Poplar Point: A Resilient District
Fall 2021 Studio
Urban resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and thrive no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience. For this Fall 2021 University of Pennsylvania studio course, thirteen Master of City Planning students, with the guidance of adjunct faculty Nando Micale and Danielle Lake, sought to rethink systems that create resiliency as they envisioned a future for Poplar Point in Washington, DC.
Recently, the District of Columbia (DC) developed Resilient DC, a tactical implementation strategy that aligns other major planning efforts into one coordinated approach to confront the complex challenges of the 21st century. The DC Office of Planning (DCOP) assembled a working group tasked with exploring those strategies, with a focus on Poplar Point in Southeast DC. Poplar Point, a 110-acre site, is located along the tidal Anacostia River and is adjacent to the Historic Anacostia neighborhood. The National Park Service (NPS) currently owns and operates the site, though an ownership transfer to DC is underway.
Given Poplar Point is situated in a low-lying area along the river, the site is particularly vulnerable to flooding and its damaging impacts. The surrounding Ward 8 neighborhoods are also vulnerable to the negative externalities that may accompany development. Anacostia, a historically Black neighborhood in a historically Black city, is increasingly experiencing the threats of gentrification and displacement. As such, Poplar Point, which is seen as the last frontier of waterfront development in the District, represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for DC to develop a large-scale site in a way that prioritizes both resilience and equity.
In collaboration with DCOP, the project team envisioned the redevelopment of Poplar Point within the context of the Resilient DC initiative and other planning goals District-wide, as well as the site’s history, culture, and challenges. Key systems considered include water management, open space, circulation, and development.
This studio presents two visions of a resilient Poplar Point. The first proposal, the Building Equity District, contemplates the significance of cultural resilience in a city and neighborhood at the frontlines of displacement. It recognizes the importance of centering housing affordability, community inclusion, and Black cultural preservation in the development of Poplar Point. The second proposal, the Eco-Cultural District, is rooted in a deep understanding of ecological resilience. It recognizes the imminent threats of flooding and sea level rise in Anacostia and presents a vision for Poplar Point as a robust community asset that will adapt to a changing climate future.
Each proposal starts from a different vantage point of what “resilience” might mean for Poplar Point and follows those threads to develop a distinct set of resilience-building proposals. These proposals show the many facets of resiliency planning. They also reveal a need for planners to embrace and deeply explore these multitudes in order to design holistically, with and for both nature and community.
However, the two proposals are not discrete options. Many important elements about the future—such as the extent of climate change, development pressures, and shifting community priorities—are unknown. Accordingly, the project team recommends the use of adaptation pathways, a technique for resilient decision-making. The adaptation pathways framework is a method for supporting robust decision-making under uncertain future conditions. A plan that uses the adaptive pathways approach specifies immediate actions to prepare for the near future as well as actions that can be taken to keep options open for future adaption. The pathways are a helpful method for considering and proactively addressing the many possible futures of Poplar Point, since the site faces various, sometimes conflicting pressures, originating from both climate change and the need for housing or demand for development. The Building Equity and Eco-Cultural proposals offer resilient and equitable ways to meet these challenges, but as pressures shift and change—as they inevitably will—these pathways can act as a way to communicate and adapt to the site’s needs