California Forum

Design can reconnect us with Sacramento’s greatest asset: The river

Kimberly Garza, landscape designer, wants Sacramento to develop planning principles that will connect the city with the river in a playful way.
Kimberly Garza, landscape designer, wants Sacramento to develop planning principles that will connect the city with the river in a playful way.

Third in an occasional series.

When I think about the identity of Sacramento, I immediately think of “the river” – around here the term identifies the American and Sacramento rivers. I also think about the more regional concept of “the Delta.” In Sacramento, “the river” and “the Delta” have shaped the growth of our city as well as its identity, and will continue to do so as we grow.

The Delta has enabled ecological and economic vitality for our region – from agricultural epicenter, transportation corridor in the 19th and 20th centuries, to a site for revitalization and restoration in the 21st century. As Sacramento continues to expand and we redevelop our downtown core and riverfront properties, we are in position to rethink our urban environment and explore new models of urban form that integrate the river.

Today, Sacramento is disconnected from its rivers. Why is this?

Sacramento was once a freshwater wetland, experiencing seasonal flooding and tidal influxes. As the city began to take shape in the middle of the 19th century, protection from flooding became a necessity resulting in the creation of the levee network. The levees have altered our physical connection with the river, a problem worsened by construction of Interstate 5, which separated the city from the river.

Growing up in Sacramento, I vividly recall peering out the rear window of the family car, captivated at the sight of Discovery Park under water, or what appeared to be a swamp along Garden Highway in Natomas.

The river fascinated me, yet I rarely visited it as a child. As an adult, my connection to the river has been primarily through the Jedediah Smith Bike Trail along the American River. An unhindered 32-mile bike and pedestrian trail from Folsom to Sacramento, the trail connects more than eight Sacramento neighborhoods. The American River Parkway is one of Sacramento’s largest recreational amenities, yet the trail is severed as it enters the downtown area.

Many initiatives to redraw and extend bike, pedestrian and vehicular routes toward Sacramento’s rivers are under development, including the I-5 Riverfront reconnection project, North 12th Street streetscape improvements and cycle track, and I Street Bridge Replacement, to name a few.

Likewise, ecological restoration initiatives, such as the Sacramento River Project, have critically examined the eroded river corridor and restored 100 miles of the river to facilitate ecological habitat, support migratory bird flyways and increase land availability for public use. More recently, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty called for the creation of an American River Parkway Conservancy to support the 23-mile urban forest.

These are great initiatives that will deepen our connection with the river, yet hint at a larger question: How can Sacramento develop planning principles that respond to the 21st-century ecological and environmental challenges while reconnecting the city with the river in an authentic and playful way?

Cities throughout the U.S. are rethinking their waterfronts in response to environmental challenges – drought, flood, pollution and heat-island effect – and in doing so, are developing new public amenities that enliven and bridge neighborhoods, while facilitating ecological productivity.

For example, Seattle’s waterfront is undergoing a major upgrade to address infrastructural improvements to the Elliot Bay Seawall and removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In response to these improvements, the master plan reimagines the waterfront as an active and safe pedestrian corridor, with gardens, viewing areas and play zones that traverse multiple levels from Pike Place Market down to the bay, and a mobile barge with a pool. The project also supports the shoreline ecology through integrated landscape strategies, such as a salmon channel embedded into the boardwalk floor.

Seattle and other cities are viewing their waterfront edges no longer as fixed lines in the landscape – levee, highway, trail – but rather as multifunctional assets that make room for water and city.

For Sacramento, our aging levee network, coupled with extreme environmental influxes, such as flood, drought and erosion, are opportunities to reassess the river as part ecological generator and part community connector.

Developments along the riverfront are blank canvases and are primed to incorporate the river into an urban context. Can we start to think of these investment sites as drought and flood mitigators that facilitate richer spaces that strengthen our neighborhoods, connect our city and create attractions for locals and tourists?

Could we modify our levee system to make room for the river and create canal streets in the Railyard, allowing for urban kayaking? Could Old Sacramento soften its edge to support a weaving boardwalk with stadium viewing areas for water and firework shows? Could West Sacramento streets extend into multifunctional piers at the river’s edge that support community gardens that provide food for restaurants?

These are large-scale scenarios, yet through them we can begin to reimagine ways to think big and playfully about reconnecting our city to the river.

The first steps in tackling large-scale planning measures can come in the form of smaller-scale design initiatives. As a landscape designer with Quadriga Landscape Architecture, my colleagues and I are working with developer Bridge District Riverfront LLC and Dean F. Unger, AIA Inc., on the Riveredge development in West Sacramento.

As part of this mixed-use housing project, we have proposed an urban beach along the River Walk Trail to re-engage the community with the river. The urban beach is a place to play in the sand, lounge under sun umbrellas, soak up river views, work out, and engage with the community in a new way that is embedded into the city fabric. The proposal also speaks to the historical inland sand dunes that once existed in our Delta and sand bar island that once emerged during low tide at the mouth of the American River.

Our riverfront can become Sacramento’s greatest community asset and an ecologically productive landscape, but in order to create this we must acknowledge and incorporate natural systems into the built environment. To do this, we need to work across multiple design disciplines, city and state agencies, and community partners to develop solutions that provide an experience that is more than just a levee, a park or recreational route.

This is not to propose that we remove our infrastructure network, but to unlock our preconceived notions that the urban environment and our water infrastructure are separate systems.

By thoughtfully investing in our rivers, we have great opportunity to more closely connect with the city and the Delta.

Kimberly Garza is a landscape designer with Quadriga Landscape Architecture.

Kimberly Garza

▪ After graduating from Natomas Charter Performing and Fine Arts Academy in 2002, Garza earned a master in landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a bachelor of arts in landscape architecture from University of California, Berkeley.

▪ In 2011, she co-founded ATLAS Lab, a researched-based design laboratory and won 1st place in the Sacramento Capitol Mall design competition.

▪ She returned to the region in 2014 and is a landscape designer and project manager at Quadriga Landscape Architecture.

▪ Her latest projects include the master plan for the 19th and Q Dog Park, Portal installation and master plan for the Riveredge project in West Sacramento.

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