Just Add Water

Creating Opportunities for Waterfront Recreation

When it comes to relaxing and finding a little peace of mind, many people are drawn to water. Oceans, lakes, rivers and even small canals or ponds can provide a sense of escape and calm. Of course, there was a time when water also provided many industrial uses, and cities and towns across America sprang up around bodies of water large and small. But as industrial uses for these waterfronts have declined, many communities have worked to turn their waterfronts into recreation destinations.


Mark Johnson, owner and president of Civitas, a Denver-based urban design and landscape architecture firm, explained that for maritime or Great Lakes waterfronts, as the methods for intermodal goods transfer evolved, many ports lost business. "The consequence is that many cities have found that industrial space on the water has moved elsewhere, the land is often in public hands, and most communities have turned to recreation as a way to turn a brownfield into a community asset, especially as our culture now values the environment, healthy water and air, wildlife and contact with nature as urban values," he said.

Johnson described how waterfronts are often the best place in a city to view not only the water, but the sky and horizon, and to smell and sense the water, air and weather. "Waterfronts thus present a sense of place and grounding that is pure and authentic to each place. The more activity there is on the water and the shore, the more attractive the location is to locals and visitors. Designing a waterfront for comfort, walking, resting and watching are the fundamentals to making a waterfront attractive."

Whether it be oceanfront property or the shores of a small river snaking through town, revitalizing waterfronts can prove to be an expensive undertaking for a community. But ultimately, these enhancements can generate revenue and revitalize downtowns as visitors patronize stores, restaurants and farmers markets, or attend concerts, art fairs and other events. "Fundamentally, a waterfront is an edge, and people like to walk along edges," said Johnson. "The addition of places to gather, rest and eat, and other services or events makes the experience more interesting and retains people for longer walks or longer times on site."

Oftentimes, waterfront areas become neglected eyesores or reside in underserved areas. "In general, the industrial nature of waterfronts from the 19th and mid-20th centuries impacted nearby communities," said Johnson. "It's very common that these areas near former industrial waterfronts suffer under disinvestment or poverty."

In Tampa, Fla., the former site of the new 25-acre Julian B. Lane (JBL) Riverfront Park had fallen into disrepair. In the 1960s, houses and businesses in the historic Roberts City neighborhood were razed under urban renewal. A neighborhood park was eventually added and used for active recreation and sports, but it eventually suffered from significant gang and criminal activities, according to Johnson.


In 2012, Tampa unveiled the InVision plan, with the purpose of improving the West Tampa riverfront, downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, including JBL Riverfront Park, which opened in 2018. Civitas contributed to the design and redevelopment of the park, initiating a series of public meetings to gather citizens' input on the design and programming of the space. The residents shared their desires for greater safety and accessibility, public access to the Hillsborough River, fitness trails, picnic sites, a lawn for events and activities and references to community history.

"JBL has become a destination for families and locals to visit on a regular basis, offering a lot of amenities and a little something for everyone," said Brad Suder, superintendent of planning, design & natural resources with the city of Tampa Parks and Recreation. There's a playground, splash pad, dog park, public art, picnic shelters, fitness trail, athletic field, tennis and pickleball courts and green space all along the Hillsborough River. There's a transient boat dock for motorized boats, water taxi stops and public kayak launches, as well as an event pavilion, community plaza and festival lawn. "The park has been very popular for weddings and other community gatherings. The outdoor spaces host festivals and concerts of all sizes—anything from 100 people to 40,000-plus," said Suder.

The Tampa River Center offers three meeting/event spaces and features floor-to-ceiling glass and a deck overlooking the Hillsborough River. "We had over 50,000 guests visit the center in the first year," said Suder, who joked that the staff like to say "The room is free; we charge for the view." A boathouse resides on the ground floor of the River Center, providing storage for local rowing and dragon boat teams as well as kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals, which have proved to be great revenue generators, according to Suder.

The Hillsborough River empties into Tampa Bay, and just across the river from JBL Park sits the Tampa Riverwalk, easily accessed by bridge. The Riverwalk consists of a waterside walkway stretching 2.6 miles, linking parks, museums and convention facilities, and offering amenities like restaurants, retail, boat docks, murals and shade. Its utilization has evolved to attract many events and conventions, according to Suder. "Areas along the Riverwalk also provide urban relief and allow the community to connect with nature by bringing them down to the river. Areas of softened shoreline include mangroves and other flora, providing opportunities to encounter birds, alligators, manatees, dolphins and stingrays." Deteriorating seawalls were restored to natural habitat and filtering devices for pollutants flowing from downtown streets were constructed.

