Socio-Ecological Practice Research

, Volume 1, Issue 3–4, pp 179–196 | Cite as

Ian McHarg’s enduring influence on the ecological planning and design of Washington’s waterfront

  • Nathan HeaversEmail author
Research Article


Ian McHarg collaborated on two important planning reports in the mid-1960s: the Potomac Report and Toward a Comprehensive Landscape Plan for Washington, DC. This work was foundational to the formulation of his ecological method as applied to cities and was the basis for several chapters of his influential book, Design with Nature (1969). Less understood is the impact of these reports on the planning and design of Washington itself. While the environmental and cultural consciousness of the nation’s capital was awakening when McHarg arrived in the city, his ecological approach enhanced the work of National Capital Planning Commission at the time. Though it has taken over 50 years to realize some of the recommendations derived from McHarg and his colleagues’ analysis of the District, Washington’s waterfront is in the midst of a riverside renaissance. McHarg’s ecological method has been a steady undercurrent in the planning of Washington. A shortcoming of the reports is their failure to consider the issue of social equity in the city. Fortunately, current efforts on the Anacostia, in particular, have begun to remedy this oversight.


Ian McHarg Ecological planning and design National Capital Planning Commission Waterfront development Potomac Anacostia Design with Nature 

1 The arrival of ecological planning in Washington

In the mid to late 1960s, Ian McHarg brought his ecological method to Washington, DC, the capital city of the United States, and the Potomac River watershed in which Washington, DC is located. With his firm Wallace, McHarg, Roberts, and Todd (WMRT), his students at University of Pennsylvania, and the Potomac River Task Force, he contributed to the Potomac Report (1967) and Toward a Comprehensive Landscape Plan for Washington, DC (1967). This work provided crucial examples of ecological analysis at the city and regional scales for his book Design with Nature (1969). Adapted as chapters of Design with Nature, the reports contributed significantly to theory in ecological planning and landscape architecture. Washington, its metropolitan region, and the Potomac River watershed are the prime examples in Design with Nature of how to integrate city, region, and nature through ecological planning. The reports preceded Design with Nature and served two functions. First was to improve policy, planning, and design in the nation’s capital and the much wider Potomac River watershed, and second was to develop an urban environmental stewardship model for the nation. While Design with Nature continues to receive due attention, the role of these reports in shaping Washington and its region into an effective national model of ecological design have been overlooked. What influence did the reports have on the evolution of the built and natural form of the nation’s capital over 50 years? How have McHarg and his colleagues’ recommendations guided the District’s urban waterfront, if at all? What value does this case have for other cities and regions?

This paper examines the two reports for the suggestions they made about the design of Washington’s waterfronts. It also positions Washington and its waterfront as an important case study of the ecological method in action. This was the intent of the reports. Therefore, tracking the results of McHarg’s work has potential value for designers around the world with an interest in implementing ecological plans. Specifically, the paper examines the local planning and design context of McHarg’s work, the evolution of the District’s riverside over the past 50 years, and how McHarg’s ideas resonate with elements of the 2016 Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital Region. The reports reveal the natural and built values of the city and provisional responses to them. Among the natural values, the Potomac and Anacostia rivers rank highest, suggesting that they are an apt lens for this analysis of the evolution of the city since the late 1960s (Fig. 1). Toward a Comprehensive Landscape Plan deems the “formal” L’Enfant city and its structures as the most important attribute of the built form (Fig. 2). With these and other values identified, the reports proceed to make recommendations for the design of the waterfront. Among the priorities are a continuous public shoreline for recreation, clean rivers, and a built edge, reflecting both the architectural character of the city and its natural identity.
Fig. 1

The rivers ranked as the highest value of natural identity in Washington from Design with Nature (p. 185)

Fig. 2

The east end of the National Mall, 2017. Photograph by author

For 50 years, the District has aimed to preserve, extend, and enhance the identity of its rivers and their complex relationships to the city. This has meant preserving aspects of the strong fixed layout of the city and allowing the river to function as a dynamic ecological system, much as McHarg recommended, though the spatial order tends to dominate in DC. Since McHarg’s era, the city’s riverfront has gradually aligned with many of the recommendations of the two reports, extending McHarg’s ecological imperative through green infrastructure and enhancing the identity of the river by making it increasingly accessible and clean. In the past 15–20 years, the District has completed significant work. The achievements include the near completion of continuous promenades and trails along the riverside, a boom of environmentally responsible building construction on the southwest and near southeast waterfronts, and river cleaning in the form of major combined sewage and storm water tunnels and dispersed green infrastructure. This work realizes some aspects of the 1960s plans and incorporates new concepts and techniques further spelled out in the ambitious 2016 Comprehensive Plan. The work underway by the DC Clean Rivers Project and Climate Ready DC aims to continue to improve the health and resilience of the District’s riverside (Sustainable DC 2019). While McHarg and his colleagues were not directly responsible for the city’s renaissance over the past 50 years, their contributions to Washington’s planning catalyzed an ecological approach to development. Their work fits neatly into the history of comprehensive planning in Washington, DC, emerging with the environmental movement and a return to home rule for the District. Home rule allows the District a government and a planning office distinct from the Federal government. A criticism of McHarg’s plans is that they offered slim advice on how to implement an ecological approach. The dominant method that has emerged is green infrastructure. Furthermore, the implementation of an ecological approach in Washington amounts, 50 years later, to a collection of smaller projects rather than a comprehensive system. This does not diminish McHarg’s contributions, but helps us understand the limits to realizing regional and even citywide plans in this and similar urban ecological contexts.

