Green space improves cities. Can it benefit those who need it most?

It was a gray Tuesday morning in February, a few weeks before the COVID outbreak was declared a global pandemic. The Anacostia River was quiet and serene, except for the sound of raindrops and the low roar of Jim Foster’s boat. Foster, president of the nonprofit Anacostia Watershed Society, was preparing to make his weekly rounds surveying the once-polluted river.

The river, located just five miles south of the White House, separates two very different communities: On the west side of the river sits the Washington Navy Yard, U.S. government buildings, upscale cafes, and luxury apartments. East of the river is the historic Anacostia neighborhood, a predominantly Black community that experiences some of the city’s highest unemployment and poverty rates.

“A lot is changing,” said Foster. He has been rehabilitating the river for more than a decade. Years ago, he used to advise people against visiting the river because of toxic pollution collecting in its waters. Today, Foster wants to bring them closer, now that the river is safer and cleaner. “This is going to be a game-changer,” he said, pointing to the 11th Street Bridge, where cars and trucks thundered above.

This bridge, which connects Capitol Hill to the historic Anacostia neighborhood, will be transformed into an elevated urban park by 2023. The 11th Street Bridge Park will offer a slew of amenities, including an environmental education center, outdoor performance spaces, playgrounds, and community gardens.

“Imagine coming up the river, and there being this iconic structure on the bridge park. Then, at night, it’s lit up,” Foster said while navigating his boat. “I tell people it’s going to be the Arc de Triomphe of the Anacostia restoration. Overall, it’s going to be an incredible structure that will get us a connection not only between the communities east and west of the river, but also a connection to the river itself.”