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New Report from DVRPC compiles the history and the barriers facing public access to the Delaware River.
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New Report from DVRPC compiles the history and the barriers facing public access to the Delaware River.

A River Reconnected: new report defines problems and possibilities for the future of the Delaware River waterfront.

How many of us have walked, biked, or kayaked along the Delaware River?

The Delaware River Watershed is an invaluable resource and has proved itself throughout its long history. Initially as a center for life, industrialization for decades, and now with 15 million people relying on the Delaware for drinking water.

However, access along the river varies widely. In some places, the river travels for miles without any access points. At other points, millions of people use trails nearby each year.

A new report from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Committee (DVRPC), A River Reconnected, examines how our use of the river has evolved in recent decades. It also provides opportunities and future projects for the development of the river with more public access points.

How public use of the Delaware has changed over time

“A river is more than an amenity, it is a treasure.”

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in New Jersey v. New York, et al., 283 U.S. 336 (1931) regarding

The argument of what the riverfront should be used for begins with the Lenni Lenape people, who used the river for fishing and trading for generations before colonization.

The river is entirely changed from that time, the Lenni Lenape people were forced out and industrialization quickly took priority of the riverfront.

For a long time, the Delaware River was relied upon as an industrial resource. Infrastructure and ports like the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia were essential to the production and provided jobs.

The report cites the American Planning Association (APA) which “as recent as the 1950s explicitly instructed governments to prioritize industry… APA only mentions green space and public access as something that could be provided in the “increment” of space left over from more important industrial concerns.”

In the 70s and 80s as we moved away from industrialization, the room was created for other uses of the riverfront.

Right now, the Delaware, Philadelphia, and Bucks counties only have in total 48 public access sites to the river including sites like Spruce Street Harbor and John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.

But the opportunities for accessible green space along the Delaware have by no means been met. According to the report, “in this post-industrial environment, public access has emerged as a defining component and unifying thread of waterfront planning.”

At the same time, regulations have begun the long process of reducing the amount of pollutants entering the water which in the past have threatened both human health and the environment.

All of these changes have made way for the Delaware River Waterfront to be attractive for more development of green space.

The Future of the Riverfront

DVRPC report
screenshot from A River Reconnected

The complicated history of the river still plays a role in development today. Abandoned factory buildings sit unused on the water’s edge and unequal access for communities contributes to the complexity of future projects.

Things like pollution, climate change, land use laws, ship traffic, and community opinion all play a role in how the riverfront might be used in the future.

There are many barriers and conflicts that the report addresses, like the delicate balance between recreation and environmental needs. “Creating an access point to the water that actively promotes health and wellness through sports and exercises may interfere with opportunities to effectively study wildlife.”

Or how “economic development projects that include or improve public access may also have the unintended consequence of excluding local communities that have been deprived of such amenities for decades.”

Benefits of thoughtful development including the creation of healthy communities, possibilities for economic growth, connection to the environment, and more accessibility in communities that need it. The waterfront has evolved from an exclusive and inaccessible mix of industrial factories and transportation infrastructure into a robust area. Prime examples include Spruce Street Harbor Park and Race Street Pier.

Now the focus of riverfront planning is accessibility to meeting the balance between nature, people, and industry. Upcoming projects include the construction of a bridge from the Grays Ferry Crescent Trail to Bartram’s Garden
across the Schuylkill River, parks at Graffiti Pier, and a waterfront trail from Pulaski Park to Bensalem with multiple parks along the way.

But, the river still faces hurdles like the legacy of industrial use, highway construction, decades of neglect, and negative perceptions about the river. Plus, climate change and rising waters will impact future waterways.

To read the full report from the DVRPC and further recommendations, visit here.

Photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash


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Sophia Healy is an editorial intern with Green Philly. She is a writer and environmentalist from South Philadelphia and a graduate of Temple University. She enjoys exploring the nature of Philly and discovering the many opportunities the city has to offer. View all posts by Sophia Healy

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