paris on the anacostia – mammoth // building nothing out of something

paris on the anacostia

A New Urbanist (edit: see comments for update) proposal to channelize the Anacostia and extend a modified version of the L’Enfant Plan to its newly narrowed banks, summarized here, is attracting a bit of attention here in DC (also here, here, and here).

1As commentator “Capitol Dome” notes at Greater Greater Washington, the plan proposes “taking away parkland in a poor, mostly black part of the city to sell it off to private developers to build housing for the well-off.” Not exactly Architecture for Humanity, is it…

Setting aside both the plan’s lack of interest in even hinting at mechanisms for dealing with the legal and regulatory challenges it would surely encounter (though, to be fair, I think its legitimate and even instructive to do so at times) and tone-deaf approach to social justice1, I find the plan’s approach to the nature/city interface deeply troubling, as the plan claims to create a great deal of new land through the channelization of the river, but a quick comparison of the before-and-after plans shows that the vast majority of the “new land” is actually acquired by altering land-use patterns on existing land, which makes it hard not to think that the plan (a) expresses a deep-seated distaste for wetlands (exactly the sort of retrograde classicism which New Urbanists work hard to assure us their opponents are projecting onto them) and (b) is interested in channelizing the river for the sake of channelizing the river (because, that way, it looks more like cities built in the heyday of classicism look).

A comparison with Michael Van Valkenburgh’s Toronto Port Lands project, which also adds a great deal of density at the mouth of a river, but does so while “balancing.. the needs of the environment and the needs of the city” (in the words of Andrew Blum’s excellent essay) is not favorable. The Van Valkenburgh team arrived at urban form through intensive collaboration with ecologists and hydrologists; fans of the Anacostia plan seem to assume that ecology and hydrology can be safely ignored in the design of cities, thinking that so long as the overall density of the metropolitan area increases, the plan must have beneficial environmental impacts. Density is, broadly speaking, good, but there’s no reason to think that all density is equivalent in effect upon environmental systems, and every reason to think that incorporating the insights of scientists who specialize in the environmental systems urban designs impact into the design process will result in better density.  The problem with fetishizing the past in reaction to the problems of the present is that it easily obscures lessons learned in the present.

[via the bellows]

21 Responses to “paris on the anacostia”

  1. anonymous says:

    So, I take it you dont like the Anacostia River proposal. It would be helpful if you might have some alternative proposal or an example of how D.C. might clean up the Dioxin laced, garbage strewn, silt filled Anacostia River while at the same time perhaps doing so while a rather huge storm collector system is built along the river–i.e. potential dual use of a billion dollar infrastructure budget to enhance the existing waterway and underused urban lands.

    Care to take a stab and constructive comments vs just throwing the ball back over the fence?

  2. rholmes says:

    While I can appreciate the sentiment (that it is easier to criticize than to propose) and, in some sense, you’re right — it would be helpful if I had an alternative proposal, I don’t think that it’s really necessary to provide an alternative to every single thing that one wishes to criticize.

    What I did suggest in my post is that it would be much better to develop the design concept through interdisciplinary collaboration, which isn’t an alternative proposal, but it is an alternative process, and that’s probably about as much as one can expect from a 2.5-paragraph blog post.

  3. anonymous says:

    Hey rholmes,

    thanks, yes, collaboration can usually produce more balanced results. Knowing this area a little, and spending a lot of time out west in Montana/Idaho/Washington/Oregon/BC/Alaska I think I have a feel for “natural” water features. The Anacostia (and the Potomac for that matter) are a long past being “natural” water features. The Anacostia was the original port for D.C., land development in D.C. led to the “silting in” of the Anacostia over the years and to the Potomac becoming the port side. Production of Naval hardware at the Navy Yard apparently left a fair amount of toxic elements in the Anacostia over the years. Run off and littering/garbage have accumulated for years in the Anacostia to the point that finally the District is going to make a huge investment in a storm water system to try and improve the water quality in the Anacostia. SE DC in Ward 7 & Ward 8 has not been well represented (Marion Barry still represents Ward 8) over the years and they have the lowest per capita incomes/housing values along with some of the highest crime rates in the area.

    Development is at the doorstep as the Anacostia area is the nearest underdeveloped region in the District and lower land values offer the opportunity to make significant investments in jobs, office space, mixed income/mixed used residential/retail etc.

    Rather than it happening piecemeal, one would hope that a master plan like the original and two followup visions might once again guide the District to a result that might protect/improve the “natural” water features, encourage public interaction with nature, provide easy access to public transportation and allow bike and walking activities in “neighborhoods” and ultimately create a “world class” urban experience that could represent the best of America’s talent/vision for urban renewal along with environmental balance.

  4. rholmes says:

    You can see how I might not find anything to disagree with in what you say, and still not think the “McMillan 2” plan is the right way to go about it, though, right? The Toronto project I linked to above also deals with a river (the Don) which has been heavily altered by human intervention, seeks to urbanize an underutilized portion of waterfront near a downtown, and to maintain/increase public interaction with nature, but it was developed through an entirely different (better) process and is a radically different (and again, I think better) proposal.

  5. […] the comments on my post here and at GGW, mammoth weighs in with some fantastic links. I find the plan’s approach to the nature/city interface deeply […]

  6. J.D. Hammond says:

    Thank you. I was hoping someone at GGW would notice the various anti-poor, anti-ecological, hippie-punching subtexts of this proposal, but it was clearly not to be.