2 The reports in historical context

For Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French-American military engineer hired by George Washington to lay out the US capital, Washington was a city at the confluence of two rivers, the Potomac and the Anacostia, set within a topographic bowl. His plan provided visual and physical access to the rivers, which would be the city’s connection to the globe (Fig. 3). Over a century later, the McMillan Commission plan (Fig. 4), developed under the eye of landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., terminated several of L’Enfant’s infinite axes that had extended from the city across the river to world. Before and after the McMillan plan, dredging and land reclamation along the riverbanks fixed and hardened their edges along lines that persist today and were present when McHarg arrived in Washington in the mid-1960s. Not only did these well-known historical plans for Washington precede McHarg—a suite of 1960s’ plans predates his work. These demonstrate an existing environmental consciousness among planners and designers in the city.
Fig. 3

L’Enfant’s plan for Washington at the confluence of two rivers, 1791. Library of Congress

Fig. 4

Aerial view of the McMillan Plan (1902) by F.L.V. Hoppin. Commission of Fine Arts

The 1961 National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) Plan for the Year 2000 is notable for its radial spoke concept for regional development. It uses the word “ecological” once (NCPC 1961, p. 42). However, the environmental agenda is clear. “The necessity for keeping the Region’s rivers and streams clean requires no argument. The measures required to control runoff from the watersheds feeding these streams can also serve other purposes, particularly recreation” (p. 25). The Plan for the Year 2000 also acknowledges, “A city is not a completely man-made environment. Many of the living things in a city exist only with man’s permission and maintenance” (p. 25). These statements show that the staff of the NCPC had begun to recognize the significant role of natural systems in the health of urban environments before McHarg arrived in Washington.

Two years before the publication of the Potomac Report and Toward a Comprehensive Landscape Plan for Washington, DC, NCPC released the 1965/1985 Comprehensive Plan. It contains many of the key tenets of ecological planning, perhaps derived from McHarg’s work. The bibliography notes a “Still in Progress” report by Wallace-McHarg Associates. The 1965/1985 Plan emphasizes the value of a “healthful urban environment” (NCPC 1965, p. 11). Its principles are to “respect the architectural inheritance from earlier generations” and to “strive to foster feelings of identity with and responsibility for each neighborhood” (p. 11). Furthermore, “City form is understood and evaluated by its ‘fit’ to the natural setting, its response to function with the nation and the region” (p. 12). More than any other plan before or since, this plan bears a strong resemblance to McHarg’s work, but it does not apply his method per se. However, it does draw many of the same conclusions and principles as the later reports.

Working in Washington at the same time as McHarg was landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. He contributed to First Lady Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to beautify the nation’s capital, under the “Committee for a More Beautiful Capital” (Haffner 2017, p. 149). Haffner (2017) discusses the importance of Halprin’s work as a “green urban renewal program” (p. 146). Halprin’s efforts were about much more than beautification, which McHarg tended to dismiss. Halprin’s intent was to create a vibrant Anacostia River that served the diverse and disadvantaged populations of the city in an environmentally responsible way. Combined sewer overflows and abandoned industry was a problem in the 1960s along both the Potomac and the Anacostia, greatly diminishing the recreational use and health of the rivers. Worse still, the upper reaches of the Anacostia served as a hazardous landfill to the detriment of the African-American population in its vicinity. Halprin’s work brought attention to the issues of environmental justice and social inequity along the Anacostia, issues that McHarg’s work in Washington woefully ignored.

3 McHarg in Washington

President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized the Potomac Task Force to explore how the Potomac watershed might become a model of environmental stewardship for the nation (Potomac Report 1967, p. 5). Ian McHarg was the sole landscape architect in the American Institute of Architects-led effort. While investigating the Potomac, NCPC asked WMRT to analyze the landscape of Washington for a comprehensive landscape plan. At that time, NCPC had a 40-year history of comprehensive planning in the National Capital Region (NCR). Their work grew out of the McMillan Plan, officially The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia (1902). To this thoroughly trodden ground, McHarg arrived with a new idea, using ecology to guide the planning and design of the city and region.

