Most of the world’s great cities boast exciting waterfront settings, yet have blown the opportunity to create lively public destinations where people will naturally want to gather. In Manhattan, all the energy and streetlife is bottled up in the interior of the island, with precious few exceptions. Likewise, London and Paris are only just beginning to realize the potential of their riverfronts as public spaces. A close look at these and other renowned waterfront cities reveals a sobering fact: The familiar postcard image of a dramatic skyline rising from a blue expanse often obscures the lackluster quality of public space at the water’s edge. There’s hope for improvement, but only if these cities are willing to rethink what’s important about the waterfront.

Worst Waterfront Cities

1. New York, New York

New York boasts one of the most extensive urban waterfronts in the world, an unparalleled asset that has been largely inaccessible to the public for decades. The city made a huge mistake in replacing its working waterfront with a driving waterfront. Now, just when it appears that large swaths of the water’s edge may finally become available to the public, New York is on the verge of squandering the opportunity once more. The waterfront being redeveloped now may prove just as meager as what New Yorkers experience today–drab parks planned for the east side of Manhattan and the downtown Brooklyn waterfront; the edges of north Brooklyn zoned exclusively for luxury high-rises; a big box IKEA store right on the water in Red Hook; and a BJ’s slotted to move into the old Bronx Terminal Market on the Harlem River. Commercial and residential development plays an important role in a lively waterfront when integrated with a range of public uses. But what’s looming here is the opposite of that: domination of waterfront sites by single use development–be it apartment towers, green space, or big box retail. This is a recipe for mediocrity.

2. Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen’s waterfront is being desecrated by showy but lifeless architecture. A shocking number of buildings along the Inderhavnen (inner harbor) contribute little or nothing to the public realm. These include the recently built Opera House, which makes only token attempts to provide public amenities, as well as a new apartment building that blocks the city from the water with a solid wall, void of any windows on its first few floors (pictured). While our list of best waterfront spaces includes two entries from Copenhagen, these successful places contrast so sharply with the recent spate of bad architecture that the failures of the waterfront as a whole leap out even more dramatically.

3. Hong Kong, China

Perhaps more than any other city, Hong Kong is identified with its waterfront setting. Unfortunately, the city keeps expanding into the water by constructing new towers on landfill. So, in a harbor renowned for its amazing views, public spaces are deplorably scarce along huge stretches of the water’s edge. There are no places to stroll or take in the vistas, nowhere to even eat or shop. That means residents with the necessary means are apt to take boats out to Lantau Island, where they can experience a real connection with the water. The local business community realizes the need to remedy this situation, but it may be too late to save the more densely developed Central Hong Kong.

4. Boston, Massachusetts

Boston has never lived up to its potential as a city-by-the-bay. The harbor is adjacent to the city’s historic center–the Capitol, City Hall, Faneuil Hall–and restoring the waterfront here as a public destination would do wonders. In a city severely congested by automobile traffic, expanding and improving the water taxi system could also yield major benefits. Unfortunately, most new developments on the water strive for an iconic, sculptural look, rather than seizing the potential of their sites to enhance the quality of public spaces. And as more undeveloped stretches of the waterfront attract attention and investment, Boston must guard against the mistakes made by Vancouver and other cities, which have allowed the construction of high-rise residential towers to limit public activity along the waterfront.

5. Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo’s interior districts each possess a distinct character and charm. A commitment to beautiful parks and public spaces is plainly evident in many places that are hugely popular with both locals and tourists. By comparison, the waterfront is woefully neglected. The city may boast an amazing commercial harbor, but you can hardly call it a people-friendly waterfront. It still awaits the same careful attention to public spaces that the rest of the city enjoys.

6. Seattle, Washington

Seattle residents adore their scenic mountain vistas. But increasingly they are seeing them through windshields while stuck in gridlock on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated highway that divides downtown Seattle from the waterfront. The Viaduct’s future is now the subject of intense debate, due to doubts about its structural integrity. The road may require extensive reconstruction or be replaced with a tunnel. Over 100,000 cars use the Viaduct each day, and deciding its future will be far from easy, since some solutions involve shutting down sections of the central Seattle waterfront for as long as five years.

