Waterfronts are inextricably linked to the identity and vitality of cities. There could be no New York without a harbor, no San Francisco away from the bay, no Pittsburgh apart from its three rivers.

Over the past hundred years, shipping and industry have dispersed from riverfronts, seafronts, and lakefronts, making cities around the world rethink what to do in these prime locations–the birthplace, in most cases, of the city itself. As humans we are naturally drawn to explore the water’s edge, which makes it deeply disappointing when all we find there is a highway, fenced-off industrial facilities or, just as bad, a mediocre shopping mall or underused park.

A waterfront project opens up the debate about the soul of a city for all to see.

Making the transition from working waterfront to public gathering place is full of challenges, be it providing public access or identifying the activities best suited to a particular community and place. Today, more and more cities and towns are boldly taking on these challenges.

Seizing the Opportunity of Urban Waterfronts

A waterfront project for a town resembles a blank canvas for an artist. Anything is possible, including a masterpiece. Because it is so central to the life of that community, representing so many competing claims about its history and where it is now headed, there’s an opportunity for a breakthrough in how people in that place think of themselves. Such a project raises questions about what a city is and what it needs most. It opens up the debate about the soul of a city for all to see. Will the city stay on the familiar course of standard-issue condos, office towers and road construction, or will it boldly assert community values–and maintain the essential publicness of the waterfront–by creating a gathering spot that attracts and inspires us?

Vancouver’s Granville Island is one of the premier examples of an industrial waterfront that made the gradual transition to public space destination. No longer an industrial hub (though it is still home to a cement factory), today it is a place many people of diverse ages and backgrounds flock to for a stroll, a drink, a trip to the market, or simply the experience of being out in public. The way Granville Island evolved can teach us all something about how to move forward today. It emerged from a commitment to create an economically sustainable place that balances public and private use while combining art and culture with the existing industrial fabric.

Creating a vibrant waterfront also means making it part of a larger network of community places. This involves more than making the waterfront physically accessible; it requires a community-driven process, a good design, and an ongoing management program. So it is imperative to forge a wide range of partnerships, collaborative projects and public-private relationships. These create first-rate opportunities for recreation, tourism and entertainment that boost the local economy. By extending design elements and public activities inland from the water and instilling collaboration among all sorts of public, private, and community organizations, the impact of a waterfront redevelopment becomes more far-reaching than otherwise possible.

As PPS stresses in our work with cities that want to bring life back to the water, the key to success is to layer activities into a vision for improvement that is “greater than the sum of its uses.” In waterfront projects from Hong Kong to San Diego to Memphis, PPS is working to re-integrate waterfronts (many of which have been blocked off by highways, train tracks, or fenced-off industrial facilities) into surrounding neighborhoods through a variety of means.

We continue to explore what it takes to create a great waterfront. What physical features and public programs work best? How can cities avoid common pitfalls in reshaping their waterfronts? We’ll show you which cities have created the world’s best waterfront public spaces, as well as those who still have a lot of work ahead of them. If you live in a community that is pursuing a new vision for its riverfront, lakefront or oceanfront, we will equip you with inspiration and practical tools to create great places on the water that embody the assets and aspirations of your city.