A view from the river: How the city of Nashville brought a neglected natural asset back to life

Cumberland Park, on Nashville, Tennessee’s Cumberland River waterfront. Photo courtesy of the Nashville Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency.

Nashville, Tennessee’s Cumberland River has long been viewed as an industrial thoroughfare for barges to transport cargo. But as the city looked to improve its downtown in the 1980s, it came to realize that the riverfront could be an incredible asset to its revitalization efforts.

“Riverfront revitalization got started about 25 years ago when we began to realize that the city had turned its back on the river,” said Rick Bernhardt, a Planning Executive at the City of Nashville.

Since Nashville started working to reestablish its downtown as a destination for residents and tourists, the City has intentionally made major public investments in the area. Nashville brought in major attractions – including a football stadium, arena and a convention center – and has made a concerted effort to rededicate the riverfront for community use by creating greenways, pedestrian bridges, a park and a gathering space for public events.

Many of these investments paid off. Nashville’s downtown has picked up in the past several decades, and the riverfront has become a popular location for concerts and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“People have begun to realize that the river is something to be celebrated,” Bernhardt said.

Today, efforts are still underway to continue the progress that started years ago. In 2007, the city adopted the Nashville Riverfront Concept Plan, calling for expanded parks, trails, water recreation, environmental restoration and the eventual development of mixed-use urban neighborhoods on the eastern banks of the Cumberland River.

An architect’s rendering of the Riverfront redevelopment project from a bird’s eye view. Photo courtesy of the Nashville Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency.

The 20-year plan was jointly funded by the US Army Corp of Engineers and Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation, and was created through numerous design workshops, community advisory groups, stakeholder meetings and consulting processes. The plan has a clear purpose:

“Cities with great waterfronts can offer a better quality of life to retain and attract citizens and capital. Nashville has the potential to create a great waterfront that is truly world-class. The window of opportunity is open and conditions are right to move on this now – it is Nashville’s time.”

The plan lays ground to transform over 190 acres of underutilized industrial land into sustainable mixed-use developments. These new developments, along with cultural centers and entertainment venues, are expected to help Nashville attract more than $1.4 billion in new private investment capital.

In 2009, the Metropolitan Council adopted a long-range capital budget that targeted a total of $54 million for riverfront redevelopment and included an immediate allocation of $30 million to jump-start construction of the initial phases of the Nashville Riverfront Concept Plan. Phase One, a family park called Cumberland Park, and Phase Two, renovation of the historic Bridge Building, were completed in March of 2012.

Children at play in Cumberland Park. Photo courtesy of the Nashville Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency.

Located on the Cumberland River’s east bank, the 6.5-acre adventure play park provides families and children with interactive spaces and landscapes to encourage activity.

“It is a park that turns its site specific qualities into a great place where families can spend a day, have fun and learn something of their riverfront history,” said landscape architect Gavin McMillan.

But Nashville’s Waterfront Redevelopment Director Ed Owens says the park is part of a larger strategy to revitalize the riverfront, improve the quality of life and boost the local economy. “We’re creating new reasons for people to come down here and enjoy the park, but also to locate offices and businesses downtown and to create a whole new level of energy.” In addition to Cumberland Park, Owens has overseen the redevelopment of an adjacent building formerly housing a barge company into new office and event space.

Mayor Karl Dean similarly recognizes Cumberland Park as a major asset to the community. In his announcement of the park’s name in 2011, he said, “That’s what riverfront redevelopment is all about – it’s about creating usable green space on the banks of our river that will bring families downtown on a Saturday afternoon to play.”

Four months after the park’s completion, the park has joined the number of assets that attracts people downtown, and has become a particularly popular destination for families.

“This is a great project with a lot of impact and stakeholder involvement,” said Bridget Jones, Executive Director of Cumberland Region Tomorrow, a nonprofit dedicated to planning for the future livability and economic vitality of Middle Tennessee. “Cumberland Park provides open space in pivotal area, and I think it will be a catalyst for further downtown redevelopment.”

Noting that the park is part of a greater whole, Bernhardt added, “Not any one of the downtown attractions can succeed on its own, but the synergy from different elements, along with the locals and tourists creates something special.”

“The riverfront development is so exciting because it is improving the core of downtown Nashville,” Jones added. “We’ve seen many riverfront revitalization projects going on, and Nashville’s stands out because the riverfront is in the center of the community, right by Nashville’s transit hub.”

Moving forward, Dean sees riverfront redevelopment in Nashville only continuing to improve and grow in coming years.

“It’s an investment in the quality of life of our residents,” he said. “It’s an investment in downtown Nashville as a tourist destination, and as a place where businesses want to locate. It’s an investment in the future of our city.”

“City leaders understand this is not something that can be accomplished in a budget cycle or a year or two,” says Owens. “This is a long term commitment to building on an asset that’s been ignored for a very long time. We’re changing how we think about the river.”