McHarg applied his ecological method to generate principles for the planning and design of both the Potomac watershed and Washington. On the one hand, we might understand this work as a breakthrough, a watershed moment. On the other hand, it represents a step in the gradual evolution of planning in the nation’s capital. McHarg recognized and admired L’Enfant’s 1791 plan and Olmsted Jr.’s work on the McMillan Plan both of which are apt responses to the natural and cultural situations they faced. McHarg and his colleagues’ reports confirmed the significance of the built environment of the city. However, their work also called into question the expansive growth of the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, the highways designed to carry a commuting workforce to and from the city, and excessive urban renewal projects, such as the 1950s redevelopment of 400 acres in southwest DC. This southwest redevelopment project entailed the removal of 23,500 people from their homes, 76% of whom were African-American (Gutheim and Lee 2006, p. 259). By 1965, Washington’s African-American majority population had had enough. The consensus in the District was to preserve historic architecture and communities rather than tear them down and start anew.

This idea fits well with McHarg’s approach, which thoroughly assessed existing conditions before suggesting change. Unfortunately, McHarg’s method, as applied in Washington, did not specifically address the population that it purported to serve. McHarg’s method relied on deep natural and historical inventories as the first step in the creation of a comprehensive plan. However, whose history did he aim to preserve? The bias of the reports is toward maintaining the monumental core with areas outside L’Enfant’s plan available for revision. The goal of the natural and historical inventories was to understand the identity of the city and the elements that comprised it. The method assigned values to the elements and policies and principles of design followed (McHarg 1969). McHarg’s value system favored natural identities above others. Accepting that McHarg’s primary interest was ecological: How unique was this approach in the context of planning in the nation’s capital? Looking through the successive NCPC plans for Washington provides some clues.

4 Drawing planning and design principles from “provisional” inventories

Both the Potomac Report and Toward a Comprehensive Landscape Plan apply the ecological method from which provisional policies, principles, and design recommendations emerge. In each case, the authors conducted only partial inventories, stating the need for more data and analysis. When McHarg used the work as examples in Design with Nature, he claimed it was a demonstration of the method rather than a comprehensive plan. The Potomac Report reveals less of the ecological method than Toward a Comprehensive Landscape Plan. It begins with an “organizing concept” for the river based on three zones: “The River, The Riverside, and The Setting” (p. 32). Using these spatial delineations, it proposes “an environmental approach” (p. 44). With inventories grouped by the five physiographic provinces of the region, it applies McHarg’s usual scheme in short.

The Potomac Report has a strong focus on “The Urban Potomac.” It provides detailed recommendations for six sectors of the Riverside: The Palisades, The West End, Rock Creek, The Monumental Core, The Anacostia, and The Harbor (Fig. 5). Not included are the inventories and ranking of values that guided the proposals for each area. Instead, overarching goals, presented at the beginning of the report, seem to drive the recommendations. In the words of the report, “It is essential that we insure adequate future supply of water, at a suitable level of quality, that we safeguard the natural character and scenic values of the river, and that we develop the river’s potentials of recreation and other public uses” (p. 31). These general goals for the river hold true for the urban section at Washington, as well, but in the city, the emphasis shifts greatly from natural to urban character.
Fig. 5

The “six sectors” of Washington’s Riverside from the Potomac Report (p. 63)

Toward a Comprehensive Landscape Plan is a patent example of the ecological method, but without extensive use of overlays for suitability analysis. It distinguishes the need to inventory the “given and made forms” of the city to determine their relative values. For the given form, it runs through the typical categories of McHarg’s method: geology, physiography, and plant ecology to reveal the natural identity of the landscape. The Potomac and Anacostia corridors emerge among its “major components.” Likewise, the made form is subject to ranking. It identifies the Mall, the Federal Area, the formal avenues, the interstices, and other open spaces, in order of importance. With the “geniuses” of the natural and historical form illuminated, a “formulation of principles” follows with further “illustrations of principles” for select sites within the District. This leads to the design questions. To what extent are the various existing values expressed and should we perpetuate, extend, and/or enhance them? The meeting of the natural river and the constructed city is a critical design issue in both reports.

The recommendations of the two reports are quite similar. Both recognize the strong legacy of L’Enfant’s 1791 plan and the 1902 McMillan Plan, and the need to carry forward aspects of each plan to preserve and extend the identity of the nation’s capital. A limitation of both is that they advocate for hardened edges, except along the upper reaches of both rivers and in East Potomac Park. The Potomac Report offers broad recommendations for the water’s edge. Washington should have a continuous waterfront, varied in character, but accessible to people along its entire length. “Much of the urban river’s shore should be embanked, paved, built up, surrounded with buildings and the waterfront designed in the manner of Hamburg, Amsterdam, Leningrad, Venice, and other great water-oriented cities” (Potomac Report 1967, p. 59). To achieve this, Washington must recover its waterfront from obsolescent industry and commerce. Cleaning the water throughout the watershed is essential, but it is especially important to end the discharge of combined sewage and stormwater from Washington into its rivers. This is critical not only to improve the health of the river systems, but also to make it a livable environment for people, especially for water-oriented recreation.

