By the Shore

Waterfronts Provide Economic Strength, Charm


Waterfronts provide more than a place for people to enjoy recreational activities in the water or on land. They offer communities economic stability, character and environmental benefits, making them effective recreational amenities.

"Waterfront developments, particularly those within the public realm, are increasingly focusing on benefits that reach beyond traditional recreational metrics," said Scott Crawford, senior partner, landscape architect, and Parks and Recreation Studio director for RDG Planning & Design, an architectural firm based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Riverfronts, greenways, lakes and coastal improvement projects are considering and emphasizing the health of ecological, social, cultural, financial and built systems.

"This integrated method of planning, designing, implementing and managing waterfronts is resulting in more resilient and functional developments," he said.

Ron Romens, president of a Verona, Wis.-based company that specializes in recreation products and services, including waterfront development, noted that he has been seeing public and private entities reinventing underutilized waterfronts in order to create centers of attraction, relaxation and recreation.

"On a larger scale, communities are developing waterfronts and waterfront amenities to drive tourism, draw people out into nature, get people more active and add to the quality of life," Romens said.

"On a smaller scale we have been seeing public and private entities leveraging underutilized beaches, quarries and lakes to create a hub for active and passive recreation by creating water-based family entertainment areas designed to appeal to all age groups," he added. "Areas an entire family can enjoy to come together to recreate and get back to nature."

Valuable Amenities

Turning waterfronts into effective recreational amenities involves a lot of planning, expertise and a thorough awareness of the environment.

"Understanding and incorporating environmental systems of waterfronts into the planning, design and implementation of successful recreational amenities is critical to the sustainability of these community assets," Crawford said.


"Allowing ecological systems of the specific waterfront site to function naturally and integrating the recreational amenities within these systems rather than altering the ecology of the area demonstrate a community's commitment to environmental stewardship and is typically a more cost-effective approach," he said.

In a client example, the Principal Riverwalk project has transformed the Des Moines Riverfront within downtown Des Moines, Iowa.

"This public-private partnership effort has resulted in over $100 million of investment in quality of life improvements and recreational amenities along the Des Moines River," Crawford said.

The Principal Riverwalk is located in the heart of the downtown area and features lighted, landscaped public spaces, world-class public art, and unique pedestrian bridges and pathways that connect 300 miles of Central Iowa trails. The project, completed in early 2013, was a gift to the city of Des Moines in honor of the 125th anniversary of the Principal Financial Group.

"Not only is Rotary Riverwalk Park a unique amenity in our park system, it afforded us another opportunity to forge a partnership with the local Rotary organizations, who were the driving force behind the implementation of this project," said Ben Page, parks and recreation director, Des Moines Parks and Recreation.

"The iconic Rotary Riverwalk Park added a destination element to the relatively new Principal Riverwalk," Page said. "The playground provided a play element and family stop to the 1.2-mile loop downtown."

In another example, RDG Planning is involved in transforming Crystal Prairie Lake Park in Wichita, Kan.

Waterfronts offer communities economic stability, character and environmental benefits, making them effective recreational amenities.

"[Crystal Lake Prairie Park] is unique, as it seeks to set forth design and construction criteria for how the site will be transformed from mining operations to a public amenity," Crawford said. "Through the engagement of both the public and private sectors, wide consensus has developed that Crystal Prairie Lake Park should be a 420-acre model for sustainability."

In addition, both active and passive uses of the site are offered a broad mix of programs, enabling Crystal Prairie Lake Park to generate revenues to cover a significant portion of its operating expenses through water-based activities and programs.

Meanwhile, Romens suggested that the most effective recreational amenities need to offer something for all age groups and abilities.

"The area needs to have multi-generational, multi-ability appeal," Romens said. "By designing a combination of recreation areas or zones for both active and passive recreation, shallow and deep water activities, and land and water-based activities, this is effectively achieved."

