COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

9 Steps to Creating a Great Waterfront

Dec 31, 2008
Jan 8, 2018

1. Look First at the Public Space

In planning a waterfront development, city officials or a developer should begin by envisioning a network of well-connected, multi-use public spaces that fit with the community’s shared goals. By orienting waterfront revitalization around public spaces, new construction will enhance the quality of existing destinations and result in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

While streets may be appropriate on some waterfronts, pedestrian connections should be given top priority, making large parking lots and auto-oriented development out of the question.

Developers of the Point Street Landing development on the Hudson River in Yonkers, N.Y. began their project by determining what the character of the public spaces should be.

2. Make Sure Public Goals are the Primary Objective

Waterfronts everywhere are too valuable to simply allow developers to dictate what happens there. . This is not to say that private development is unwelcome and should be discouraged – on the contrary, it is often necessary to the future of a healthy waterfront. But the best solutions for revamping waterfronts put public goals first, not private short-term financial objective . As long as redevelopment plans adhere to the notion that the waterfront is an inherently public asset, it will be relatively easy to follow the rest of the steps here. Community engagement – and, ultimately, local ownership and pride – depend on this basic premise.

Successful waterfront destinations reach out to entire community, as happens with Paris Plage, a month-long celebration that creates a beach to the Seine River in Paris.

3. Build on Existing Assets & Context

Granville Island has created an abundance of user-friendly destinations while preserving the site’s industrial character.

After establishing the public spaces and public goals, begin the public visioning process with the existing assets and surrounding context. Start with the historical form and function of the site to foster a locally grounded identity by channeling former vibrancy into a variety of uses. Existing industrial uses should be preserved when compatible with human activity on the waterfront. Surrounding neighborhoods should be integrated into the waterfront to strengthen connectivity between destinations. And new development should embrace its waterfront context with appropriate orientation and usages.

4. Create a Shared Community Vision

Unlike a master plan, a community visioning process does not lock a project into a prescribed solution. It is a citizen-driven initiative that outlines a set of goals--ideals to strive for--that set the stage for people to think boldly, make breakthroughs, and achieve new possibilities for their waterfront. Because a vision is adaptable and can be implemented gradually, starting with small experiments, it often becomes more powerful through time as public enthusiasm for making bold changes gains support.

A community visioning plan for Brooklyn's Pier 6 (left). The existing design did not benefit from a community process, and the community did not feel it reflected its needs (right).

5. Create Multiple-use Destinations by Tapping the Power of 10

Through decades of work, PPS has found that the most effective way to propel a visioning process is to set a goal of creating ten great destinations along a waterfront, an idea we call the "Power of Ten." This focus on destinations, rather than "open space" or parks, enables a genuine community-led process to take root. Residents, businesses, community organizations and other stakeholders all join in to help identify the key destinations and then define the uses and activities they want to see at each place.

After using the Power of 10 to create great destinations throughout a waterfront, the same principle should be applied at each destination to come up with a list of ten activities for that spot. A wealth of things to do broadens the appeal of the destination, encouraging round-the-clock use.

After multiple place evaluation workshops, a variety of community stakeholders, public agencies, and private firms produced a collective vision for a broad range of uses to draw people to Newark's waterfront.

6. Connect Destinations Along the Waterfront

Destinations should be connected to one another and incorporated into a vision for the waterfront as a whole. A waterfront that is continuously walkable with a variety of activities along the way will successfully link destinations, allowing the appeal of each one to strengthen the place as a whole..

Creating these seamless connections is a fascinating challenge that involves mixing uses (such as housing, recreation, entertainment and retail) and mixing partners (such as public institutions and local business owners). Another key element is attracting people to the waterfront on foot or bike, rather than just in their cars.

Parks or esplanades should not serve as the whole purpose of the entire waterfront. Too much passive, one-dimensional open space puts a damper on the inherent vibrancy of waterfronts, as evident in many spots throughout Toronto, New York City and Vancouver, -- cities that have relied too heavily on "greening" their waterfronts without including other public activities that draw people for different reasons at different times. The world's best waterfronts use parks as connective tissue, using them to link other high-profile destinations together. Helsinki, Stockholm, Sydney, and Baltimore have successfully employed this strategy.

Connecting the destinations at the San Diego Embarcadero.

7. Maximize Opportunities for Public Access

It is essential that the waterfront be accessible for everyone to the greatest extent possible. Here too, the goal of continuity is of paramount importance. Waterfronts with continuous public access are much more popular than those where public space is interrupted. Even small stretches where the waterfront is unavailable to people greatly diminish the experience. California's Balboa Island, located off the coast of Newport Beach, makes its entire shoreline accessible to the public instead of giving waterfront property owners sole rights of use.

Access also means that people can actually interact with the water in numerous ways--from swimming and fishing, to picnicking dockside and feeding the ducks. If it is not possible to actually dip their hands in the water, people should have access to another type of water nearby--such as a fountain, spray play area or a swimming pool that floats next to the shore (such as the pools set up in the Seine during Paris Plage).

PPS was asked to assess the strongest locations and connections for new waterfront destinations on Vancouver’s False Creek.

8. Balance Environmental Benefits with Human Needs

While a wide variety of uses can flourish on a waterfront, many successful destinations embrace their natural surroundings by creating a close connection between human and natural needs. Marine biologists and environmentalists today promote the restoration of natural shorelines -- at least where marine uses do not dominate – and advocate replacing crumbling bulkheads with natural vegetation that will improve water quality, and revive fish and wildlife habitat. But this natural restoration should not preclude human use. Boardwalks, interpretive displays, and even more active uses such as playgrounds and picnic areas can be incorporated into the shoreline design without sacrificing environmental benefits.

Boardwalks, such as this one in Cleveland, provide opportunities for people to interact with wildlife along natural shorelines.

9. Start Small to Make Big Changes

Good public spaces don’t happen overnight, and no one has all the answers about improving a place right at the outset. Placemaking is about doing more than planning. Many great plans get bogged down because they are too big, too expensive, and simply take too long to happen. Short-term actions, like planting flowers, can be a good way not only to test ideas, but to also give people the confidence that change is occurring – and that their ideas matter.

Temporary uses on Brooklyn's Pier 1 provide a successful example of how low-cost improvements can triangulate with their surroundings to create great destinations.
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