These principles address the ecological function of the river system, the river’s edge, how the city form meets the river, and the engineered and designed measures that handle urban water flows. Have the NCPC and the newer District of Columbia Office of Planning (DCOP) held onto these principles as the city’s comprehensive plan has evolved?

5 Evolving plans, evolving city

When McHarg arrived in Washington, he entered a very active planning and design environment with a long history that has only deepened up to the present. The Home Rule Act of 1973 gave the city greater autonomy over its lands and diminished the power of the NCPC. NCPC maintained control over the extensive federal lands in the capital, the federal elements, and provided oversight on the District elements, falling under the authority of DCOP. This shift had important consequences for the long-term design of the city because it gave the people of the District a greater say, especially at the neighborhood level. Gutheim and Lee (2006) describes the period change as quite dramatic. “By the mid-1970s, planning approaches had turned 180 degrees from where they had stood at the mid-twentieth century. No longer did a relatively small group of design professionals develop and implement plans for the national capital city or, for that matter, any city. Planning had become a grass-roots occupation, in which citizens’ voices were a potent force” (p. 315). McHarg’s contribution is more in line with the old model of planning by an elite few, but his intent was to create a healthful environment for all.

Following the April 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, riots broke out in DC and in cities across America. Morale in the District was especially low, the population declined, and the environmental quality of the rivers suffered. Planning and projects for the nation’s bicentennial (1976) celebrations boosted the city’s image. Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) prepared a plan for the monumental core that prepped the National Mall to receive a record sized gathering. At the same time, the DC Metro opened its first segment, a major step away from the destructive practice of building highways through the city. Despite these advances, Washington continued to experience economic and population losses through the 1970s and into the early 1980s. The 1983 Comprehensive Plan and its District elements guided a real estate boom in the 1980s, revitalizing Washington’s downtown, especially through development on Pennsylvania Avenue (Gutheim and Lee 2006, p. 322). This period included the revival of Union Station as an example of the public’s desire to preserve Washington’s architectural heritage. Another depression followed in the early 1990s. Rising economic fortunes in the mid- to late 1990s and a rezoning of downtown led to expanded retail and arts districts. Washington’s waterfront remained in poor ecological condition with limited opportunities for water-oriented recreation.

While the change to “home rule” has brought many positive changes, it also burdened the city with the responsibility for aging infrastructure, such as the combined sewer system (Reut 2018, p. 94). Without ready funds to bring the wastewater system into compliance with the Clean Water Act (1972), the District has lagged on this environmental duty until very recently. In 1997, NCPC produced Extending the Legacy with landscape architect Joseph Brown of Eckbo, Dean Austin, Williams (EDAW) on the committee. Legacy offers a 50–100 year vision for Washington, including the revitalization of Washington’s waterfront, reiterating the goals of the 1960s. In 30 years, the only major waterfront changes had been the Kennedy Center (only now gaining a pedestrian connection to the Potomac with The Reach), the Watergate, and Georgetown’s Washington Harbor (landscape by EDAW). Legacy includes an environmental and waterfront agenda, following on the heels of earlier reports; however, its main objective is to “re-center” the city on the Capitol building to steer development north, south, and east. It reads as an urban form driven approach, rather than a negotiation between natural systems and the historic city. Along Washington’s waterfront, there is little appreciable difference between McHarg’s recommendations and those of Legacy. However, Legacy is more explicit about its desire to bring “the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers into the city’s public life” (NCPC 1997, p. 6). More recently, the Anacostia Waterfront Framework Plan (2003) emphasizes the need to create synergy between the river and the built environment of Washington, following Halprin’s lead.

