Understanding the Historic and Future Impact of the Delaware Canal

In a post pandemic world, lifestyle changes are evidently clear. One of the most notable is a renewed appreciation for our natural resources. This attention has helped to spark interest in assets like the Delaware Canal. The Canal is a national historic landmark, as well as a national trail, a state park, the first greenway in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and a revered cultural asset that has played a role in defining the communities that grew up around it across Bucks and Northampton counties and 18 municipalities. ​

Originally built in 1832 as a transportation enterprise to enable the passage of boats during the industrial revolution, the Canal functioned like a regional transit system over a remarkable 99 years of commercial operations. The public right-of-way remains to this day, and 59 of the 60 original miles of channel are capable of being fully watered. However, the economic, environmental, and public safety benefits are threatened by challenges to maintaining adequate water throughout the entirety of the 60-mile waterway. State budget limitations, aging canal infrastructure, damage from storms, and impacts of development have resulted in inconsistent water levels and compounded long-term damage, reducing the overall community benefits of the Delaware Canal.

Understanding the significance of the Canal’s role to the overall economics and sustainability of the region, Delaware Canal 21, a regional non-profit with a mission to ensure an enduring solution to address flooding along the corridor and related challenges, wanted to examine new ways to use and manage the Canal. They turned to a team led by ESI to evaluate the possible options of establishing a new, multi-jurisdictional entity tasked with advancing plans to restructure the Canal’s infrastructure, enabling it to provide sustainable flood attenuation, while enhancing a community asset and an asset for economic development. During this assignment, our team:

  • Reviewed previous reports.
  • Researched best practices and case studies of alternative governance and funding models.
  • Conducted an in-depth engineering analysis of what it would take to achieve a fully watered Canal.
  • Estimated the economic benefits of the Canal.
  • Developed a new model to support DCNR and the Canal, and identified potential funding sources

The Canal is an important historic and recreational amenity that attracts walkers, bikers, runners, and site seers alike. The Delaware Canal Towpath offers visitors the opportunity to experience both the serenity of the preserved natural environment along the Canal, and the charming small towns that stretch along the Delaware River. It is an important part of greenspace infrastructure that not only contributes to the quality of life of residents and visitors, but also strongly impacts economic and environmental cost, which has tangible effects on a range of categories from health savings to increasing housing value.​

Here are just a few examples of its positive impact from our work studying the Canal:

  • Neighbors within a one-mile buffer experience annual cost savings of $6 million ($150 per household) as a result of recreation activities in and around the Canal.
  • Canal visitors support $11 million in increased economic activity in Bucks County.
  • Single family homes within ¾ of a mile of the Canal enjoy a 6-18% property value premium compared to similar homes outside of that range.

It is estimated that the Canal draws in some 82,900 visitors annually. Tourists drawn to the Canal will spend money in communities they visit. In aggregate, the economic impact of money spent on food, souvenirs, transportation, and more has a significant direct economic impact, while also generating indirect impacts in local economies in the form of secondary purchases and wages.​ It is estimated that Canal tourism results in an annual economic impact of $10.8 million.  ​

A fully watered and maintained Canal results in increased visitation. As that number increases, total dollars spent within surrounding communities also has the potential to increase.​ It also ensures that the Canal will be available to bring healthy, environmental and economic benefits for generations to come.


Frank Robinson, Vice President | [email protected]

Frank Robinson is a Vice President with Econsult Solutions. He has been a leader in the economic development and sustainable development industries for over 20 years, working with corporate, government and nonprofit clients, banks and credit unions, as well as community development financial institutions and small businesses.

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