Recently, during a cross-country road trip, I decided to explore Richmond, Virginia.
Approaching the city from the south on I-95, I quickly realized that I did not appreciate Richmond’s size. Downtown hosts a healthy number of high-rise buildings and its suburban fringe extends many miles beyond this core. In other words, there was no way I was going to have enough time to see anything beyond a sliver of this city.
I decided to explore an area dubbed the “Canal Walk” located on the edge of downtown. There is a lot to love about the Canal Walk.
Preservation of Historic Infrastructure
The Canal Walk preserved an important element of Richmond’s industrial history – the James River and Kanawha Canal. Before the railroad, canals we’re essential mode of transportation for heavy and bulky materials. Richmond’s canal connected the city to the James River and ultimately to the Atlantic ocean.
The new Canal Walk allows visitors to see how an industrial canal worked within the city. Interpretative signs tell the story of the materials that the canal moved and the people who worked in the area – many of whom were enslaved.
Paths along the restored canal encourage walking and biking. I found a RVA Bike Share station located conveniently at the turning basin and saw a few brave souls out exploring in spite of the chilly February temperatures.
The Canal Walk is the western end of the Virginia Capital Trail – a 52 mile multi use path that connects Richmond to Williamsburg. Long distance trails of this sort can draw visitors into small towns and big cities as they explore the region.
The restored canal also supports paddling. The thoughtful placement of cleats along the canal allows people in kayaks and canoes to visit downtown Richmond.
I was surprised to find imposing flood walls along the Canal Walk. High water markers from past storms and floods warn passers-by of the hazard presented by flooding to this part of Richmond. While these walls provide protection to the city, they are out of scale with other elements of the Canal Walk.
Thankfully the structures were designed to allow pedestrians to pass through. Furthermore these sterile surfaces have been dressed up with colorful art. These humane treatments mitigate the wall’s impact on the public space.
I found myself drawn further along the Canal Walk with visual cues. Slight deflections in the canal’s path drew my attention to places just out of sight. Public art installations along the Canal Walk added energy to the setting. A plaque set in the path appeared to be a simple manhole from a distance but revealed some historical information upon closer inspection.