Sometimes grassroots and volunteer groups are instrumental in helping their communities initiate and maintain waterfront enhancement endeavors. In Tampa, the nonprofit Friends of the Riverwalk work in tandem with the city to "transform the downtown's waterfront into an active, pedestrian-friendly environment for commerce, transportation, entertainment and fitness."


"(They) administer several programs including the personal pavers, pole banners, holiday décor and several signature events including Riverfest and Riverwalk Trick or Treat," said Suder.

For hundreds of years, the Arkansas River has played a key role in Pueblo, Colo. Native Americans followed the river for hunting and trapping, and early sheepherders, cattlemen and farmers depended on it. Later, the steel industry used the water resources to construct a manufacturing center. But after a devastating flood destroyed much of Pueblo in 1921, the river was relocated farther south. The original historic location in the downtown area became unsightly and unusable, consisting of cooling ponds, parking lots, a ditch, weeds and debris. In the mid-1980s, the Pueblo Conservancy District and others began organizing a plan to bring back the river channel to central Pueblo. After years of meetings, planning sessions and legal wrangling, groundbreaking took place in 1996 and the Riverwalk opened in 2000.

Established in 1995 to raise funds to build the Riverwalk, The Historic Arkansas Riverwalk of Pueblo (HARP) Foundation is a nonprofit organization that still operates to enrich the infrastructure and enhance the venue with art, benches, gardens, etc. The HARP Authority is an Intergovernmental Agreement with the city and other partners with a mission to promote, supervise, develop and maintain the Riverwalk.

Today, the Riverwalk hosts various festivals and events, including a car show, Brew Fest, holiday gatherings and movie nights. There is dining and shopping along the Riverwalk, and 54 pieces of recognized art.

Lynn Clark is executive director of both the HARP Foundation and the HARP Authority, and she explained that when small weekday activities are planned, like a farmers market or live music, restaurants report about a 40% increase in business that day. Based on this, they execute a "12 months of activity" plan, using social media to promote things like Beer Day and Pizza Day. "People like to celebrate, and even the silly days can be fun. We're creative on a small budget!"

Pedal boats are available to rent, and visitors are encouraged to bring their own kayak, canoe or paddleboard. Excursion boat rides are also offered. "The boats are the highlight of the experience of the Riverwalk," said Clark. "There is nothing better than being on the channel level in one of our boats. We also promote school field trips, as the scripted boat tour is about Pueblo and Riverwalk history. You can request a private gondola ride with a pizza dinner for two, and the excursion boats do private rentals and happy hour cruises."

There are also locations for private events, including a large pavilion and a natural area featuring native plantings, wildflowers and the sound of the river in the heart of downtown. According to Clark, wedding ceremonies are the number one rental request, with a great photographic backdrop. "We also get requests for adding a private boat rental for the wedding party."

In an effort to keep the venue safe and attractive, each winter for approximately four weeks the channel is drained for a thorough cleaning, removing silt and aquatic weeds. "This is part of our water quality program as our water source is the Arkansas River and it's in a completely natural state," explained Clark. "We also take this drain opportunity to inspect the channel walls and the valves that control the water system." In addition, any concrete edging replacement or other renovations that are too difficult to execute with water in the channel are addressed.

And though the Riverwalk is 20 years old, Clark said that upgrades continue. "We're currently working on the HARP Expansion to take the channel to Santa Fe Avenue, and (we're) building the boathouse which will store our larger boats and have a rooftop party deck available for rental."

Outside of Dallas in Grapevine, Texas, sits Lake Grapevine, an 8,000-acre recreational lake surrounded by miles of fitness trails. The lake is popular for swimming, fishing, water skiing, sailing and camping. But when a survey of Grapevine's population was taken as part of the city's Master Recreation Plan to gauge recreation interests, it showed there was an overwhelming desire for a waterpark. So in 2018, Altitude H2O opened on Lake Grapevine—a 25,000-square-foot floating aqua park, complete with monkey bars, trampolines, slides, balance beams, dive platforms and obstacles of many types.

