Making Waves on the Waterfront

Recreational Amenities in and Near Water See Surging Interest


Across the nation, the trend of re-envisioning community waterfronts by restoring them to a more natural state, and by transforming them into recreational havens, continues unabated.

"People want to be on, in and next to water," said Scott Crawford, a senior partner for parks and recreation for RDG Planning & Design, an architecture and design firm with several Midwest offices. "It has a host of physical, mental, emotional and psychological benefits. And one of the simplest things that can be done is to just give people visual and physical connections to water, whether it's a lake or a river or a stream."

Industrial Waters Turn Recreational

As the industrial benefits of waterways have waned, their recreational potential has grown. "More and more communities are realizing that their rivers are no longer the corridor of commerce they used to be, and recognizing what an amenity they can become," said Mark Dawson, managing principal at Sasaki Associates, an architecture and urban design firm based in Watertown, Mass., that has worked on numerous waterfront transformation projects. "Once that lightbulb goes on, then the planning and design processes start to work."


And in some cases, these transformations are turning once-neglected and environmentally unsafe areas into areas of growing recreational interest. One large-scale effort in this area can be seen in the transformation of the Chicago River. It has so far included the City of Chicago's construction of three riverfront boathouses, with a fourth on the way. It also includes a recent major extension of the downtown Chicago Riverwalk that features restaurants, seating, boating and other amenities.

One example of this development can be seen in Ping Tom Memorial Park, located in Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood. The project has transformed a former railroad yard into a 12-acre park featuring impressive river views, a children's playground, community gathering areas and Chinese landscape design. It also is home to one of the new Chicago River boathouses as well as a new fieldhouse with a gym, swimming pool, fitness center, green rooftop and other amenities.

Site Design Group, a Chicago-based architecture and design firm that has worked on several waterfront projects in Chicago, has worked on several phases of the project. As elements such as a natural shoreline that uses plantings, stone and other materials to clean the water have been added, and other efforts have improved the river's water quality, the in-water amenities have gone from unthinkable to a valuable draw.

The trend of re-envisioning community waterfronts by restoring them to a more natural state, and by transforming them into recreational havens, continues unabated.

"By this time, the water is so much cleaner that being near the water isn't as scary. The final phase we've worked on is the boathouse, which is a recreational amenity and revenue generator," said Hana Ishikawa, design principal for Site Design Group. "And it provides access to and recreation on the river itself, which the city didn't have there previously."

Site Design Group is now looking to tackle even more troubled waters with its Bubbly Creek Framework Plan for the remediation of the South Fork of the Chicago River, a project that began roughly a decade ago.


"It's where the stockyards from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle were. It talked about how you once could walk on the water there because the remnants from the cow-slaughtering industry were just thrown right into the river," said Brad McCauley, managing principal for Site Design Group. "It's definitely come a long way." This project is also focused on restoring a naturalized shoreline to bring habitat back to the city, to remove toxins and to cleanse the waterways so that more people will be able to use it for recreation.

In other areas, in-water amenities may be limited because significant commercial traffic still uses the water today. But majestic waterfront views are becoming the spine holding together networks of parks, playgrounds, restaurants and cultural attractions that become urban hubs. Such has been the case with the Smale Riverfront Park in Cincinnati along the busy Ohio River.

In fact, the park's Rosenberg Swings looking out on the city's iconic Roebling Suspension Bridge as part of the park have been a particular success. "They are over-successful, which is great because it means that it's a good idea," said Dawson, whose firm has worked for years on various phases of the project. "Most evenings you have to wait in line to get a swing. That's a good problem."

Standards for Sustainability

To help guide waterfront efforts that spur environmental benefits as well as community interest, a variety of newer rating systems and standards are increasingly being adopted. One is the SITES rating system from Green Business Certification Inc., which also administers the LEED program. SITES looks at performance measures for landscapes relating to their effects on water demand, stormwater runoff, wildlife habitats, air quality, recreation opportunities and other measures.

It is becoming more common for new beach areas, peninsulas and islands to be built to create new waterfront real estate.

Another measure, WEDG (the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines) was released in January 2015 by the New York City-based Waterfront Alliance. The incentive-based rating system aims to create waterfronts that, according to the group, are "more resilient, environmentally healthy, accessible and equitable for all."

In fact, disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina have played a role not only in spurring efforts like these in recent years, but also in reshaping waterfront design. According to Crawford, these kinds of disasters have led the Army Corps of Engineers to move from a focus on things like channelization and locks and dams and levees to a more natural approach.

"Unfortunately, I think it took a disaster at the level of Katrina to push this initiative forward of trying to return to entire corridors where rivers can meander freely during high-flow and low-flow times—to return to those wetlands, pothole prairies and other areas where the river can ebb and flow in elevation as well as the horizontal span to help control those flood measures," Crawford said.


Regardless of the application, flood considerations play a major role in project materials and design. This is evident in Smale Riverfront Park, portions of which are located within and above the floodplain. The first phases of the project built were those above the floodplain, with the latter phases opening over the past few years.

Some of these amenities include spaces for park programs and a destination adventure playground. The newer spaces are specifically designed to be resilient in the event of flooding, and in some cases even removed. "We have a number of pieces of art that are detachable, and there are also two fountains in the flood plain that can be shut off and are valved so that water can't go back into the system," Dawson said. "So they have a whole flood action plan as part of the operation and maintenance of the park."

