Envision the James
© James River Association
It was not until I walked on the narrow pipeline running along the banks of the James River, and leaned over the edge with my hands clasped around the coarse metal railing—drawing in a deep breath of the sweet (and perhaps even slightly aphrodisiacal) river-filled breeze—did I begin to understand what envisioning the James really means. In that moment, it was watching Blue Herron feed among flooded banks and listening to the raw sound of Class IV rapids while a city of a million people loomed overhead.
Blue Legacy recently traveled to Richmond, VA to pay a visit to a local water group whose efforts resonate with our mission to reconnect people with their watersheds. The organization, Envision the James, represents an exciting new partnership between the James River Association, the Chesapeake Conservancy, and National Geographic Maps. This collaborative initiative is all about starting a dialogue with local communities in order to develop a common vision for the river designed to benefit both present and future generations. We attended a meeting to talk with people who live, work, and play along the entire James River, and to find out what they were doing to reconnect with their watershed.
One of the most inspiring presentations of the night came from the program’s Environmental Educator, Gabe Silver, who spoke glowingly of a recent canoeing expedition with a group of students down the river. The students, over a dozen local high-school kids, paddled and camped along nearly the entire length of the river, from its headwaters in the far-western part of the state, clear to the Chesapeake Bay. And all along the way—an incredible 320 miles—the students learned important lessons not only about hydrology, but also about leadership and teamwork.
We were able to chat for a second with Kelvin Tyler, who took part in this expedition: “I connect with my watershed by going down to the river, soaking my feet, and maybe taking a little swim… I’m concerned that people really don’t understand how important the river is to our everyday life. [While paddling down the James] we learned how to conserve the river and what it needs to function.”
At the end of the presentation, we participated in an interactive digital poll with members of the James River community. The organization uses these community surveys as a way to start developing a consensus on different strategies for managing the river and to gauge interest in various conservation measures. The format made the process very engaging, and it was fantastic to see people of all ages using the technology seamlessly to accomplish an important goal.
Admittedly though, the best part of the day for me was going down to the river with Bill Street, Executive Director of the James River Association, who spoke about what envisioning the James is all about: “One of the key things that we believe is important for ensuring the future health of the river is to make sure communities have ownership of the river. So, we want to start with what the community cares about and want to know where their favorite places are and what they think is really special about the James—and build those perspectives up into one vision and framework which can strengthen all of our efforts up and down the river.”
It only took a few minutes to walk from the center of downtown to the water. He brought us on a tour of a decaying industrial quarter that is currently being restored to create a unique and appealing space for shops and restaurants to develop along a beautiful, but neglected stretch of shoreline.
“Here is where we are going to construct a series of terraces along the river,”remarked Lee Downey, Director of Economic & Community Development for the City of Richmond, as he gestured towards an overgrown area underneath a railroad bridge prone to erosion from human traffic. “We hold big events on the river—concerts, a folk festival—and we want people to be able to get down and enjoy the water.”
In his business suit, he was an interesting contrast to the old manufacturing sector we were exploring as he climbed down worn metal ladders and navigated narrow penstocks. Yet, everything about this section of the river is a study in contrasts. Here, the whole of the James River is funneled into a wild, ecologically vibrant section that passes right through the center of Virginia’s capital—a city of a million people. This place, where the river meets the city, and the bridges fan out like strands of a web across its wide channel—the storied remnants of a Civil War-era bridge among them—marks the spot where diverse interests are coming together to ensure the long-term health and protection of the river.
And this community certainly has a bold vision for the future of this area. The water here was once so polluted that the city turned its back on the river—a common theme in cities around North America. But now, the mayor of Richmond is pushing for a plan that not only will revitalize the downtown district and attract new investment, but also one that makes the river safer and more accessible for everyone. It is only after people can see, smell, hear, and touch their river—and let the current pass through their toes on a warm summer day—can you ever expect someone to be truly motivated to protect their river. It starts with realizing that we are all intimately connected to our watersheds, and their health is a proxy for our own. Making it possible for people to once again be able to touch their water represents great vision and a mark of leadership local governments across the United States would be wise to heed.