Karl Douglass: Bridging our rivers

August 25, 2013 

I spent some time on the Riverwalk watching rafters make the run down the Chattahoochee. It's staggering to think that Columbus has a water attraction that has brought 10,000 thrill seekers to the city since Memorial Day.

Seeing real people pay outfitters to lead them down class 4 rapids made me think about how we got here. Before there was a Whitewater course, innovative entrepreneurs started developing around the river. They were incentivized to develop the community decided we should have a Riverwalk. And the idea for a Riverwalk came up because the city decided to do more than just fix an infrastructure problem.

Without getting into all the reasons why, know that combined sewer overflow systems were deemed a serious environmental hazard in the 1980s because they allowed untreated wastewater to flow into rivers during heavy rain storms. Every city that had such a system was ordered to replace it.

Columbus was one of those cities. But, instead of responding to the court order by just putting some pipes in the ground, the leadership of the Water Works offered a different idea. They suggested that we should use this requirement to improve our infrastructure as an opportunity to development a great recreational area downtown. Since the remediation project required a lot of serious construction anyway, the folks at the Water Works thought why not put the big machines to best use by fixing the infrastructure issue and creating a place everyone could enjoy at the same time. The place they created was the beginning of the Riverwalk.

Long story short, Columbus' choice on how to deal with an infrastructure problem proved to be the catalyst for a major revitalization in the community.

Fast forward to today. The planning department has money to repair and resurface Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. At the very least, the road will get new pavement and new striping.

However, like the Water Works did in the 1980s, the Planning Department has put forward a different plan. Instead of using the money available to just resurface and restripe the road, why not redesign the roadway in a way that the available funds can be used to add landscaping, sidewalks and linear parks?

City planners often call roads like Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard rivers. They call them that because they are difficult to cross. These high traffic, 4 and 5 lane roads are so difficult to cross that, like a river, they often create stark divisions between the communities on either side. If you want to see the dynamic in action, park at the A.J. McClung YMCA and watch as kids try to get across the street to the store without getting hit by a car. You will see that it is not easy, just like crossing a river is not easy.

30 years ago, we used an infrastructure issue to jump start the revitalization of a rundown area of town. Today, we have the chance to do the same thing. Let's not miss the opportunity to harness the power of this asphalt river just like we harnessed the power of the Chattahoochee.

Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.

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