Urban Waterfronts Should Be Designed to Protect Our Communities

Four Strategies to Balance Equity, Ecology and New Development When Designing and Planning for Waterfront Revitalization

March 7, 2022

Principal, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Alan Mountjoy and Margot Jacobs.

 

For the latter half of the past century, our urban waterfronts have undergone a major transformation, from working waterfronts to places defined by leisure, recreation and economic development. In particular, the past 20 years have seen a wave of redevelopment that transformed formerly heavy industrial waterfronts to a knowledge-based economy.

Enabled by the passage of the Clean Water Act, a wave of projects—from innovation districts and multi-purpose amenities to green habitat corridors—continue to redefine river, lake and ocean shorelines. As we look to the next chapter of our waterfronts, we now have another set of environmental, social and economic factors to consider. How do we build on the momentum of these new projects while balancing equity, ecology and new development along the way? In this post, we explore four strategies to consider when designing and planning for waterfront revitalization.

Prioritize Resiliency

Although coastal cities have a more obvious challenge with rising sea levels, every community needs to become more resilient and adaptable in the face of climate change and evolving natural stressor events such as heat waves and higher intensity storms. With climate events like “100-year floods” occurring more frequently, green infrastructure—in the form of public parks, wetlands and grasslands, urban forests, green roofs and rainwater gardens—is our most affordable, effective and beneficial strategy in protecting cities from the impacts of climate change.

Thoughtful solutions can restore the natural systems that have been lost in prior industrial development and address multiple goals like reducing flooding risk, reducing heat islands, improving water quality and restoring natural habitats. For example, Louisville’s 85-acre Waterfront Park is designed specifically to flood when the Ohio River breaches its banks. This intentional inundation reduces downstream impacts by providing additional flood storage lost to prior industrialization of the flood plain. And in Shantou, China, a new urban design vision locates the densest areas of commercial and residential development inland, away from potential coastal storm surges thus freeing up the coastal waterfront for public space and cultural uses. As in Louisville, the park is designed to recover from episodic flooding with resilient design that can easily and quickly be regenerated after an event.

The urban design vision for Shantou, China’s, waterfront places the densest zones inland and connects to existing river systems by a series of canals.

 

Shift Perceptions

In many places, redeveloping waterfronts also requires a generational shift in perception and working with communities to help them reimagine waterfronts with entrenched—and often negative—reputations.

In Pittsburgh, the Riverlife Task Force had to counter years of negative storylines and neglect of the city’s once polluted and dangerous waterfronts that housed the city’s famous steel mills. Over the course of the last two decades, the Task Force has shifted public sentiment through persuasive lobbying, continuous public forums and generous funding to ensure full pedestrian access to miles of former industrial waterfront and active recreational use of the rivers despite concerns from barge operators who still ply the rivers. Today, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Park has successfully transformed into the city’s preeminent open space system, hosting nearly all the city’s celebrations and public events with new shoreline parks, sports venues and commercial and residential development facing the cleaner rivers.

The legacy of industrial waterfronts is also characterized by numerous barriers between residents and the waterfront where railways and highways have been located close to shorelines. These places are frequently near to lower income neighborhoods where working people lived to serve the labor needs of maritime industry. In addition to lack of access, lower-income communities have traditionally seen much lower rates of investment—in part because they are more likely to be located near un-remediated environmental hazards. Ensuring that waterfront planning efforts are done with full participation of the adjacent communities, and that brownfield remediation and other decontamination strategies are implemented to address the residual impact from previous industrial uses is critical to environmental justice goals and improving access and health benefits to residents.

Focus on the Human Experience

Cities have been settled along bodies of water for the benefit of commerce for millennia. But proximity to water is more than simply an economic equation. In Blue Mind, marine biologist Wallace Nichols outlines the myriad benefits we experience through our connection to bodies of water—including altering our neural pathways in ways that make us calmer, happier, healthier and more connected to ourselves and others. It’s no wonder that people in cities are looking for evermore opportunities to be reconnect to their waterfronts after industry made them inaccessible for decades. This compels a shift in thinking in how we design for waterfronts—employing an approach driven by human experience, mental health and reconnection to nature.

The next generation of multiuse and multi-beneficial projects compel a shift in thinking in how we design for waterfronts, employing an approach driven by human experience, mental health and reconnection to nature. The Mahoning River Corridor Revitalization Plan, that covers a 25-mile corridor through former steel industrial corridor in Northern Ohio, does just that. The comprehensive open space network provides convenient access a once highly polluted riverway with recreational amenities—including water demonstration gardens, an environmental learning center, and floating agriculture—for residents of Mahoning and Trumbull Counties and the region. The removal of former low-head dams allows visitors the chance to see, feel and interact with a cleaner river and myriad wildlife that has returned to its banks and the chance to kayak and swim in a newly free flowing river.

When restoring waterfronts, it is also crucial to work with underlying dynamic processes and other environmental factors rather than fight against them. Development should be grounded in the ecology of the surrounding area, working with natural systems. In some landscapes, it is also necessary to amplify the natural protections systems such as sand dunes, kelp beds, mangroves or even fallen logs to protect against climate change while still harnessing the natural defenses inherent in the original landscape processes.

Redefine the “Working” Waterfront

Despite years of disinvestment in waterfronts due to offshoring of heavy industry and the consolidation of global maritime cargo into larger containerized ports, we are seeing a return to the “working waterfront” with more light-industrial uses—from prefabrication assembly sites to artisanal creative industries—coming back to our waterfronts. For example, the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, which served as America’s premier naval shipbuilding facility until it was decommissioned in 1966, is currently undergoing its largest expansion since WWII and is now home to organizations ranging from film and television production studios to a Green Manufacturing Center and the country’s largest rooftop farm.

However, the transformation of our waterfronts from heavy industry and maritime uses and the various forms of gentrification that creative clustering can trigger inevitably creates unease around existing livelihoods and fears of economic displacement. In Boston, where the waterfronts are under strong pressure for redevelopment, commercial developments are exploring a hybrid model: incorporating traditional water-dependent industry at the ground floor while reserving the upper floors for offices and biotechnology laboratories that cater to the market demand.

Commercial developments on Boston’s waterfront must cater to a true mix of uses including traditional maritime industry as well as science and technology companies. 

 

Finally, while the idea of a working waterfront may still call to mind billowing smokestacks or crowded, polluted conditions, today’s definition of industry is not the same as it was just 50 years ago. Waterfronts that were once dominated by oil and energy importing and refining facilities now serve as places where we export oil from shale and ports on the East Coast—in places like North Carolina, Rhode Island and the Gulf of Maine—are transitioning to places for deployment of offshore wind.  The so-called Blue Economy promises to exploit more of our oceans for sustainable industries only just emerging in research labs.

Waterfront redevelopment is a delicate balancing act, reconciling economic opportunities with an equal concern for equity and resiliency. This moment, even with all its uncertainty, provides planners an opportunity to design the future of our waterfronts in a way that can protect our communities while building toward a more environmentally sound future.

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