6 Washington’s riverside now

In the past 15 years, the city has finally begun to realize the design recommendations of the 1960s. Plans and actions reflect a steady emphasis on the natural identity of the rivers, though it has taken until recently for action on cleaning the water. Changes to the built form generally follow the aspirations of the 1960s, but with notable differences on the Georgetown and southwest waterfronts. The riverside sectors (5 out of 6) of the Potomac Report provide a framework for this discussion (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6

The waterfront sectors in the context of the city. Diagram by author

6.1 The Palisades

The Palisades are the steep-sided banks of the Potomac just as it emerges from the Piedmont physiographic province. This area extends north from the Key Bridge to the District’s line. Preserved parkland flanks the river, narrow rugged slopes with developed trails, the Potomac River Heritage Trail on the Virginia side and the Capital Crescent Bike Trail (1996) and the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal towpath through Washington. The boathouses of 50 years ago still dot the District’s Potomac shore, where kayak and paddleboat rentals are popular activities from spring to fall, much as the Potomac Report suggested. Pleasure boats congregate north of the Key Bridge in summer among the Three Sisters Islands and as far up as Little Falls. It is difficult now to imagine the 1950s proposals to turn the canal into a highway and to build the Three Sister Bridge over the Palisades to the north of the Key Bridge, neither of which happened. Combined sewage overflow into Founders Creek, draining into the Potomac, remains a problem. However, this area preserves its natural identity as recommended in the reports. It is remarkable how little has changed compared to the bank just south of the Key Bridge—the West End.

6.2 The west end

This area comprises Georgetown and Foggy Bottom, reaching across the Potomac to Theodore Roosevelt Island with views of Rosslyn, Virginia, across the river. Strung along the Georgetown bank into the 1960s were the last vestiges of a former light industry and an eighteenth century port. The elevated Whitehurst Freeway bisects this strip of land between the canal (above) and river (below), running parallel to both. Through the 1970s, citizen groups challenged planners and developers over the future of the Georgetown waterfront, so much so that efforts stalled (Gutheim and Lee 2006, pp. 335–337). The final resolution was the development of Washington Harbor, a mixed-use complex in the floodplain protected by floodgates. It contrasts with the proposed embankment on this gentle arc of the river. Both the Potomac Report and Towards a Comprehensive Landscape Plan recommended a unifying line of buildings atop an embankment, extending the “fire-brick” identity of Georgetown to the river’s edge (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7

On the left, the proposed embankment and unified facade of the Georgetown Waterfront (Potomac Report, p. 67), on the right, the conditions today with Washington Harbor close to the water’s edge in the central background, 2019 (Photo by author)

Today an embankment composed of old and new construction traces along much of the Georgetown waterfront, except in the most settled location where Washington Harbor’s boardwalk dips tantalizingly close to the water. Dating back to the McMillan Plan, the goal for this stretch from Georgetown to the Lincoln Memorial was a public riverside promenade. A continuous walk exists today, in part because of the deal struck over Washington Harbor, transferring the remaining riverside acres to the federal government for a park. In 1999, the federal government gained control of the land between the Whitehurst Freeway, still extant, and the Potomac. Wallace, Roberts, and Todd (WRT) designed the Georgetown Waterfront National Park (2011), completing the final link between the trails north of the Key Bridge and those of the Monumental Core.

The Georgetown Waterfront Park merges the natural and built aspects of the city quite well and provides a softer edge and a broader floodplain than the 1960s plans. The streets of Georgetown merge into the pathways of the park running perpendicular to the riverbank. These terminate on a generous riverside promenade with an edge textured by shrubs, trees, decaying concrete embankments, new steel pilings, and monolithic concrete steps down to the water at the point where the southern end of Wisconsin Ave meets the Potomac (Fig. 8). At this junction, an elegant fountain, doubling as a splash pad, provides a focal point between the city and the forested Roosevelt Island across the Potomac. This meeting of river and city is a sound union of natural and historical identities. The park achieves this synergy between natural and built systems not only in spatial terms, but also in how it processes stormwater in planted catchment areas (rain gardens). Native plants fill wet depressions restoring plant associations as McHarg advised (Figs. 9 and 10).
Fig. 8

Steps to the Potomac along the Georgetown Waterfront Park, 2019. Photograph by author

Fig. 9

One of a series of rainwater catchments with native plants in the Georgetown Waterfront Park, 2019. Photograph by author

Fig. 10

Recommended ecological associations for new plantings in Washington from Toward a Comprehensive Landscape Plan (p. 11)

Upslope along the first mile of the C&O canal through the heart of Georgetown, James Corner Field Operations plans to restore and enhance this aging infrastructure for recreation and pleasure (Goldchain 2017, p. 1). Nearby, reuse of the federal West Heating Plant with 2019 plans by David Adjaye and Laurie Olin promises to bring more people to Rock Creek where it empties into the Potomac. The plant was the terminus of the Capital Crescent train line, once a conduit for fuel to the plant and now a bike trail. The plant sits at the confluence of Rock Creek and the C&O canal, an overlooked meeting of natural and designed systems. Reusing the building preserves the historic identity of the area, but comes with the challenge of living in a floodplain, a practice McHarg dissuaded. A surprising addition in 2006, the House of Sweden runs counter to this recommendation as well, backing up to the very edge of the final turn of Rock Creek.

