Kenilworth Park North: From a history of waste, destruction and loss to a future of hope, health and wealth?

Erin Garnaas-Holmes is the Ambassador to the Anacostia Watershed Urban Waters Partnership and works at the Anacostia Waterfront Trust, a member organization of APACC. He writes a monthly blog post about projects happening within the watershed.

I have recently been working on a portion of the Anacostia waterfront called Kenilworth Park North. Although it is currently safe to be used for recreation, the park was once a landfill and is currently in planning to be thoroughly cleaned up by the District and Federal government, following the rules established by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund/CERCLA process. The plan for the cleanup should be complete next year.

Image: Erin Garnaas-Holmes

Image: Erin Garnaas-Holmes

The northern half Kenilworth Park is slated by legislation to be transferred to the District of Columbia government from the Federal government, most likely after the cleanup is complete and paid for. It will then fall under the management of the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), which has been working alongside members of the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative (APACC), the National Park Service (NPS), the Office of Planning (OP) and the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) to begin to envision what the park could become after the transfer.

APACC believes that the park, once cleaned up, can provide more than just space for recreation: it can provide green jobs for neighbors, outdoor education classrooms and programs for children and youth, better access to the Anacostia River, spaces for meditation and healing, and much, much more.

I am working alongside APACC members like Washington Parks and People and the Progressive National Baptist Convention to begin outreach to residents, community members, visitors and other people who are poised to benefit from the planned clean-up and re-design of the of the park.

A new Kenilworth Park North can honor its dark history at the same time that it can help create a better future for Ward 7

The story of Kenilworth Park North, located in northern Ward 7, is a textbook example of environmental injustice and environmental racism. The park is a currently vast, empty field with rundown recreation equipment, but before Kenilworth Park was open space, it was the District’s landfill from 1942-1970. This was an era before our current legal rules for safe management of landfills: back then, trash was burned in the open air, on the shores of the Anacostia River, and black smoke would billow through open windows of schools and homes in the nearby neighborhoods of Kenilworth, Eastland Gardens, Mayfair, Parkside, Deanwood and more.

Some people remember this time. An elderly woman from Victory Square Senior Apartments, located near the park, told me she remembered trucks entering the landfill all day long when she was young. (In 1942, there were 350 trucks dropping trash in the landfill every day). Others I’ve spoken to remembered the story of Kelvin Mock, the young boy who got caught in the trash fires and died in 1968, and more recent history, the hunt for Relisha Rudd.

Even before all of this, before the area was filled with the city’s trash, the site was actually a part of the Anacostia’s riverbed. The area was a wetland, a landscape much like what you can currently find in the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens upriver, rich with important plant and animal species and serving as a natural lung of the region before it was filled in for the landfill. The image below, from the River of Resilience Story Map, shows how most of the wetlands along the Anacostia River were filled in over time.

Wetland Loss Over Time - GIF.gif
Landscape design should not be used to wipe out technological guilt. Rather, it should be used  to move the public to new levels of awareness, concern, and commitment.
— Mira Engler, Designing America’s Waste Landscapes.

As the park is cleaned up and prepared for a new future, the District has an opportunity to acknowledge this darker history of this site and honor the lives of those who suffered here. As Mira Engler put it in her book Designing America’s Waste Landscapes, “Landscape design should not be used to wipe out technological guilt. Rather, it should be used  to move the public to new levels of awareness, concern, and commitment.”

Landmark for Peace Memorial, Indianapolis

Landmark for Peace Memorial, Indianapolis

The Awakening, Washington, DC

The Awakening, Washington, DC

Kenilworth landfill “SLICE” illustration, Erin Garnaas-Holmes

Kenilworth landfill “SLICE” illustration, Erin Garnaas-Holmes

IMage: Labyrinth at Burford Priory. St. James's Piccadilly

IMage: Labyrinth at Burford Priory. St. James's Piccadilly

HOratio’s Healing Garden, UK

HOratio’s Healing Garden, UK

One of the ways to do this might be through memorials, or other features that tell stories from the areas past. Another might be through healing gardens or reflection spaces. Akiima Price, a longtime advocate for the environment working in these neighborhoods, hopes that there can be spaces for emotional and spiritual healing in the park some day, for people who have experienced trauma in their lives and environments.

In my graduate studies in landscape architecture, I once proposed a sculptural “slice” into the landfill a feature which could create an experience in which visitors feel the mass and weight of the waste that was dumped onto the river and the shoulders of this community.

Kenilworth Park North can become a park where children can thrive, grow, play, learn, and be safe

The District can honor the history of this park by using its restoration as an investment in the people who live nearby, especially children.

Washington Parks and People, for example, has proposed that the park could become a destination for outdoor education and expeditionary learning for young people in the area. Studies show that young people who learn outside get higher grades on their exams, especially ones in at-risk populations.