While the city owns the land, a third party operates the waterpark, and Director of Grapevine Parks and Recreation Ken Mitchell is pleased with the arrangement. "The park attendance far exceeded what we expected, and we couldn't be happier with how the partnership went."

Ron Romens is president of the Wisconsin-based firm that custom-designed the Grapevine waterpark. They specialize in products and services for the waterfront industry, including planning, design, installation, training and operational support. And while Romens' company often works with camps, campgrounds, resorts and RV parks, he described how more municipalities are coming to them, looking to enhance under-utilized bodies of water in their communities. "It brings more people to the area and adds life to the local businesses when you're putting in some type of active recreation. Those types of things are driving economics through the summer."


Romens explained that there's an education process when they receive inquiries from communities. "They give you a picture, but we bring them back to the beginning and say: Do you have a body of water? How is it being used? What are the outcomes that you're after? Because there are deep-water activity zones, shallow-water activity zones, active recreation and passive recreation, and appealing to different demographics, from toddlers and teenagers up to parents and grandparents. So we're educating them on the design criteria, safe installation and safe operation before we're even talking about products."

"You're really creating an environment," Romens added. "So the shade, the seating, the trash, circulation patterns… If it's going to be monetized, how are you going to move people through and sell tickets, and monitor it with lifeguards and life jackets? Do you need ice cream or food trucks or other businesses to support the activity that you're creating?"

For those looking to achieve an aqua park or waterpark-style destination, there are a myriad of floating and inflatable amenities available, as well as climbing walls, rolling logs and so much more. And Romens points out that stand-up paddleboards, kayaks and pedal boats make excellent rentals. "Activity breeds activity, and paddle sports—and all boats—are very much impulse-driven. But it's important when you're designing the area how you set up access: how those rentals and activities are set up in proximity to the rest of the site—food and beverage, swimming beach, active deep zones, etc."

Floating, modular dock systems can be strategically incorporated, according to Romens, without having to be permanent, in case a waterfront area changes. "You can have your kayak and paddleboard launch, swim platforms and a fishing pier. And you can place them in different configurations to create different use zones in future years as well."

In Minnesota—just west of Minneapolis—Panoway on Wayzata Bay is an initiative to restore, protect and enhance the public shoreline on Lake Minnetonka in downtown Wayzata. The project blossomed from the Lake Effect Initiative, in which several years were spent gathering input from thousands of people to determine the needs and wants of the community. Goals included providing greater public access to the lake by adding a 2,000-foot lakeside boardwalk; making downtown Wayzata more pedestrian and bike friendly; adding two expanded and enhanced waterfront parks; adding a restroom and an expanded garden and green space leading to the water, including ADA-access to the lake; inviting artists to design green spaces where residents can gather; and boosting downtown business by attracting guests to visit downtown shops and restaurants.


But as with many waterfront renewals, sustainability and eco-consciousness were also major drivers of the project, which included improving the lakeside ecosystem by reintroducing native plant life, restoring habitats and converting a large area of concrete back to parkland.

Civitas is involved with the ongoing project, which received a 2020 Excellence on the Waterfront award from the nonprofit Waterfront Center. Johnson explained how most urban waterfronts are hardened against wave action from unobstructed wind that creates continuous wave impact. "Before settlement that shoreline was a large, marshy area that absorbed that wave action through its shallow bottom, dense marsh vegetation and size. The shoreline was hardened with riprap and the marsh filled in more than 100 years ago."

Johnson explained how this caused continual underwater and shoreline erosion. "Our scheme creates an underwater reef that will replace the wave buffering of the original marsh, allowing us to re-establish a shoreline marsh that will be interesting, provide habitat for small creatures including fish, amphibians and insects, attracting birds and so on. People today also value the idea that we are restoring lost environmental and ecological functions as a healing story."

Whatever the scale of your waterfront restoration or revitalization project, Romens stresses that education and planning are critical, and determining goals and outcomes up front. "If you're going to invest the money, how do you measure what you're going to get out of it? It goes back to good designing, as far as how successful many of these locations are."

"The Tampa River Center hosts over 150 events per year with, in our opinion, the best view in the city. The teams we have in the boathouse have over 500 athletes actively utilizing the boathouse facility daily," said Suder, explaining how they've far exceeded their growth plan. "I always like to think that it's human nature to want to visit the water. Anything that can be done to foster this desire and provide useful activities and development is always a positive." RM