6.3 Rock Creek

The reports suggest very few design and management recommendations for Rock Creek. Instead, they praise the effort that went into preserving it as the fourth US National Park in the 1890s. The consensus since then has been to conserve the deeply dissected stream valley for its ecological value and for active recreation. The last few miles of Rock Creek narrowly escaped conversion into a sewer at the turn of the twentieth century. Thanks to the intelligence of the McMillan Plan, it has remained open, though a parkway snakes along it. Olmsted Jr. advised against its use as a sewer in the McMillan Plan and in the Rock Creek Park Report (1918) by Olmsted Brothers. However, its use as an outfall for combined sewer overflows was inevitable. These are still active today. Fortunately, the DC Clean Rivers Project, initiated in 2010, has begun to implement green infrastructure in urban neighborhoods within the Rock Creek watershed. For example, Rock Creek Park Project A in the Rock Creek “sewershed” reduces stormwater, alleviating the volume of combined sewage into the creek (DC Water 2019). The green infrastructure practices used in this project include planter strips and curb extensions for bio-retention, permeable streets and alleys, and downspout disconnection. Such projects throughout the watershed can reduce the need for large engineered solutions such as the planned Potomac River Tunnel (DC Water 2019).

6.4 The monumental core

According to McHarg, the Monumental Core and its various elements represented the greatest historical values of the built form of the Washington. The Mall ranked as the element of highest importance, linking the Capitol building with the Potomac. Most interpretations of the Mall, including the McMillan Plan, seem to miss an important aspect of L’Enfant’s scheme. Bacon (1974) clarifies that L’Enfant’s plan is a “meeting of the city and the river” (p. 222). The Lincoln Memorial blocks the view of the river (Fig. 11), as does the Jefferson Memorial, setting up “comfortably inward-looking” relationships, rather than dynamic relationships between the city and the river. Kiley (1991) described it as a difference between L’Enfant’s “Venice-like Washington” and a “closed, insular design” (p. 297). The extension of the Mall resulted from infilling of the Potomac by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1880s. This necessitated a new design, the McMillan Plan, which has guided decisions up to the present.
Fig. 11

The Lincoln Memorial blocks the view of the Potomac river, 2019. Photograph by author

Toward a Comprehensive Landscape Plan notes, “The present form of the Mall is irresolute in many ways” (p. 20). About the areas beyond the Mall itself, the report suggests,

“The identity of these areas cannot be derived from the L’Enfant plan. The present edge has resulted from filling operations and is completely different from the condition in L’Enfant’s time. With the single exception of the extension of the Mall to the Potomac, there is no reason for these open spaces to derive their forms from the formality of the Renaissance plan. There river corridor best fulfills its role by being in a natural condition” (p. 20).

It seems that McHarg thought that East Potomac Park should be a more active floodplain, supporting floodplain species, as it does in part now. East Potomac Park does not have a natural form, today, but its embankments are so low, that it is subject to a natural process—flooding. Allowing flooding seems to fit with McHarg’s advice (Fig. 12). Inland, a levee links the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial and beyond to the Kennedy Center, protecting the city. The hard edge on the stretch between the West End and the Monumental Core is, especially, critical because the river is narrow and fast flowing there. This hard edge contrasts nicely with the increasingly soggy Haines Point at the tip of East Potomac Park, planted with bald cypress trees, in keeping with McHarg’s concept of recovering this extinct forest type on Washington’s floodplains.
Fig. 12

High tide flooding of East Potomac Park with southwest waterfront on Potomac’s original shoreline, 2019. Photograph by author

6.5 The Anacostia: the confluence

The confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and the Wicomico Sunderland escarpment above defined the bounds of L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the city. The fastest growing areas of the city today are the edges on either side of the point at the confluence, which houses Fort Lesley McNair. It is fitting that these areas have experienced a revival because the meeting of the rivers is such a significant component of Washington’s natural identity. Of course, the city also straddles the Anacostia making its two shorelines critical urban edges. Connections across the Anacostia river are now a vital concern for the District. The comprehensive plans of 50 years ago aimed to redefine the South Capitol Street area and north to the Navy Yard on the Anacostia. Urban renewal drastically remade southwest DC, but did little to encourage waterfront recreation or the rivers’ health. Both of these areas, the southwest waterfront on the Washington Channel (Potomac) and the near southeast up to the Navy Yard and north (Anacostia), are in the process of transformation into lively mixed-use centers with riverside promenades, piers, and recreation opportunities as well as green infrastructure.

