Like so many national parks, the C&O Canal National Historic Park has been loved to death. Some 4.8 million people visited the park last year, more than the number of visitors to Yellowstone or Yosemite. Partnering with the non-profit Georgetown Heritage, the local business improvement district (BID), and D.C. department of planning, the National Park Service (NPS) has initiated a new comprehensive plan to revitalize the one-mile stretch of the canal running through Georgetown, which is just one segment of the 184-mile-long canal that goes all the way to Cumberland, Maryland. The year-long process will result in a final plan identifying the costs of improvements.
Canal ally Georgetown Heritage hired James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architects who designed the High Line, to find out what people who love and use the canal want and craft a new vision. For some, the canal is a place to stroll and relax or exercise, a restorative respite from the busy commercial corridors along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. For others, it’s a tourist destination and a place to eat a cupcake and chat with friends. Improving the experience for these different types of users and reconciling conflicting needs, all the while maintaining the canal’s historic character will be tricky.
Last week, nearly 200 community members met in small groups, debating how to update the canal while preserving its character. The canal is a significant piece of transportation history and an engineering marvel, explained Kevin Brandt, NPS superintendent. The 184-mile-long canal, which was was constructed from 1828 to 1850, was primarily used to bring coal from the Allegheny Mountains to waterfront mills found in Georgetown. The canal required building more than 70 locks, 11 aqueducts to cross major rivers and streams, and 240 culverts to traverse smaller streams. After the mills closed in the early 1900s, the canal fell into disuse. In Georgetown, a $6.5 million effort is already underway to restore just one historic lock as a tourist attraction.
James Corner, ASLA, offered insights from his team’s analysis of the one-mile stretch under consideration. He wants to “build on the canal’s innate personality, and concentrate the poetics of the found experiences.” The canal is now used for “strolling, romantic promenades after dinner, biking and jogging,” depending on the time of day. The canal also has a “broader constituency” than just the residents of Georgetown, including the millions of tourists who visit and residents from nearby states who walk or bike the trail.
He was taken with what he called the “beautiful mineral nature” of the canal, the stone walls and large rocks that line the towpaths, along with the water lines, the “visceral” expressions of water found in the rock.
He was also intrigued by the vegetation that has grown in over time — “the moss, lichens, and ferns that have moved in,” and the “trees, meadows, and habitat” that slowly greened the site over the past century.
The relatively-narrow towpaths present challenges — in some stretches there’s just one towpath — but there are open areas, such as the fish market, overlooks, and aqueduct that can be enhanced as public spaces. Corner organized spaces with unique spatial characteristics into zones, which together “form a rich sequence of experiences.” Throughout these zones, there are real accessibility issues — many of the bridges and paths only offer stairs, not ramps.
At the public planning session, groups explored what to preserve and enhance or what new uses could be incorporated. Our group wanted to preserve the canal’s rustic, chill vibe; re-introduce the local ecosystem and create gardens with native plants; clean the water; make the canal more accessible by adding ramps, seating, drinking fountains, and restrooms; enliven it with high-quality public art; create new educational opportunities with better signage and tours; and perhaps open up the canal to recreational boating and kayaking on weekends.
What was also heard from many groups: don’t turn the C&O Canal into High Line, which has become a tourist destination and is crowded at almost all hours. To allay those fears, Corner said the NYC park, built on an old rail line, “is not a useful comparison, because the context is very different.”
And as Alison Greenberg, head of Georgetown Heritage, explained, “our goal is not to overhaul the canal, but to enhance its essence.”
However, just improving access to the C&O and creating shiny new amenities like gardens or plazas will likely increase the number of visitors. How can people enjoy the restorative experience of the canal amid mobs of people? Let’s hope this special place maintains its low-key charm.