The key to fighting the urban doom loop might be a downtown beach

  • Urban waterfronts are neglected in many American cities.

  • But they have huge potential to revitalize cities and make them more equitable.

  • Urban rivers, lakes, and parks can also be the key to making cities more resilient to climate change.

On a sunny, 80-degree Saturday afternoon in late October, Mia Olis left her home in Chelsea to soak up the rays on Manhattan's brand-new — and so far only — public beach.

Raised in Hawaii, Olis loves the water and surfing. But Rockaway Beach — more than an hour away by subway — was too far a trek that day. The 1,200 tons of sand near Greenwich Village along the Hudson river would have to do.

"I love that everybody's here," Olis, a 40-year-old lawyer, said while perched on a towel in a bikini. But she noted the park sits in a ritzy neighborhood, and thought it felt a little exclusive. "I wish it were more accessible to everybody else from uptown, Harlem, the Bronx." Still, she said, any new green space in New York is cause for celebration.

Urban waterways can be a huge asset to cities and their residents. Rivers, lakes, canals, and ocean beaches can attract new residents, visitors, and commercial development. If they're well-designed, they can make cities more inclusive and help protect them from storms and heatwaves.

Waterfronts are also just nice places to be. People are naturally drawn to them, as many a poet and sociologist has pointed out. And they'll also pay a premium to live by them. Economists say cities with struggling downtowns should invest in their green space — and that includes opening up waterfronts.

"Places that have better natural amenities — they tend to do better. They attract more people, they attract more jobs, they have higher economic growth," said Amanda Weinstein, a professor of economics at the University of Akron. But they have to be made accessible. "It's the investment in that natural amenity that matters."

While the breeze off the Hudson offered some respite on that unusually warm fall day, a dip in the water would've been an even better way to cool off. But there's no public pool nearby, and no sanctioned river swim spots in the city. Even if the Hudson was consistently clean enough to swim in, it would take a lot to convince many New Yorkers to dive in.

"It would be a really big leap for me to swim in it," said Karin Balow, a 58-year-old Inwood resident who grew up along the river upstate. She traveled from her Upper Manhattan home to check out the new beach, where she settled into an Adirondack chair with a book. "But it has come a long, long way. So who knows?"

People lounge on the new beach on Gansevoort peninsula in Manhattan on October 28, 2023.
The new beach on Gansevoort peninsula looks south towards the skylines of lower Manhattan and Jersey City. Eliza Relman/Business Insider

New York City has done a lot to invest in its 520 miles of waterfront. The sandy bluff on Gansevoort peninsula is part of the much larger Hudson River park and looks out over Little Island, a whimsical, highly instagrammable transformation of Pier 55. Hoards of people crowded the winding, tree-lined paths up to the island's breezy observation deck on that October day. If they read the signage, they'd know the city's garbage used to be incinerated where they stood. The park — the borough's second-largest — is credited with helping revitalize Manhattan's west side.

Over the last couple of decades, New York has built a series of iconic waterfront parks on former industrial sites like Brooklyn Bridge Park and Domino Park in Brooklyn, Battery Park and the East River park in Manhattan, and Gantry State Plaza Park and Astoria Park in Queens. Governor's island now features manmade hills with sweeping skyline views, urban farming, and glamping. And the East River might soon get a massive floating pool.

Cities across the country are increasingly looking to transform their neglected waterfronts in an effort to bring people back downtown. Cleveland, Ohio, is working on a plan for a new beach, housing, and park space on the shores of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Seattle has torn down an elevated freeway downtown to make way for a waterfront park.

A man casts his line into the Tidal Basin as seen from under the inlet bridge, one of the local sights to be seen from the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, on March, 27, 2019 in Washington, DC.
A man casts his line into the Tidal Basin as seen from under the inlet bridge, one of the local sights to be seen from the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, on March, 27, 2019 in Washington, DC.Bill O'Leary/Getty Images

Safer and more equitable cities

A couple hundred miles south of Manhattan, the waters off the shores of the nation's capital are also finding new life. In recent years, DC has opened up its waterfront, transforming the southwest with the glitzy Wharf — featuring luxury condos, restaurants, music venues, and a soccer stadium, and redeveloping the Capitol riverfront from Navy Yard to Buzzard Point with the Nationals baseball stadium and tons of new housing.

The city just recently finished its decade-long construction of two major tunnels that capture stormwater, preventing almost all sewage from overflowing into the Anacostia river during storms and easing flooding in low-lying neighborhoods. For the first time in over a half century, the city is planning to open the Anacostia river next June for a sanctioned swimming event. The splash event was supposed to happen in July, and then September of this year, but was postponed twice due to severe storms.

Urban waterways like the Hudson and Anacostia pose a serious flooding threat to cities as climate change triggers rising sea levels and more ferocious storms. Waterfront parks can help in collecting storm surge and rainwater and preventing flooding. They can also offer respite as summers get hotter.

Cities — built of heat-absorbing asphalt and concrete, instead of cooling greenery — make heatwaves even worse. International climate experts warn heat-related deaths globally could more than quadruple by mid-century if the planet heats up to 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. A cool breeze off a river or lake, or a dip in one, could save lives.

"There is a very real need in cities," said Trey Sherard, the riverkeeper at the DC non-profit Anacostia Riverkeeper, which is organizing the June swim event. "It's not just recreation, it's public health to be able to cool off that way."

Climate resilience is also key to building more equitable cities. Communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods across the country are disproportionately impacted by environmental impacts, like flooding and extreme heat. In the DC area, the vast majority of homes most vulnerable to flooding are in Ward 7 and Prince George's County, Maryland, both of which are majority Black.

There are also historic inequities when it comes to swimming. Public pools across the country were largely racially segregated until the 1950s — and after that, many private pools opened to cater to white people fleeing desegregation. Without safe and clean rivers and lakes to turn to, Black communities across the country often didn't have anywhere to take a dip or teach their kids to swim.

DC's Black communities still face many of these challenges. The free swimming lessons that the city department of parks and recreation offers can't meet the high demand and don't cater to adults.

"There's a lot of water fear in DC, especially east of the river. And that speaks to generations being separated from their waterways," Sherard said.

Sherard said the Anacostia's inaugural swim event is being modeled after one on the Charles River in Boston. But he also pointed to international models.

In Switzerland's biggest city, Zurich, swimmers can hop into the Limmat river or Lake Zurich right downtown. The most enthusiastic locals in Zurich and Bern swim to and from work with their phone, wallet, and clothes strapped to them in a floating waterproof satchel. Paris is poised to open up its Seine River to swimmers for the first time in 100 years. Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who's something of a global urbanist hero, has pioneered a billion-dollar effort to clean up the iconic river in time to hold Olympic events in it next summer.

Skepticism abounds about how clean the murky depths of the Anacostia are. Sherard said he hears plenty of "hell no, never" when it comes to swimming in the river, but he's also found real enthusiasm for opening the river up. There's lots of work left to do. Advocates for the river want Congress to approve funding for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Anacostia to remove toxic sediment and ease flooding.

If the river is dredged, it could also be a huge boost for the country's first African American boating club — Seafarers Yacht Club — whose boathouse on the river's west bank is only accessible in high tide because of accumulated sediment.

"What a gem to have on the river," Sherard said.

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