterdam have been collaborating on the former’s efforts to clean up the Tapi River. The relationship has been mutually beneficial. While Surat has learned about taking an integrated approach to water management in areas such as quality monitoring, Rotterdam has been inspired to think about the scalability of its climate adaptation efforts.

Many cities are found on or near waterways because of the myriad, interconnected systems they support: drinking water and food production, transport and trade, and complex webs of flora and fauna. This centrality makes them a natural locus for transformational efforts. As cities chart their future course, they should look to their rivers—exciting possibilities for building resilience lie along their banks.