Sumidacostia: Responding to Macmillan Two

The more press I see about Buras Classical’s “Macmillan Two” proposal for redeveloping the Anacostia riverfront, the more skittish I get, even though 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) noted previously:

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 justice – As commentator “Capitol Dome” notes at [GGW], 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” – 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)…

[Proponents] 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.

Macmillan Two supporters are responding to mammoth’s criticism by decrying their lack of a counterproposal – even though Holmes provided a template for comparison in the multidisciplinary approach of the Toronto Port Lands project. Nevertheless, I seek to remedy that over the next couple of weeks with an alternative model of my own. Superficially it is somewhat similar to Buras’ plan, but rather than repurposing poor neighborhoods in an American tidal estuarine system by remodeling them after rich European neighborhoods bisected by an inland river half its size, I seek to model a direction for the Anacostia that preserves and enhances its current hydrology and ecology while borrowing from other cities at the northern humid-subtropical fringe: namely, the urban growth fabric of Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and other contemporary estuarine cities in east Asia. The Anacostia River is more like the Sumidagawa than it will ever be like the Seine.

Admittedly, looking in this direction may not provide a substantively more “natural” future for the Anacostia. (For one, it does not discount the possibility of embankment or of channelizing some stretches.) But it would better reflect the Anacostia’s relationship not only to the tidal Potomac system but its potential to the Washington region as a whole. In addition, this alternate focus could not only include diverse architectural styles and authors in a cohesive urban fabric (indeed, it could encompass the Navy Yard and other historic sites Buras would ironically destroy in order to build a massive pseudo-historical development), but also engage the existing river in a number of different ways. While the Anacostia is probably too large for a project on the scale of Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon restoration scheme (which still rocks my socks off), that project and the nearby Han River Renaissance plan could point new directions for the preservation of the river, or at least segments of it and its tributaries, as a recreational wetland, functional estuarine living machine, or even both at once.

Obviously this leaves several questions – how can we redevelop the Anacostia in a way that makes it more vibrant and sustainable without displacing residents already at risk? And how can we make the waterfront a unique asset while respecting enough of the current plan so as not to make a renewed Anacostia too jarring or dissonant? I’ll try to answer these questions and provide some technical material over a series of related posts, as my workload and access to the proper technologies improve.

Washingtonians should not forget that Tokyo and Kyoto are our sister cities as well as Paris. Northeastern Asia is a growing, dynamic and affluent region whose cultures fascinate the younger generations – Gen X, the Millenials, and so forth – for which Buras claims to propagate the Macmillan Two plan. But with the possible exception of Arlington’s urban corridors, there are few places in the region like anything in Tokyo (or Seoul, Shanghai or Osaka, for that matter). But those areas are ecologically quite similar to our own, and while Korea and Japan have certainly made their share of urbanistic and environmental mistakes, there is a lot that we can learn from east Asian cities.

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~ by J.D. Hammond on October 21, 2009.

2 Responses to “Sumidacostia: Responding to Macmillan Two”

  1. […] Hammond offers a counter-proposal, drawing on Asian cities and how they interface with their […]

  2. […] the only other blog whose name rivals mine, offers a counter-proposal based on the Sumidagawa river in Tokyo. The post opens up a new direction of thought, but […]

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