Feature Article - March 2006
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On the Waterfronts

Developing and maintaining beaches, shorelines and marinas

By Kelli Anderson

Eco-friendly design

So what are the elements that go into turning neglected waterfront areas into healthy, vibrant spaces or taking already developed spaces and making them even better? According to American Rivers in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring American rivers, it starts with an ecologically responsible design. Kill the goose that lays the golden egg, and the golden opportunities are gone.

Riverbanks can be complicated ecosystems, made up of much more than mud, vegetation and water.

"It's a balance," says Betsy Otto, senior director of river advocacy and urban river focus of American Rivers. "You have to think of all the community and recreational needs to be met—the factors of economy and people while restoring the river."

Sometimes it begins with restoring what once was.

At Crissy Fields in San Francisco, a two-year restoration effort from 1998 to 2000 involving hundreds of volunteer groups and individuals and corporations, planted more than 100,000 native plants to return Crissy Field to its natural glory. Now it is national park land that enjoys not only a healthy, wildlife-filled habitat but is a destination spot for the thousands of people who recreate there each year.

Another issue to consider in developing a recreational waterfront is erosion. Erosion-control is critical—how you do it is, too.

"The number-one problem is lots of hardscaping," Otto says. "Hardscaping the river channel and paved areas aren't only unnecessary, but they cause runoffs and environmental damage."

Ironically, although people like green and want natural water bank areas, hardscaping—the covering of banks with concrete or rip-wrapping, a process of stabilizing a bank with crushed stone and "wrapping" it in a geo-textile fabric—is often the go-to solution to quickly transform riverbanks into usable space.

There are situations, however, which warrant hardscaping's use, such as serious erosion at the bend of a river with fast water. But for the many other conditions on the waterfront, there are alternative remedies to hardscaping such as establishing "no wake zones."

"The reality is that hardscaping is used far more than needed," Otto says. "Bioengineering approaches use vegetation to stabilize banks—Minnesota uses these, and Portland is looking to use them."

Portland, Ore., which originally used a lot of concrete, now is replacing those concrete banks with natural vegetation to restore the character of its riverfront and create greater habitat value. And recreational value.

Whether it's planting hardy native materials, planting water-thirsty willow trees or redirecting erosion-causing sources of water, the investment in bioengineering as a first-resort for bank stabilization offers many benefits. It not only stabilizes the soil, it draws wildlife and birds—recreational magnets in-and-of themselves—and beautifies an area ideally suited for all kinds of recreation.

Not all birds necessarily are welcome, however. Geese and their notoriously dreaded droppings, are deterred by taller natural grasses. Offer a goose a well-groomed lawn along a shoreline or a naturalized bed of cattails, and they'll choose the smooth lawn every time.

However, evaluating the suitability of these areas for bioengineering is a complicated business involving many variables including proper design, plant selection, weather conditions, and whether or not conditions can support plant growth and even animal damage.

It is a good idea to seriously consider the input of professionals such as the International Erosion Control Association (www.ieca.org) or American Rivers (www.americanrivers.org) to ensure the best approach.