In some cases, floodplains can even present the opportunity to introduce an environmental education element into a park design. Crawford noted the Iowa River Landing Wetland Park in Coralville, Iowa, as an example. The park and wetland along the Iowa River, completed in May 2013, includes a 2-acre pond and a 12-acre park featuring a variety of wetland landscapes. "It actually gives people the opportunity to get up over the wetlands during a flood event through a series of walkways [made of metal grating]," Crawford said. "So it's providing a great educational opportunity as well as an environmental benefit to the area."


It is also becoming more common for new beach areas, peninsulas and islands to be built to create new waterfront real estate—such as the proposed Hudson River Park island in New York City. The Site Design Group recently worked on a shoreline expansion project near Chicago's Fullerton Avenue that created 5 new acres of beachfront land. The lakefront wall there was decades old and needed replacing, and the location's bike path needed to be realigned because the curved path there created too many accidents.

The new acreage in turn provided an opportunity to turn a dilapidated old theater on the lake into a forthcoming repaired amenity where there will now be room for concerts and other events. "Taking a capital improvement project that had to happen and turning it into something that had multiple facets of benefits was the great outcome of that one," McCauley said.

The firm is now working on a floating barge for a brewery and distillery that, when complete, will offer a pool, dining facility and recreation spot on the water that people can access via water taxi.

From Mining Roles to Swimming Holes

Ron Romens, president of a company based in Verona, Wis., that provides a variety of water-based recreation products to the market, along with design and planning advice for waterfront areas, is seeing clients undertake a growing number of projects that are turning exhausted mining quarries into bodies of water for recreation. And the further in advance the planning process takes place, the more smoothly the transition can occur—even if it's 20 or 30 years before mining operations conclude.


Crawford also noted this as being important, having been involved both with projects that were planned well in advance and with quarry conversions that weren't. "The best advice I would give as a park planner and designer is to, as early as you possibly can, get a consultant engaged to work through a long-range master-planning process," he said. "That way, you can start to plan the conversion and the transition to what the park is going to look like. Because they usually take a generation to build anyway."

One recent quarry conversion project Romens worked on was SunWest Park in Pasco County, Fla. It features about 700 yards of white sand beach and features amenities that include swimming areas, an NCAA beach volleyball venue, kayak and paddle board rentals, and a large aqua park featuring inflatables on the water.

Romens is seeing increasing interest in inflatable sports parks in these and other beach environments. At between $50,000 and $150,000, these inflatable attractions can be a relatively budget-friendly way to offer a fun amenity that attracts patrons on a pay-to-play basis. "Compared to a new pool that might cost $3.5 to $10 million, that's not a whole ton of money," Romens said.

According to Romens, the commercial inflatables typically come with a two-year warranty, but he's seeing locations getting between three to seven years out of the systems. "Down in the Caribbean where it's 365 days a year and heavy sun, we're seeing about three to four years. We have a lot of summer camps and resorts in the Northeast and Northwest that are getting more like six to eight years out of the products," Romens said.


At the SunWest Park, the newest amenity being installed is a wakeboarding cable park, an amenity Romens is seeing with more frequency. "I think cable parks are a big deal," he said. "I know of at least a dozen of them that are in the planning and development stages currently. And we're seeing them everywhere from California to North Carolina to Florida to Texas."

At the same time, however, he cautions that the most successful waterfront transformations incorporating these attractions also take care to offer amenities for other ages, since the cable parks are most used by teens and young adults.

"Those kids that are 12 and 14, mom's bringing them," Romens said. "So do you have shade? Do you have seating? Do you have other activities, whether land-based or shallow-water-based, for toddlers or young kids? It could be things as easy as creating a dig zone where it's a huge sandbox with shade over it and sectored off—so it's not too narrow of a demographic that it's serving." Romens is seeing an ongoing surge in interest in standup paddleboarding and in yoga on the water, both on paddleboards and on floating yoga mats.

When it comes to more active recreation along rivers, Crawford is seeing increasing interest in whitewater rafting channels and off-channel tubing runs. Because many trail networks also follow rivers, he's also seeing a growing interest in camping amenities. "We've had situations where we've even proposed urban campgrounds within riverfront parks simply because they're located along regional or even statewide trail systems where people will go out for weeks at a time and camp or bike along these trail systems," Crawford said.

A Phased Approach

Because waterfront transformations can often involve numerous state, local and federal entities, they often take place over many phases. In many cases, the initial phases can prove to be such crowd-pleasers that the waterfront projects go far beyond what planners had initially anticipated.

The most successful waterfront transformations that incorporate attractions take care to offer amenities for other ages.

Crawford noted the example of the Principal Riverwalk in Des Moines, Iowa. "We actually came up with a master plan almost 20 years ago based on a $10 million gift," Crawford said. "Here we are now and there's been nearly $90 million invested in the Riverwalk and there's lots of recreational amenities along the river."

The Smale Riverfront Park has likewise been an ongoing project that now includes features such as a lager house, a rose garden, an indoor carousel, a splash pad, a rose garden, a banquet center and other amenities. It has turned a once-ignored area of the city into a prime city attraction. "It's an honor to work there, and I think that the best part is that the city and the citizens think it's theirs," Dawson said. "And it is theirs. It's the community's."