The situation is quite similar to what San Francisco faced in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which finally led the city to demolish the elevated Embarcadero Freeway. San Francisco made a difficult decision: They did not rebuild this busy artery. Today they are reaping the dividends with the greatest waterfront renaissance in the United States. Seattle could also make huge gains by taking down the Viaduct along the waterfront, and investing in transit service instead. The waterfront now feels disconnected from downtown, but the removal of the viaduct would open up new links between people and Puget Sound. Public destinations that are floundering today would flourish.

7. Paris, France

If you try to walk very far along either bank of the Seine, you quickly realize how much the wide roads running parallel to the river detract from what should be the city’s chief asset. The roads have become highways within the city: Streetlights phased for high-speed traffic encourage aggressive driving, and vehicles move at too high a speed even for passengers to take in the scenery.

But all this could change. If Mayor Bertrand Delanoe’s recently announced goal to fully pedestrianize the banks of the Seine is realized, then Paris’s riverfront could be completely turned around. Another bold move–building on the smashing success of Paris Plage–for a city that thrives on such gestures to retain its position as the best in the world.

Worst Waterfront Destinations

The most striking thing these places have in common is that they are often touted as major design achievements. As public spaces, however, they are dramatic failures that bring shame rather than glory to their cities.

1. Diagonal del Mar and Forum 2004, Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona missed the mark on its extensive Mediterranean waterfront with these two projects. Diagonal del Mar, a park and mixed-use development constructed after the 1992 Olympics, symbolizes the disconnect between what designers prize in a waterfront and what residents need. Its residential towers, commercial developments, and lackluster public spaces have created an upscale ghetto by the water. At one end of Diagonal del Mar is the newer Forum 2004, the site of a vast global conference three years ago, which was promoted at the time as a showcase for the design of the future. Today it is a windswept reminder of how empty those promises were.

2. Cultural Centre Piazza in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong

Located next to the bustling Star Ferry Terminal, the Cultural Centre Piazza is perhaps the most visible and accessible point in all of Hong Kong. It is also one of the only pedestrian public spaces along the harborfront. What a disappointment, then, to discover that the Cultural Center itself is a brutal, graceless monolith–a canker that completely repels people. Although today most ferry riders ignore the space as they walk by, it wouldn’t be too hard to attract more people and fulfill the promise of the site. Hong Kong’s community and business leaders realize the need for improvement; in fact, at a recent workshop led by PPS, they proposed several ideas to turn it around.

3. Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain

There are a lot of things to like about Frank Gehry’s most celebrated building, but its quality as a great place isn’t one of them. Situated prominently on the waterfront near the center of Bilbao, the public spaces around the museum create a void in the civic life of a great city. The building ignores the river, provides little for the comfort or enjoyment of the people that come to its vast plazas, and distances itself from the very city it is meant to elevate. One might argue that Gehry’s design has brought renown to Bilbao, but in many ways it has drawn attention away from the rest of the city, which boasts some of the best public spaces in Europe.

4. Tate Modern, London, UK

Visiting the Tate’s waterfront plaza on the Thames is an exercise in frustration. Redeveloped and re-opened in 2000, the new design feels purposefully manipulative. One feature, a series of birch allées that form a path to nowhere, typifies the design mentality on display throughout the plaza. It is a place that limits visitor’s options, forcing them to use the space in prescribed ways. When people feel controlled by a space–when their freedom is restricted–they will not stay long, and they will rarely choose to return.

5. Quadracci Pavilion, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Quadracci Pavilion is a marvelous feat of engineering and art that fails miserably as a public space. Despite its location by the edge of Milwaukee’s downtown waterfront, the building keeps urban vitality at bay. The easiest way to approach it is by car, on the wide roads that surround its remarkably sterile plazas. Because it was conceived quite consciously as a piece of sculpture, the Pavilion has ample room to project its image. Perhaps that’s also why it feels so palpably disconnected from the city and the water.