A River Inspires Urban Regeneration

June 18, 2014


Once a neglected part of the city, Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia waterfront was reborn as a park for people to gather, spurring private sector investment.

Daniel Lobo, Flickr Creative Commons

  • City planners who led the revitalization of a Washington, D.C., waterfront shared their experience engaging the private sector for transformative development.
  • Restoring the river and environment were at the core of a project supported by broad engagement, including 19 regional and federal agencies.
  • The government’s experience creating public-private partnerships around the Anacostia waterfront carry lessons for fast-growing cities around the world.

At a recent panel discussion on urban regeneration, Andy Altman, former director of planning for Washington, D.C., pointed to an ad in the local paper for a jazz festival at the city’s waterfront. “What was a derelict piece of land has now become such a big part of the life of the city,” he said.

The waterfront is an area that was reborn through the Anacostia Watershed Initiative, a 30-year, $10 billion program launched by the District of Columbia government in 2000 which links economic development with watershed restoration through a public-private partnership.

Washington, D.C., may be the capital of the world’s largest economy, but not too long ago, it was better known as a city in decline, mired in a deep fiscal crisis. Its recent success using innovative financing tools to redevelop underused land through this initiative is now attracting interest from rapidly growing cities in the developing world. 

In the Latin America and Caribbean region, where nearly 80 percent of the population is urban, many large cities hope to make better use of former industrial areas or vacant lots, often in central areas where land is scarce, to curb urban sprawl – but financing such regeneration projects is a challenge. 

Cities interested in developing financial tools based on land-value capture, including Fortaleza, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Lima, and Medellin, joined the discussion virtually to hear about the District of Columbia’s approach.

“Innovative financial instruments that leverage the value of land are attractive alternatives to finance redevelopment of urban areas, and cities are very eager to understand and develop them,” said Catalina Marulanda, World Bank lead urban specialist for the Latin America and Caribbean region. 

" The big lesson from Anacostia is the integrated approach, based on a comprehensive long-term plan involving urban, social, environmental and economic transformation. This was ground-truthed through extensive community and stakeholder consultations, and financed with creative instruments including land value capture. "

Sameh Naguib Wahba

Acting Director, Urban Development and Disaster Risk Management, World Bank

The District of Columbia’s baseball park, home to the major league team Washington Nationals, is a prime example of how the city met the financing challenge. The park was paid for through tax increment financing, or TIF, which enabled the city to capture future increases in land value and use it to finance the project.

This and other lessons from the District of Columbia’s experience, as well as eight other cities including Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Ankara, and Johannesburg, are being studied for an upcoming World Bank guidebook on structuring public-private partnerships for urban regeneration.

Inspiring creativity and participation

What made the District of Columbia’s initiative work? At the panel discussion, former mayor Anthony Williams and his team emphasized the importance of the vision. Williams looked to the Anacostia River – heavily polluted and symbolic of the district’s racial, social, and economic divide – for inspiration.  

“I wanted to use the river to broaden the view of what the city is, with a strategy that brings everybody together,” explained Williams.

The river became the organizational framework to make the city more inclusive, framing the initiative as a way to unite the city, not just as an effort for economic development. The restoration of the environment lay at the core. Infrastructure not only aimed to make services more efficient, it was positioned as a tool to create attractive places along the river for citizens, providing opportunities for private investment.

“The power of the vision shouldn’t be underestimated. It became part of the way people think about the city, and it continues to find new ways to be implemented despite the change in political leadership,” Altman said.

There was also a clear recognition of the importance of planning, while pursuing implementation at the same time. This practical approach enabled the District of Columbia to achieve “quick wins” using all available opportunities. Transformational investments such as the ballpark created momentum and gave credibility to the planning process.

Participation was key, as well. Led by the District of Columbia government, the initiative engaged 19 regional and federal partner agencies, taking an unprecedented participatory approach to planning. This helped shaped the goals of the initiative, which enabled investments and partners to be aligned under the same vision.

“There had never been a plan covering both sides of the river, with participation by individual residents who lived there,” said Uwe Brandes, who served as director of capital projects for the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation and associate director of the District of Columbia Office of Planning.

“The big lesson from Anacostia is the integrated approach, based on a comprehensive long-term plan involving urban, social, environmental and economic transformation,” said Sameh Naguib Wahba, World Bank acting director for urban development and disaster risk management. “This was ground-truthed through extensive community and stakeholder consultations, and financed with creative instruments including land value capture.”