The developer P.N. Hoffmann opened Phase I of the Wharf in 2017. It is a high-density mixed-use center between the Maine Avenue Fish Market and Fort Lesley McNair. With four new piers including a water taxi terminal, a continuous promenade linking the National Mall with the Anacostia Riverwalk, dining, shopping, and recreation possibilities for tourists and residents, the Wharf has many of the qualities planners desired for the Georgetown waterfront with a contemporary look (Fig. 13). In addition, cisterns, green roofs, sunken planters, and permeable pavement handle most of the stormwater from the site, improving the water quality of the Washington Channel. This is a significant advance in the ecological performance of the riverside. One missed opportunity is a visual connection between Banneker Memorial Park at the end of the L’Enfant Plaza promenade and the river. A greater gap between the buildings would have afforded a view from the memorial to Washington Channel and down the Potomac. Now, there is a visual obstruction at either end of the L’Enfant Promenade—the Forrestal Building obscures the Smithsonian Castle to the north. The capture, treatment, and slow release of storm water at the Wharf are a significant environmental improvement over past conditions. Its form fits McHarg’s recommendations for such edges, but it performs ecologically with new techniques for handling runoff—green infrastructure.
Fig. 13

Pier designed by Michael Vergason Landscape Architects extending into the Washington Channel from the southwest waterfront, 2019. Photograph by author

The development on the Anacostia in near southeast more strategically connects the streets and avenues with the water. While Fort McNair remains off limits to the public, a 5-min walk along its walls brings pedestrians from the Wharf to near southeast DC. Development is underway extending from Buzzards Point near the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge (South Capitol Street) to the Navy Yard and beyond to the former RFK stadium on the East Capitol Street axis. This waterfront section on the north bank of the Anacostia has been a military and industrial zone for over 200 years. Two specific proposals for the area came out of the 1960s plans: redefine South Capitol Street as one of L’Enfant’s historic avenues and anchor the area with new federal buildings. While the current designs differ in the details, the goal of uniting the city with the Anacostia is materializing.

Two building projects partnered with parks led the transformation of the Near Southeast: the US Department of Transportation (DOT) Headquarters paired with Canal Park and the Washington Nationals baseball stadium near Yards Park. The DOT building anchors the long-imagined southeast Federal District, now seamless with the Navy Yard to the north. Canal Park, designed by Olin, runs for three narrow blocks just to the north of the DOT complex. It occupies a section of the now filled bed of L’Enfant’s canal from the foot of the Capitol to the Anacostia. Canal Park realizes one of the specific recommendations of Toward a Comprehensive Landscape Plan—that the city incorporates this stretch of historic infrastructure into the future built form and ecological function of the city. It does so both spatially and environmentally with a robust water collection and cleaning system. A linear rain garden on the footprint of the former canal cleanses runoff made clean enough to enliven the park with a splash pad in summer and an outdoor skating rink in winter (Fig. 14). M. Paul Friedberg’s Yards Park, near the exit of the former canal on the river, draws crowds. Children play in its shallow pool with a waterfall (Fig. 15) and people dine along its edges after games at Nationals Park. While it does not incorporate green infrastructure to the same extent as Canal Park, it serves a critical social function as the 1960s reports wished. Rapid development has followed the construction of these anchor buildings and parks creating a vibrant mixed-use district with green infrastructure as a required element for water management, as evidenced by grassy storm water catchments between the boardwalk and the embankment on the Anacostia (Fig. 16).
Fig. 14

At Canal Park sunken tree pits gather water for vegetation and recreational use along historic waterway, US Department of Transportation Headquarters in the background, 2019. Photograph by author

Fig. 15

Children play at Yards Park in near southeast along the Anacostia waterfront, 2015. Photograph by author

Fig. 16

Riverside stormwater catchment area between mixed-use building and the bulkhead with a boardwalk to the docks of the Earth Conservation Corps’ marina. DC Water’s headquarters in background. 2019. Photograph by author

Development on the Anacostia is but one component of the vision of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI). About 1800 acres of parkland stretch along 22 miles of Anacostia shoreline, much of the parkland created through dredging and filling operations at the turn of the twentieth century, though some near Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens consists of capped municipal landfill. Approximately 90% of the 1800 acres is in the floodplain. The bulk of the parkland is Anacostia National Park, founded in 1919. One of the objectives of the AWI is to connect the built-up west bank with the more extensive open land on the east bank and the neighborhood of Anacostia. A new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge is under construction, and Olin’s 11th Street Bridge Park is a signature effort of the initiative with social and ecological aspirations. It aims to create a bridge park linking the two banks—a destination and green infrastructure (11th Street Bridge Park 2019). Like Halprin’s work, it hopes to resolve social and environmental injustices. Perhaps the biggest improvement to the Anacostia to date is underground—the Anacostia Tunnel. It captures 98% of the combined sewage overflow in the District portion of the watershed. In its first months of operation, during the rainiest year on record (2018), the Anacostia Tunnel captured all of the combined sewage that would have flowed into the river (Reut 2018, p. 99). This is a huge step toward the goal set for making DC’s rivers a national model of environmental stewardship, an important aspect of the 1960s plans. The AWI also aims to nurture the river as a “national model for nature conservation” (Anacostia Waterfront Initiative 2019, p. 59). This is a remarkable transformation from the lifeless river of the 1960s. Now the two constructed islands in the river, Heritage and Kingman Islands, have gained status as State Conservation Areas. This synergy between built and natural processes is what McHarg advocated for in Design with Nature. In addition to Rock Creek, and the Potomac, the Anacostia has taken its rightful place as a defining waterway for the city. The ecological revitalization of the Anacostia can serve as a guide for other cities as the 1960s’ reports suggested. However, it is important to recognize that the transformation is as much socially driven as it is ecologically motivated.

