The Wild Anacostia: cultivating a thick edge typology through everyday experience


Kate Hayes, Associate ASLA | Graduate | Faculty Advisors: Elizabeth K. Meyer, FASLA; Leena Cho | University of Virginia | Charlottesville, VA


Many of today’s urban rivers are “thin parks,” spatially separated from their surrounding communities. This design thesis harnesses the momentum of urban park initiatives and the narratives associated with Anacostia River in Washington DC, to cultivate a “thick edge” typology for urban rivers. Drawing on everyday activities, the thick edge is expressed as an immersive trail, walk, and path network and acts as a guide for discovering and fostering a stronger, reciprocal relationship with the urban wild.



Many people are unaware of the Anacostia River’s recreational and educational potential, or even its location in our nation’s capital. With over 90% of the adjacent land government-owned, there is an opportunity to transform this urban river into a “thick edge” that draws on its context, catalyzes community appropriation, and reinvigorates the “Forgotten River.” Expressed in the form of a trail, walk, and path network that both adds and adapts to the existing Anacostia River Trail, this design is both site specific and replicable to other urban rivers through four main thickening strategies: thicken by widening, thicken by encompassing, thicken by multiplying, and thicken by meandering.


The thick edge typology was developed in response to the ongoing issues of the Anacostia and conversations about the future of our urban national parks. The research and design was fostered through rigorous GIS mapping, multiple site visits, museum trips, interviews, ideograms, notations, sketches, and models, as well as a personal connection of growing up in D.C. and rowing on the Anacostia.

From fishing to swimming to baptisms, the Anacostia community has strong historical ties to the River. Many of these connections have been severed, however, due to the Anacostia’s polluted waters. The health of the Anacostia a priority again, however, with D.C. Mayor Vincent Grey’s 2012 Sustainable DC Report which calls for the river to be fishable and swimmable in 20 years, and a national effort to reconnect the Anacostia with the city through the National Park Service and the President’s America’s Great Outdoors (AGO). AGO has focused its vision on urban projects, and has highlighted the Anacostia River Trail, two-thirds complete, as an innovative model for urban national parks around the country.

The existing Anacostia River Trail is not innovative, however, as it follows a historical trend in our national parks: the construction of asphalt trails that separate human experience from dynamic processes in the landscape. Through this thin line typology of single access, these trails foster the mythology of a wilderness defined by distant, untouched landscapes and feed into misconceptions that support a hands-off, preservation perspective and undermine contemporary forward-looking ideas of sustainability in our cities.

As urban national parks are some of the most visited parks around the country, the Anacostia River Trail can instead be a prototype for a new strategy of experiencing the urban wild, one that grows and changes over time, and supports and encourages human appropriation instead of isolating and separating it. It is a sustainable urban wild that is not about escaping our everyday lives but is about inspiring and interpreting the wild in our own backyards.


Nine sites along the Anacostia were initially selected for their environmental, social, and historical characteristics, as well as their potential links to cultural institutions in the community. The nine sites were then categorized into four inclusive conditions based on their relationship to water: impervious ground, tidal ground, toxic ground, and water crossing. A “thickening” strategy was then coupled with each respective condition to address different moments along the existing “thin” trail: thicken by widening (impervious ground); thicken by encompassing (tidal ground); thicken by multiplying (toxic ground); thicken by meandering (water crossing).

These thickening strategies are expressed through a new trail, walk, and path system, which is designed to hybridize the rhythms and movements of the daily lives of the community with those of the urban wild. Together, the trail, walk, and path give form to and expand – both the spatial dimension and the awareness of – the Anacostia by breaking down and extending the boundaries of this urban river system.


The detailed design of the trail at each threshold condition engages all five senses through shape, materiality, topography, direction, and gradients of the wild, to draw on visible and invisible processes in the river landscape. Connected to the trail, the walk is a ritualized journey from the community to the river, and the path is an individual expression of discovery. The network encourages everyday interactions and a renewed relationship to water, from recreation and experience to cultivation and ownership.

Thicken by widening: At RFK Stadium, a site slated for future development, the trail widens to filter different speeds of movement of water and people. The trail harnesses crowds from large sports events to trample and tend plants growing on and along the trail. Here, the urban wild is most evident in the spontaneous vegetation, with gradients of wild expressed in the expanding and contracting bands of people and plants.

Thicken by encompassing: At Kenilworth Marsh and Aquatic Gardens, the trail is designed to accommodate flooding and to register and monitor change on daily, annual, and generational time scales. By exaggerating the micro-topography and marsh gradients, the trail splits around a central runnel, anticipating people moving aside to avoid low, wet spots. Here, the urban wild is expressed in a landscape of risk and the fear of the land changing shape quickly with the incoming tide.

Thicken by multiplying: At Kenilworth Landfill and Park, the trail is designed to reveal and mark a phased remediation process through a series of topographic asphalt trails that multiply, evolve, and break down from one edge of the landfill to the other. The trail berms emphasize the artifice of the site by exaggeration and creation of a two-faced condition: a remediated side and a contaminated side. A seed bank, cultivated by kids from the adjacent school, heightens this contrast, highlighting the urban wild and the fear of the invisible.

Thicken by meandering: Signaling a culverted stream, a meandering group of trails mimics the pattern of the would-be stream and harnesses children’s play to interact with infrastructure. Connected to River Terrace Elementary, this schoolyard extension cultivates learning and highlights the urban wild of infrastructure, as the trail is literally immersed in large, concrete tunnels.

Through simple, targeted edits and additions of these four thickening strategies, the Anacostia River Trail is transformed from a thin, misunderstood park into an inclusive and immersive experience that draws on the river’s rich history and bright future. This design proposal alters our approach to and experience of urban rivers, helping visitors understand and appreciate the ever-changing dynamics of this wild riverscape in the middle of their own city, their Wild Anacostia.

"Love the idea and ambition. Intrigued by diagrams placing it in historic contex. The metaphor of the thickening of the edge is meaningful. The drawing with the city map in the background is phenomenal."

- 2014 Awards Jury



Karl Kullman coined the terms, "thin parks" and "thick edges," in his autumn 2011 article in Journal of Landscape Architecture
Lee Cain, Anacostia Watershed Society
Gail Lowe and Katrina Lashley, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution
John Nichols, Anacostia resident and historian
Lisa Pelstring, Advisor to the Urban Environmental Issues and the Anacosita Watershed, Office of the Deputy Secretary and America's Great Outdoors