Richmond, Virginia, and Portland, Oregon, may not seem to have much in common, except they both have rivers that cut through their cities. In the case of Portland, it’s the Willamette River, and in Richmond, it’s the James River. Portland has invested in a wonderful loop along its waterfront parks and bridges, which connects the east and west sides of the Willamette in a seamless experience for bicyclists and pedestrians. And, soon, Richmond will have a similarly transformational circuit along its 600-acre James River Park, created as part of its smart riverfront plan, which is destined to boost revitalization efforts in this newly resurgent city.
The city’s planning department has partnered with landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates, which is leading a team of designers and engineers, to make the vision of a more connected Richmond a reality. The first priority in the multi-year plan is the Brown’s Island Dam Walk, which will convert old dam infrastructure into a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the river, connecting the city’s downtown to Manchester right through some glorious urban wilds. It’s smart reuse of a charismatic piece of old infrastructure. And the impetus for getting new circuit done fast, in this most southern of cities? The UCI World Championship bike race, which will set off bikers in a 10 mile course throughout the city in 2015.
The old dam once powered Richmond’s economy, explained Nathan Burrell, the superintendent of the James River Park, in a tour organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) as part of their What’s Out There weekend in Richmond. Energy from the river supported flour mills along the riverfront. “Richmond was known to have the best flour” in part because of how well ground it was. As the dam fell into disrepair and was further damaged by Hurricanes Agnes and Camille, we just see the bones of it today.
While the storms caused hundreds of millions in damage across Richmond, there may have been one benefit, said Burrell. These storms cleared out decades of accumulated industrial sludge that had sunk to the bottom as well as raw effluent that had been captured by the river. Nature, in combination with a 30 million gallon sewage containment tank built to deal with the city’s combined sewage overflows, had, in effect, restored the river to a healthier state. While there are still the occasional combined sewage overflows with heavy rains, the river is in much better shape than it was decades ago.
The day we visited, kayakers were enjoying the park’s rapids.
The islands that dot the river are home to migratory birds. “We have spotted 35 different species of birds, including Blue Herons.” Burrell said older residents of the area still think of the river as a filthy place, but perceptions in the region have dramatically changed in the past few years. Now, just 40 percent of the 700,000 visitors who have come to the park since summer began are from the city.
Efforts to clean up the river and further restore the ecosystem have gotten a boost from Richmond’s stormwater management tax. And the riverfront plan will further promote the use of green infrastructure, including wetlands, to deal with runoff from the city and improve water quality. As Burrell explained, the goal is to show the James River Park’s value as a “habitat, not just pseudo-wilderness.”
Indeed, as one moves across the novel pedestrian bridge hanging from an expressway and lands on Belle Isle, it’s easy to forget you are in a city. The 64-acre island feels increasingly isolated from the city as you move further in and also feels like a true nature park, an effect only enhanced by the appealing industrial ruins.
David Johannas, an architect and planner on Richmond’s planning commission, told me that much of the riverfront plan came out of earlier hard work on the downtown master plan. “I feel that the downtown master plan was the real turning point in our perceptions of our city. Hundreds of residents were very active in the process, which began in 2007. The study area reached to the east just past the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood to the city docks, north to interstate 95, west to include Virginia Commonwealth University, and across the river to the Manchester district. Reaching across the James River to Manchester became a defining element of the plan, as it made the James River and its natural parkland Richmond’s Central Park.”
The dam bridge really is just the first piece of an ambitious plan to further integrate the city and nature and put the James River Park at the heart of that connection. Learn more at Richmond’s planning department.