7 Future plans, extending McHarg’s legacy

McHarg’s contributions to Washington sit within a long history of planning and design in the District. While McHarg was not individually responsible for the production of specific policies, principles, and plans, his ideas have percolated through the past 50 years of planning. The sense of environmental urgency conveyed by NCPC plans now is greater than ever in part because of anticipated flood risks, climate change, and rising seas. The need for data and science driven approaches to design, as McHarg advocated, has only increased. In addition, a social imperative exists to make cities more inclusive, an idea now incorporated into planning that McHarg did not specifically address. The 2016 Comprehensive Plan takes important conceptual steps toward such an approach, echoing McHarg’s ideas, but with an expanded body of knowledge and practices, from green infrastructure to accessible public space. It states as one of its three guiding principles the need to “reinforce smart growth and sustainable development planning principles (p. 9).” With regard to Washington’s waterfront, this means design for a diverse and changing population and attention to the dynamic nature of the capital’s rivers.

The “Action Plans” of the 2016 Comprehensive Plan point to increasing concern for the District’s waterfront. The action elements are both long term and short term in nature. A major long-term goal is to implement the AWI elements (Anacostia Waterfront Initiative 2019, p. 3). Some are already completed or underway. In the short-term NCPC notes that riverside “outlooks” need attention (Anacostia Waterfront Initiative 2019, p. 3), the missed opportunity at Banneker Park is a case in point. The Potomac Report and Towards a Comprehensive Landscape Plan recommended enhancing the connection between the Capitol building with the Anacostia through a revitalized South Capitol Street. This is now a short-term action item. Other short-term plans include “a comprehensive picture of Washington’s waterfront improvements” (Anacostia Waterfront Initiative 2019, p. 11), especially for use in studying the potential for water taxi improvements. Perhaps most in keeping with McHarg’s approach is the discussion of natural resource stewardship, particularly its recognition that “a first step in ensuring that these resources are protected, maintained, and enhanced is analyzing the current inventory of parks and open spaces to ascertain the deficiencies and gaps” (Anacostia Waterfront Initiative 2019, p. 12).

While McHarg spoke of urban and natural resources as values, rather than “deficiencies,” his approach has resurfaced and is, especially, applicable for creating floodplain standards and incorporating ecosystem services into the District’s planning as the 2016 Comprehensive Plan suggests. Among the action items, NCPC will “work with federal agencies to establish a uniform set of data to be used with the climate informed scientific approach to the NCR, develop policies to promote the consideration of ecosystem services,” and maintain their inventories as “a detailed GIS database” (National Capital Planning Commission 2016, pp. 13–14). These rather routine items for planning and design now suggest that the basic principles of McHarg’s method have become the standard approach, of course with the necessary layers of social data. While one can hope that environmentally conscious assessments of inventories guide development into the future, the growth of the city will likely continue as a dynamic interplay between human interests and natural resources.

The unresolved case of Poplar Point illustrates the continued uncertainty along Washington’s rivers. The eastern end of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge touches down on this reclaimed land. It has been the subject of numerous proposals over the years from an arboretum in memory of Frederick Douglass to an Olympic Village. The 110 acres of federal land will transfer to the District with the agreement that 70 acres remain open space. McHarg thought that Anacostia Park and Poplar Point, directly to the south, should avoid programs that called for a great deal of surface parking. However, now that the metro serves this area and garages contain parking, it is possible to accommodate large gatherings without sacrificing the floodplain. While it would be wise to develop the 40 available acres as an extension of the Anacostia neighborhood, the DCOP suggests that the land could otherwise be the site of the 2024 Olympics. The ongoing debates such as this over the future of Washington’s riverside remind us of an ever-present issue with McHarg’s method—how to value the diverse aspects of cities. What values should our landscapes express? What publics do they serve? As we continue to deliberate on the best way to express the identity of the nation’s capital through its waterfront, it is worth recalling that McHarg’s approach underlies planning and design in Washington. Washington is a long running case of his planning principles in action, realized through numerous smaller projects rather than comprehensively as he imagined.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State UniversityBlacksburgUSA

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