Remaking Kingman and Heritage Islands

Our River: The Anacostia: Creating Special Places to Enjoy Nature

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Many of you already know about Heritage and Kingman Islands, located in the Anacostia alongside and above the RFK Stadium and readily accessible to folks living on both sides of our River. What you may not know is that there are major efforts underway to make them very special places to learn about and help restore the natural assets of these islands.

The process to make that happen has been in the hands of a series of experts under contract for a few years already, and it is now opening up to include the public.  If you are not already involved, this article may make you convinced you need to be, which would be great!

The focus of these efforts is quite unique for an area located in the midst of a major city.  The idea is to restore and manage the islands to create a natural system of land and water, plants and wildlife, and seasonal and natural change, and to use it to teach nature to students and the general public. Beyond that, the hope is to be able to rally the public to protect it, support it and to act within and around the islands as a guest, causing no harm but learning a great deal.

Essentially, the goal would be to teach nature, to learn what needs to be done to protect and conserve it, and to provide a series of formal and informal activities in what becomes an outdoor classroom.  The challenge is to accomplish this without adding so many structures and facilities that they undercut that very goal of restoring nature’s dominance.

Map of Kingman and Heritage Islands. Photo: DC Department of Energy and Environment

This all began four years ago, when Mayor Bowser provided funds to the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) to issue contracts to experts to study how the Islands might become an urban ecology center of some type, with everything from wilderness designations in some areas to new structures for learning.

As DOEE Director Tommy Wells puts it, “You really have a natural habitat that is indigenous to the neighborhood growing up with hardly any disturbance at all.  People appreciate the greener City emerging from the Mayor’s efforts and investments.”

Nearly $5 million was allocated to the effort to figure out how to make the islands safe, accessible, and a place for learning.  A feasibility study was developed, areas were identified for conservation and critical wildlife, and talks and trips were set up with members of the community.

As this went on, four themes began to emerge to focus the efforts:

  1. ecological restoration – keep what nature is there and build on it;
  2. access and safety — for the public to be comfortably surrounded by nature;
  3. programs and activities – public walkways, camps, classrooms, jobs; and
  4. environment and education – places to gather, learn and help nature.

A virtual Kingman Community Envisioning Meeting to go over these and other issues and to identify areas where the public felt the need for more focus was held on March 2, with over 165 participants.  Feedback was very positive with a number of issues flagged for further study or greater emphasis.  Among these were:

  1. Access and safety improvements, including pedestrian bridges, seawall and loose concrete removal and parking for the boating dock access off Benning Road;
  2. Removing non-native invasive species including poison ivy;
  3. Improving connections with communities on both sides of the River;
  4. Building and maintaining structures;
  5. Using paths – bicycles? dogs?
  6. Places for art classes and art displays;
  7. Consideration for climate change and rise of water levels.

Many of these subjects raise a common issue, which is the degree that support facilities – covered areas, trails, boat ramps, art exhibits etc. — can be added before the underlying purpose of public access to the islands – to learn about and experience nature – is damaged.  There is no simple answer, but the committee of experts hired by DOEE has presented some innovative options such as structures of natural materials with light roofs that open on the sides.

Many of these issues were scheduled to be discussed at a series of three 6:30 pm virtual public meetings. The first two have passed – an April 28 session on ecological restoration and boating, although the notes from the meeting may be available on the website listed below and a May 12 meeting on programming and environmental education. But on May 26 the focus will be on inclusive access and safety.

Of course, not all these issues will be settled and there will always be a need for change and adjustment. The key is to focus all the decisions on creating and maintaining the underlying goals – to restore and support nature and to teach both young and old how it can be safe and accessible, friendly and educational.

If you want to keep abreast of the process of coming up with the final plan for the future of Kingman and Heritage Islands, as well as upcoming public events and document review opportunities, you can check this address for questions/comments: DOEE.Kingmanisland@dc.gov; or the website: Kingmanisland.org.

There is no end to the issues. But now there is a framework for making decisions, and it is an innovative and challenging framework to restore and protect nature on the Islands while providing unlimited public access to enjoy and learn and  participate in the restoration and protection. Worth the effort!

Bill Matuszeski is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River, and the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.  He also serves on the board of Friends of the National Arboretum and on Citizen Advisory Committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia.