Washington’s Urban Facelift

With over 250 city blocks totally rebuilt by work crews over the past five years, Washington, D.C. is in the middle of a major urban facelift.

Without fanfare and below the radar of many urban observers, Washington is in the middle of a period of significant street reconstruction and enhancement. In neighborhoods across the city, city officials are repaving streets, rebuilding sidewalks, and installing new lamp posts, parking meters, plazas and streetlights.

Street improvements are an unloved necessity of urban life. Inconvenient and messy, these so-called “streetscaping” improvements are as unglamorous as they are important to the creation of a pleasant public realm. This photo from a project on P Street in Dupont Circle taken last August illustrates just how disruptive the work can be – note the haze was caused by dust in the air.

P Street Streetscaping

Some brief statistics from D.C. Department of Transportation’s online street construction project database suggests the scope of the work. City contractors have totally reconstructed 255 blocks in the past five years, 45 blocks are currently under construction, and 21 more are already in the pipeline for the next year.

Proposed Bike Routes and LanesOther improvements are also being made. Some 1,500 crosswalks are now equipped with countdown timers, more than any other U.S. city we are told. Newly constructed bike lanes crisscross Midcity neighborhoods and Capitol Hill, with plans for more in the works. (Proposed routes and lanes are shown to the right.) New parking meters have appeared in Georgetown and new streetlights in Dupont Circle. Such improvements caused the DC Sidewalk Blog to declare “state of our sidewalks is strong” at the start of the year.

U Street Streetscaping PlanIn just a few years, city residents can look forward to much needed improvements in several high-visibility neighborhoods. Dupont Circle’s P Street was rebuilt over the summer, causing some complaints by local businesses. Planning is well underway for a comprehensive streetscaping project for U Street NW and H Street NE, with re-designed intersections, widened sidewalks, and new streetlights. At South Capitol Street, the city spent $27 million last summer to lower an elevated freeway to make other improvements near the new baseball stadium.

A civic plaza with an interactive fountain and public art is planned for a space near the Tivoli Theatre in Columbia Heights.
Columbia Heights Civic Plaza Plan

In addition to physical improvements, the city has hired a consultant to prepare a first-ever pedestrian master plan, which includes detailed analysis of pedestrian injuries, missing sidewalks, and interviews with residents walking the streets along key corridors. Hopefully this document will help set the agenda for future improvements.

Carter G. Woodson ParkThe missing element in all of this is the sad state of many of the city’s public parks, epitomized by the neglected Carter G. Woodson Park near my house. (With the possible exception of the new Georgetown Park under construction.) The recently launched CapitalSpace initiative seeks to improve and connect the city’s parks to create a true citywide system. The group’s work is cut out for them. This part of the public realm presents many challenges: coordinating between bureaucracies, managing eclectic neighborhoods, navigating conflicting citizen needs, and confronting the problem of homelessness. Tackling those problems are much harder — and potentially more important — than hiring a construction crew to lay down new bricks and tree boxes.

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Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Nope. Just emailed the contact at the National Trust to see if there were any meetings scheduled. Thanks to the complaints of certain residents the new park will include no seating, even though hundreds of people daily use the park to wait for the bus.

  2. interesting… does that mean that the Carter Woodson Park’s design has progressed, or is the no-seating policy what you’ve learned from past correspondence?

    What’s your vision for this park?

    I would be happy if it were simply a beautiful, well lit, passive green space and monument to Dr. Woodson. It seems too small to be much else (e.g., weekly site of a farmer’s market, dog park, playground, perfomance area, etc.), and is not in a very pedestrian-accessible area as an island among Q, 9th and Rhode Island. While seating could be nice and could be designed in a way to discourage sleeping, I do agree that anything that attracts the homeless or crime generally should be minimized greatly (especially given the encampment on the NPS’s carter Woodson properties).

    I was unaware that there was a bus stop at Rhode Island and 9th–wonder if we could lobby for Clear Chanel to install a new bus shelter there to meet bus people’s needs.

  3. The gravel there now is a temporary measure while the adjoining blocks are finished. It was never the intention for that to be permanent.

    I’d really like to see a more comprehensive approach to parks. Even if that means figuring out public/private partnerships — non profits, etc. to help maintain and visualize parks, especially pocket parks.

    I’d also like to see the community gardens move a little bit closer to the communities. Especially here in Petworth, where our community gardens could easily be closer, but instead are often fairly remote.

    Nice roundup, though, of all that is going on.

  4. Man, those pebbles in CH were a terrible idea. Might have been suitable for a temporary solution if “temporary” meant a few months. Instead, it’s already been a year and a half at least, and there’s no beginning officially slated for construction there. The bummer is that 3/4 of those pebbles are going to be permanently in the neighborhood, kinda like when I was a kid and had a little pellet gun (Zebra, I think) that fired soft little yellow pellets. My mom is still finding them in nooks and crannies.

    Dirt would have been a better temporary solution. I’m sure a landscape arch. student somewhere could have come up with a better xeriscaped solution than the damn pebbles.

  5. Hey,

    Did you know that the DCPL’s Watha T. Daniel / Shaw Interim Library Branch opened on Saturday 10/20/2007? Their contact information phone number is 945 Rhode Island Ave, NW, Wash, DC 2005 (202) 671-0265/0267. It’s open everyday.

  6. Want to see a neglected park? Check out the Girard Street park at 15th Street. It’s right next a recently opened multi-million dollar community center, but the park? Over half the surface area is covered in dirt. Sure, there’s a well used basketball court and a playground – but why is half the park empty? There could be a soccer/football field, which I’m sure would be well used. Over at Malcom X park a block away I see multiple games of soccer and football on Saturdays. (besides, the fields at Malcom X will be under construction for at least another 6 months).

  7. Great site Rob. A real public service.

    Minor typo:
    “Other improvements are also being made. Some 1,5000 crosswalks”

    I think you meant 1,500

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