  7. Just a matter of correction – Nir Buras is not a New Urbanist, he’s too traditional for that, so there’s no projection of classicism here – that’s his deal.

  8. rholmes says:


    Well, that is kind of an important point. Takes some of the sting out of my criticism, though I still think the comparison between McMillan 2 and the Port Lands is instructive.

  9. J.D. Hammond says:

    It does happen quite a bit in NU circles, tho.

  10. rholmes says:


    No doubt. I still think both (a) and (b) are accurate (that it’s expressing a deep-seated distaste for wetlands and that it’s channelization for the sake of channelization), but it’s not so much the hidden agenda I suggested it was as an explicit agenda. Which doesn’t make it any less wrong, just less deceptive.

    And I’d still argue that New Urbanists often are also guilty of both retrograde classicism and an unwillingness to look at ways to accommodate both dense urbanism and ecological process, but if Buras isn’t a New Urbanist, then this can’t really be an example of that.

  11. J.D. Hammond says:

    I’m actually in the process of crafting a draft response to Buras’ plan that attempts to be simultaneously dense, modern, urbanistic and relatively sensitive to ecological process. But it’s still a few days away.

    Incidentally, I always wonder why classicists and new urbanists (and neotrads generally for whatever Venn diagram that entails) want to emulate European cities but not Asian ones. Those would be the ones that are growing, yes?

  12. The reason I am interested in the project is that I want to see it judged based on merits and not ideologies. There are good parts to it as well as bad, which might be teased out and refined. See, classicists believe that there is no architectural type or function that can’t be slipped into a nice Greco-Roman form. Now, if you read Buras’s lecture notes, he does emphasize a division between the natural and the human. I’d argue that this is a modern (as in Laugier and Descartes) idea more than an older one, but so is the general conception of classicism that we see.

    I’d challenge them to make wetlands and parks work in a traditional aesthetic – the better part of tradition is a flexibility to absorb new ideas into established structures, even if that’s done conservatively. Tradition can be a very effective form of knowledge collection as long as it is examined, so if they shed some of the distinctly retrograde aspects of the plan, it could be excellent. I like the L’Enfant design, but I think it could be enhanced like I wrote in this article. Something more respectful to natural dynamics might come out of it. This is a really concise analysis of the project, and I’ll send it to Nir.


    As for refusal to design buildings based on Asian prototypes, that’s a more problematic side of tradition. Putting it simply, Classicism would suggest that you can build anything of that class anywhere because it is universally good. But tradition would prefer you stick to the local methods and styles or the practices of your culture, if you’re a conquistador.

  13. rholmes says:


    Be sure to let us know when you finish it. As for the lack of interest in Asian cities, I suppose there’s a charitable explanation (roughly what цarьchitect has suggested) and an uncharitable explanation (that blindness to what’s going on in the rest of the world is a traditional Western problem and so it’s not surprising that traditionalists would suffer from it). My vote would be for some mixture of the two…


    Now, if you read Buras’s lecture notes, he does emphasize a division between the natural and the human. I’d argue that this is a modern (as in Laugier and Descartes) idea more than an older one, but so is the general conception of classicism that we see.

    That’s really important, if, like me, you think that the philosophical underpinnings of our work nearly always come out in the end product. I don’t think I’ve really talked about it much on mammoth so far, but the way in which the relationship between nature and the human is conceived is of tremendous importance to the practice of landscape architecture, specifically, and urbanism, generally — and a sharp division between the two is the major mistake shared by both classical modernists and modern environmentalists.

    For the moment, I’ll remain agnostic about how this impacts aesthetics, which the original post wasn’t really concerned with, anyways. But I am pretty certain that, regardless of whether a traditional(ist) aesthetic can or cannot be reconciled with a better interface between the city and nature, the traditional (in this case, not -ist, because this includes modernists just as much) design process needs to be re-thought and augmented. I don’t see many traditionalists doing that, but there’s no reason to think they can’t — F.L. Olmsted, for instance, worked very much with a classical vocabulary while pioneering new ways of design processes (also, I don’t circulate in traditionalist circles, so I may just be ignorant of what they’re up to…).

  14. […] everyone seems to love it and I admit I tepidly supported it before. The plan has a number of deep social and ecological flaws that are coming out of the woodwork, as Rob Holmes (from the DC architectural collective mammoth) […]

  15. I don’t think we’re disagreeing here. The ideologies always come out in the design process in some way or another – or a limpid form results from a lack of values. That is evident in the subject at hand.

    If you’re interested, the man himself is interested in giving some kind of meeting to interested parties. It would be great to have a strong dissenter in the room if only to add to the discussion. You have my email if you’re in DC and down.

  16. […] who delivered a strident critique of the more Eurocentric and anti-wetland flaws in the proposal. I commented on the article, and the […]

  17. J.D. Hammond says:

    I’d like to attend as well, if I might.

  18. […] approvingly cited Blum’s article a couple times, so I re-read Blum’s article with faslanyc’s […]

  19. […] 1. Nina-Marie Lister’s essay “Water/Front” at Places, discussing Field Operations’ Fresh Kills master plan; Mathur + da Cunha’s “speculative recalibration” of Mumbai, “Soak”; and “River+City+Life”, Stoss Landscape Urbanism’s entry to the Donlands redevelopment competition, which also produced the MVVA project previously endorsed. […]

  20. Ron Senate says:

    I love Paris a lot, but I think it was very mean 2 just like, throw away Nicole Richie.