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Feature Article - March 2019
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Water Wise

Waterfront Development Ideas for Your Community

By Joseph Bush


There's so much to consider when a waterfront development or redevelopment opportunity arises for a community.

How much of the development should be devoted to public use and how much to private? Mixed-use or single? What blend of recreational and commercial? How to please as many groups as possible?

The nonprofit Project for Public Spaces encourages placemaking as the first step in the waterfront development process. Placemaking, according to PPS, inspires a collective approach to public spaces "as the heart of every community."


Placemaking seeks to promote better urban design and creative patterns of space use through attention to details of a community's physical, cultural and social identity. PPS has strong thoughts on waterfronts, as they have been development targets for the past few decades.

According to the Waterfronts page on its website, "As cities have reinvented shipping and industrial areas on their seafronts, riverfronts and lakefronts, too often have they replaced them with exclusive residential enclaves or dull 'scenic' walkways. But it's never too late to transform these prime locations into destinations for local culture, commerce and conviviality."

PPS Senior Vice President Ethan Kent said the best start to waterfront development is to reach out to the citizens who will benefit from it.

"Lead planning and implementation with defining key public space opportunities with programming and more informal public use," he said. "Then support these spaces with design and development as needed. Waterfronts are no longer the backwater of a city, but their new face to the world."

Many waterfront developments turn ugly and abandoned tracts of land into centers for revitalization, and recreation is a key part of what is,

ideally, an area with many parts that mesh. A decade ago Kent wrote an article titled "Nine Steps to Creating a Great Waterfront," and while recreational use wasn't the focus, he did address its role directly and indirectly.

Since public goals should be the priority of a waterfront development, according to PPS, the space should be safe and convenient for pedestrians; no streets or parking lots is the ideal. Similar to a master plan, a "community visioning process" should identify 10 destinations on a waterfront, and at those destinations, 10 activities.

There should of course be plenty of park space, but PPS recommends it as connecting area, so as not to make a waterfront one-dimensional. Green space should interact with residential and commercial and cultural features, said Kent.

"We're finding that (cities) can best do this by focusing first on creating the more layered destinations, and active edge promenades, that draw people to and along a waterfront," said Kent. "These multi-use public spaces are what can best drive use, and investment, for an entire waterfront."

Many waterfront developments turn ugly and abandoned tracts of land into centers for revitalization, and recreation is a key part of what is, ideally, an area with many parts that mesh.

He added, "Most importantly, the process defining these more culturally creative spaces reinvents how a city is perceived locally and globally, differentiating its identity and supporting place attachment for a city."

To the extent possible, don't interrupt public access to the development, says PPS—whether by water or land, continuous access increases the popularity of the area. Finally, the article suggests environmental responsibility by way of using natural areas for public interaction through boardwalks, interpretive displays and themed playgrounds.

In another article around the same time, Kent addressed recreation directly, suggesting that there can be too much open space devoted to athletic fields or simply to walking or sitting.

"Recreational activities that use up a large amount of space are especially difficult to integrate into a waterfront if you want to have a lively setting throughout different times of day and different seasons," he wrote. "Natural areas and recreational areas work best when mixed with other sorts of destinations."

Kent said since he wrote those, momentum to transform waterfronts into public spaces has grown. They are increasingly not just oases to pause from urban environments but as ways to spark an area's overall improvement.

"Anchoring waterfront transformations around public destinations defined for and by the residents of the whole city, not just wealthy residents with waterfront views or other exclusive user groups, can best attract and integrate a broad range of uses and user groups to the water's edge," Kent said.

Around the country—in the northeastern Great Lakes area, Tennessee and Washington State—completed and ongoing waterfront work illustrates the PPS ideas.