Children who have regular access to outdoor education facilities perform 27% better on science exams. Image: ERin garnaas-holmes.

Children who have regular access to outdoor education facilities perform 27% better on science exams. Image: ERin garnaas-holmes.

There are many organizations that provide outdoor experiences for kids of many ages in the District. Kenilworth Park could become a physical place that houses a pipeline of programs from young ages to young adults who can gain skills in a variety of fields and training for green jobs. Schools nearby could use new facilities in the vast park as an outdoor classroom, and youth training programs could construct new headquarters for their operations.

This kind of approach with Kenilworth Park North could create an opportunity for the District to engage a whole new generation of experts in green technology and ecological thinking.

Kenilworth Park North can create jobs by addressing climate change.

As leaders around the world call for investments into the green economy and increased efforts to curb and prepare for climate change, Kenilworth Park North could become a signature example for how DC can create jobs by investing in its “resilience.”

Kenilworth Park North is a large space (over 110 acres, enough space to fit the U.S. Capitol Building grounds twice.) This amount of park space could easily fit several different program areas. In addition to new recreation fields, the space could include innovations like a solar farm that offsets energy used elsewhere in the park or in nearby government buildings. There could also be room for urban agriculture, both to produce food and to serve as an education hub for nearby schools and senior centers. The park could feature a newly planted and managed forest that improves air quality and reduces the urban heat island effect. All of these would create jobs, which could be targeted for local residents.

Image:  Washington Post . Solar farms create jobs and produce energy and reduce costs of nearby facilities.

Image: Washington Post. Solar farms create jobs and produce energy and reduce costs of nearby facilities.

Image:  Fast COMPANY . “Using the space around the solar panels as sites for 48 hives, the Eagle Point solar farm is using its land to save pollinators and help local agriculture. “

Image: Fast COMPANY. “Using the space around the solar panels as sites for 48 hives, the Eagle Point solar farm is using its land to save pollinators and help local agriculture. “

Image:  Newark Riverfront Park . New recreation facilities could create local jobs.

Image: Newark Riverfront Park. New recreation facilities could create local jobs.

Kenilworth Park North can improve health and wellness

One of the biggest benefits of urban parks is their ability to improve public health. DC’s leaders have made public health high priorities in their work, as shown by Mayor Muriel Bowser’s #FitDC campaign and Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray’s focus on equitable access to healthcare.

Economists have argued that investing parks and trails can actually help reduce a municipality’s spending on public health by a ratio of 2.94, which means that “every $1 investment in trails for physical activity led to $2.94 in direct medical benefit.

In addition to creating space for exercise, the most effective way to improve one’s health, parks can improve mental health—studies show that exposure to nature reduces anxiety and helps clear the mind. Landscapes can be designed specifically to enhance this kind of experience.

IMAGE by Bascon.  Maria Park  in Denmark.

IMAGE by Bascon. Maria Park in Denmark.

Image: WLA. Box Hill Gardens, AUSTRALIA.

Image: WLA. Box Hill Gardens, AUSTRALIA.

Kenilworth Park North can help establish a new vision for the entire Anacostia River Corridor

As APACC continues to have conversations with residents and community members about their hopes and dreams for a new Kenilworth Park North, the planning for the park can fit into the many other projects and plans coming down the pipeline along the river. Newly restored wetlands along the river’s edge or restoration of the Watt’s Branch streambed in the park can fit into existing plans for restoration watershed-wide. New trails can provide riverside vistas, create shorter links between the Anacostia River Trail to the north and south, and connect to the planned pedestrian bridge from Kenilworth to the National Arboretum. Improvements to the park can help accomplish myriad other planning goals, including elements of the Climate Ready DC Plan, the Play DC Master Plan + Vision, DC’s Economic Strategy and DC’s Age Friendly DC Plan, all at once.  

APACC has been spearheading community engagement efforts around the question of how a restored Kenilworth Park North could best serve the community, and plans to continue to grow the effort alongside the District and Federal agencies like NPS and DPR. You can participate right now by visiting APACC’s Kenilworth Park page and filling out a brief survey, or you can contact to get more deeply involved. You could borrow APACC’s Kenilworth Park “toolkit” and bring it to an event to guide brainstorming around the park, or you could join the project team and help bring the conversation to your local networks.


These growing interactions can also be the beginning of a much broader campaign to build a community-drive vision for the entire Anacostia River corridor. Many agree that there is a need for a new, updated vision for the waterfront, and outreach around Kenilworth Park North can provide seeds for a bigger conversation about how the river corridor can best serve DC residents and visitors.

As these conversations continue to happen and more people begin to think critically and creatively about the possibilities at Kenilworth Park North, I hope we all take time to consider what it means to live in a society that has dumped the collateral damage of its consumptive culture, both literally and metaphorically, into the riverbed and onto the shoulders of people that it excludes from its wealth.