By Chris Porter, Alexandria (File photo)
To the editor:
Growing up in Alexandria, I’ve always thought of my hometown as a waterfront city: I rowed crew on the Potomac throughout high school, kayaked and sailed frequently in the area on weekends, biked and ran along the Mount Vernon trail and spent a large chunk of my teenage years just hanging out along Union Street and at the Torpedo Factory.
I presumed that this was a shared conception of the city among Alexandrians, and a largely positive or even idyllic one, and thus when I first started to key into the discussion surrounding the waterfront improvement in Old Town, I initially thought, “What’s there to improve?”
I knew flooding was an unresolved issue and that although some parts of the waterfront were nicer to visit than others, was there really that much more that could be done?
This summer, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to travel through Europe, spending a large chunk of it with an urban planning class looking at models of sustainable urbanism in Berlin, Freiburg, Basel, Zurich and the Ticino region of Switzerland and how they differ from U.S. cities. All of these cities have rivers or lakes, of course, at varying levels of ecological health and centrality within city life.
Zurich, however, was by far the most surprising for me: It absolutely blew the top off of my conception of the potential relationship a large, dense city can have with its local water. Here, people young and old don bathing suits during their lunch break or after work and swim in the crystal-clear waters of Lake Zurich or the city’s two major rivers, the Limmat and the Sihl.
Off one bridge downtown, with buses and trams roaring behind, we found droves of young people diving and flipping into the river; we followed suit and floated in the cold and fast-moving water towards an urban beach bar, packed with Zurichers swimming and sunning on a Tuesday afternoon. Elsewhere the water is packed with sailboats, kayaks and SUPs, and practically everywhere you look in the old town area there is outdoor dining overlooking the water.
Water taxis and ferries zoomed from dock to dock, seamlessly integrated with the extensive public tram and bus network. In the lush lakeside parks and the pathways surrounding the Schanzengraben, an old medieval moat, we found isolated oases of tranquility and greenery in the middle of Switzerland’s largest city.
Now I understood why improvements were needed along the Alexandria waterfront — in Zurich, water wasn’t just the backdrop for a historic town. The lake and rivers formed the vibrant and working artery of the city on which its major commerce, public transportation, parks and public recreation all centered.
The Potomac River sadly is still far from being as healthy and swimmable as Zurich’s water, but what we can achieve in the short-term is a re-centering of our city towards this resource, which was so foundational in our history but recently has fallen to the status of occasionally appreciated scenery. For us to strive to be a true waterfront city once again, in the same way Zurich is, we’ll have to re-discover the Potomac’s value to us.
This could come by increasing water taxi usage to National Harbor and D.C., creating sites for kayaking, paddle boarding and other recreation, and making our waterfront parks and trails even more easily accessible getaways for Alexandrians. Moreover, the proposed pedestrian-only portions of the Old Town plan are, in my view, a great idea — I go to school in Charlottesville where one of the nation’s few truly successful pedestrian-only malls exists — but equally important will be increasing the ease with which Alexandrians can reach the waterfront without cars, either by expanding the King Street Trolley and bus network, or improving road-sharing for bikes.
Comparing Alexandria to Zurich is, of course, in many ways apples to oranges, as we compare cities across an ocean that differ in everything from language and demographics to history and context within their respective regions. But I do think the quality of life in Zurich related to its successful waterfronts is something all Alexandrians could be supportive of.
Zurich certainly sets a high bar, but being there filled me less with envy than with a feeling of connectivity: I thought, “I, too, come from a waterfront city.”