We are seeing a dramatic rise of interest in waterfronts, as people everywhere seek great public spaces that can be enjoyed by the community as a whole.  Eighteen months ago, PPS devoted an entire issue of our Making Places newsletter to waterfronts, showing their enormous potential for sparking city-wide revitalization.

This resulted in a flurry of activity as groups from all over the world contacted PPS about how to apply the principles of Placemaking to seafronts, lakeshores, riverbanks and creeksides in their own towns. While the rediscovery of waterfronts is a welcome trend, we are finding through our fieldwork that many promising projects are being undermined by easily avoidable mistakes. Crucial knowledge about what works and does not work for waterfront is, unfortunately, not being shared among cities.

This all-new Waterfronts edition of the PPS newsletter is devoted to showcasing lessons from around the world about how waterfronts can become great public assets for everyone to use.

Dangers along the Waterfront

Because waterfronts are being redeveloped so rapidly and at such a large scale, there is often not enough opportunity for the experimentation, evaluation, and information sharing that is crucial to the evolution of any great urban space. The result is that waterfronts in many cities are making the same mistakes over and over, particularly in limiting public use through misguided privatization schemes.

Based on our vast experience, PPS believes that waterfronts are successfully revitalized through public-private partnerships that work together to create new opportunities for recreation, tourism and entertainment.   If cities and community organizations collaborate with private developers to create a series of attractive destinations on and near the waterfront, the impact on the local economy will be greater than when these parties act in isolation.

Here are the biggest problems to watch for:

  • Single-use development
    We frequently witness how single-use development hinders the success of waterfront projects. Exclusively private development narrowly focused on condominiums or other upscale uses serves only a small portion of the community and squanders a golden opportunity to create a true civic asset.
  • One-dimensional design
    Another danger is that one-dimensional developments foster one-dimensional design. When the goal is limited to erecting iconic architecture or creating open space instead of a bigger vision aimed at attracting the public to a series of lively destinations, communities are cheated out of the vibrancy found in a truly great waterfront. This is currently an issue at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
  • Limited access
    Access can also be a stumbling block that prevents waterfront redevelopments from fulfilling their potential. Even widely acclaimed projects such as the Hudson River Park in Manhattan suffer by being cut off from the rest of the city. This results in a lack of vital connections between the water and popular destinations and activities nearby.

Waterfronts that are essentially privatized, one-dimensional or inaccessible deter rather than promote widespread economic and community benefits.

Redevelopments that pay off

Thankfully, cities from Vancouver to Hong Kong to Oslo are breaking free from past mistakes and now see the water’s edge as a special place belonging to everyone. They realize that waterfronts developed as public destinations will better serve both private developers and community interests. The Aker Brygge project in Oslo—an old shipyard that was developed as an office, retail and entertainment destination with plentiful public space and a ferry port—is one of the best private developments we have ever seen, with thriving retail activity and a welcoming, comfortable atmosphere.

High quality waterfront developments need not be expensive and exclusive. Many cities have seen great success by using an incremental development process that invites the public to participate every step of the way. It’s definitely worth the extra time and effort in order to create a dynamic development that stimulates the local economy at the same time as providing a fun and rewarding experience to local residents. For example, Water Taxi Beach in Queens combines innovative public water transit and a man-made beach each summer in New York City.

Imagination is the most important element in any successful waterfront project. Paris Plage, a temporary summertime park along the Seine River, enlivens nearby business districts and the city as a whole with an array of sun-and-sand activities on a lively urban “beach”. Bahia del Sol in San Diego is another temporary summer event that brings life to a waterfront walled off from the city by high rise hotels and a convention center. In Manhattan, the Frying Pan (a salvaged lightship and adjacent barge) now serves as a bar and grill in warm-weather months, drawing young people and families to the long isolated Hudson River waterfront. In Brooklyn, industrial Red Hook’s Marine Terminal will play host to live performance of the opera Tales of Hoffman that incorporates the ambiance of a working port into the production– a great example of cultural amenities coexisting with commercial uses.

As cities everywhere rediscover these unique places once scorned as “dangerous” or “polluted” and cut off from the rest of town by rail yards, highways, warehouses and factories, waterfronts will regain their rightful role as prized public treasures. There is overwhelming evidence that waterfronts become strong assets to a community when they invite public access and offer a wide range of activities for people to enjoy. We’re excited to share our latest project experience and research with you to help spur waterfront revitalization around the world.