Environmental Integrity

The River Arts District in Asheville, North Carolina - Part Two

Who revived the French Broad River?

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TITLE: The River Arts District in Asheville, North Carolina – Part Two

AUTHOR: Christy Edwards

SOURCE: Parks and Recreation Department, City of Asheville

Who revived the French Broad River?

Wilma Dykeman’s first book, The French Broad,was released in 1955. Her publisher initially rejected a section that addressed river pollution as too controversial. She retitled the chapter “Who Killed the French Broad?” to make it sound like a murder mystery, and it remained in the text.

 The French Broad serves as an important link between the beginning of the U.S. environmental movement of the 1960s and the earlier conservation movement. By connecting clean air and water with economic development and human well-being, Dykeman stressed the importance of understanding history and using that knowledge to go forward, writing, “Dwellers of the French Broad country are learning an ancient lesson in all their resources: it is easy to destroy. Because the river belongs to everyone, it is the possession of no one. And as towns and villages grew, they dumped their trash. Filth is the price we pay for apathy.”

In 1961, TVA proposed building a series of 14 hydroelectric dams in the French Broad watershed that would have flooded more than 18,000 acres of mountain valleys including the Warren Wilson College farm. While the $100 million project had near universal acceptance among local government leaders, a grassroots group of “dam fighters” organized as the Upper French Broad Defense Association, waging a multiyear campaign against the massive project.

The group demanded that TVA hold public hearings, which lasted for three days in Asheville and were attended by hundreds of people who donned homemade yellow scarves in protest. TVA abandoned the plan; in the process, the community decided to embrace the river, setting the stage for a French Broad rebound.

In 1976, Land of Sky Regional Council obtained a small grant from TVA to begin a regional approach to long range planning for the French Broad River. Over the next decade, river cleanup efforts and the annual French Broad River Week festival led to the formation of the nonprofit organization RiverLink. Around the same time, artists and creators began moving into the Asheville riverfront’s vacant industrial buildings and transforming them into large and small studios.

Asheville’s Riverfront Plan was unveiled in 1989, and the beginning of the city’s greenway system became a reality when a paved loop opened in French Broad River Park in 1995. Asheville City Council in 2004 unanimouslyapproved The Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Master Plan, a detailed master plan for urban areas along the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. It took Dykeman’s words as guidance: “Just as the river belongs to no one, it belongs to everyone – and everyone is held accountable for its health and its condition. Every city and town and every industry is responsible for cleaning up the pollution it creates.” 

The success of French Broad River Park led Asheville Parks & Recreation (APR) to develop Amboy Riverfront and Carrier parks on the west bank – and then French Broad River Greenway to connect them with Buncombe County’s Hominy Creek River Park. Organized studio strolls in the industrial riverfront district started in 1994, leading to an organizing committee which named itself River Arts District Artists. Today, the area on the east side of the river is well known as the River Arts District (RAD).

A major piece of The Wilma Dykeman RiverWay Plan was realized in 2021 when a transportation and design project in the RAD reconfigured unsafe road intersections for better traffic flow, established constructed wetlands as part of a stormwater management network, installed wide sidewalks for pedestrians, provided almost 200 new public parking spaces, added nine acres of new parkland, and installed several new pieces of public art. Serving as the main activator for all of these elements is a greenway on the east bank of the French Broad.

Asheville’s first official greenway plan recommended naming greenways after natural features like creeks and rivers. During planning and construction, the new path was called French Broad River East to differentiate it from French Broad River Greenway on the west side of the river. Following a public vote, Wilma Dykeman Greenway opened with a month of celebrations in 2021 that began on Earth Day and ended on May 20, its namesake’s birthday.

The greenway currently has trailheads at the AmboyRoad-Lyman Street intersection and the Hill Street-Riverside Drive intersection. A planned mile of Wilma Dykeman Greenway will extend to the intersection of Broadway and Riverside Drive, connecting to a future greenway along the river in Woodfin.

The two-mile, accessible greenway’s path is dotted with benches, bike racks, and public art including a larger-than-life sprocket and 13 Bones pedestrian bridge. Wilma Dykeman Greenway is also the city’s first with lighting for nighttime use, first with a two-way protected bike lane, and first with a public boat ramp (in Craven Street Park). River access is also available along the greenway using steps at Jean Webb Park, a space named for another strong local voice of the river and including an educational pollinator meadow maintained by Asheville Greenworks.

Wilma Dykeman was a pioneer in helping people understand that environmental stewardship goes hand-in-hand with economic development, but she also stressed people have a limited amount of time on earth to make a difference. As community members continue to promote her vision of sustainable economic growth along Asheville’s waterways, they can also enjoy walking, biking, rolling, and other human-powered forms of exercising and commuting while enjoying decades of work to revive the French Broad.

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