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Richmond Reconnects the City to the River

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James River Park / Jared Green

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 waterfronts parks and bridges, which connects the east and west sides of the river in a seamless experience for bicyclists and pedestrians. And, soon, Richmond will have a similarly transformational circuit along its 820-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 James 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.

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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 generated by the river powered 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 Hurricane Isabel in 2003, we just see the bones of it today.

While Isabel caused hundreds of millions in damage across Richmond, there may have been one benefit, said Burrell. The storm 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 and more restoration work to be done, the river is in much better shape than it was decades ago.

The day we visited, kayakers were out everywhere.

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Burrell said he even takes his family down to the park's beaches and to snorkel in order to see the migrating fish, including giant sturgeons, return.

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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 have been gradually changing, as development interest has certainly picked up around the riverfront. Now, just 40 percent of the 700,000 visitors who have come to the park since summer began are from the city.

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Efforts to clean up the river and further restore the ecosystem have gotten a boost from Richmond's stormwater management tax. The riverfront plan will promote the development of green infrastructure, including wetlands, to further 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 a great pedestrian bridge hanging from an expressway and gets over to Belle Isle, it's easy to forget you are in a city. The 64-acre island is isolated from the city as you move further in, feeling like a true nature park, except for more appealing industrial ruins.

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David Johannas, an architect and planner on Richmond's planning commission, told me that much of the riverfront plan came out 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 in Richmond. Learn more at Richmond's planning department.