For those looking for an active recreation experience, you can add water inflatable obstacle courses that offer varying levels of challenge. "These can be designed for shallow or deep water, and watching people slip, slide and climb through one of these is as much fun for the spectator as it is for the participant," Romens said. "Stand-up paddleboards … kayaks and pedal boats are also popular. Offering a variety of activities not only helps disperse demand for any one activity, it encourages repeat visits to the location."

For passive recreation, walking paths, lookout points, docks and seating located in strategic places are key.

"Shades and benches and tables for seating create a space in which passive recreators can comfortably gather and observe while they take a break from the action," Romens said. "Including spaces such as large sand areas and shallow water activities also provides space for passive recreation and adds to the multi-generational appeal."


At Park Lake in Santa Rosa, N.M., the city was looking for ways to bring tourists to the area by using existing civic assets. One of the city's largest assets was Park Lake, a largely unused public lake. The city partnered with Romens' company to create an on-water obstacle course that generated excitement and regular visits from city residents and tourists.

In this case, the city charged a daily fee to use the obstacle course, which has proven to be a revenue generator.

In other waterfront examples, California Parks Company identified the lakefronts at Lake Gregory and Lake Perris as underutilized assets. So, to better use the lake and attract more visitors, Romens' company and its team of specialists was asked to help. The partnership rejuvenated interest in the parks and created new aquatic destinations.

Both of the locations are part of California State Parks, which had seen dwindling attendance in recent years.

"They wanted to reposition the lakefronts as aquatic destinations and rejuvenate public interest to better use these beautiful assets to their full potential," said Shannon Brower, who works as a marketing specialist for the same Verona, Wis.-based company as Romens.

"At both locations we completed a needs analysis to determine the right products to meet their goals and specific budgets. Once the analysis was complete, we created on-water obstacle courses or sports parks that generated excitement and increased overall attendance and beach usage," she said.

"With both of these locations, we really helped guide them through the entire planning stages of the waterfront development. We provided site renderings with specific recreation zones to account for the variety of demographics that attend each site," she said.

Brower and Romens' company incorporated multiple play features to create unique play events to foster a rotational flow-through from one even to the next to allow for high-volume usage without congestion.

"We accounted for a variety of swimming abilities through the incorporation of both shallow and deep zones," she said.

In addition, the company also worked with them to considerably boost revenue. Through the introduction of a special use fee, each location was able to generate significant revenue.

Steps for Waterfront Planning

In order to ensure that your waterfront is a success, it's important to keep in mind some important steps during the planning process.

"The most important initial consideration when conceptualizing a waterfront space is identifying the environmental and jurisdictional opportunities and limitations of a specific site," Crawford said.

"Watersheds, environmentally sensitive areas, rivers, lakes, floodplains, floodways, wetlands and coastal regions all have agencies and regulations that define parameters and permittable uses in these areas," he said. "Understanding these nuances and how compatible potential waterfront development uses are will determine the feasibility of the effort moving forward."


Romens recommended that the first step in planning a waterfront space is a complete needs assessment.

"Identify specific project goals and take into consideration what demographics you are looking to serve," he said. "What does the space lend itself to? What budget do you have to work with, as well as what resources are available? Can it be planned, designed and built in phases?"

For example, in Clearwater, Fla., city officials now are planning for a massive waterfront development that is expected to take place in two phases.

"Our plan is in the conceptual planning stage. We're just completing the actual master plan," said Gina Clayton, assistant planning and development director for the city of Clearwater.

Back in 2014 the city had an Urban Land Institute advisory services panel come to town, which recommended that Clearwater create a masterplan for the waterfront bluff area.

"It's one of the highest bluff areas in Florida. It's a great resource, a beautiful waterfront, but a disconnect from there to the downtown area," Clayton said. "That was the reason why there was a recommendation to strengthen our downtown and tie it together. And, that's really how we got started."

The plan, dubbed "Imagine Clearwater," is a community-driven masterplanning process. The idea is to better connect the waterfront with the downtown area, draw visitors to the area, and catalyze greater activity and investment downtown. (Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc., an infrastructure consulting firm in Tampa, is part of the team behind the "Imagine Clearwater" waterfront park project.)

"This was really seen as a redevelopment," Clayton said. "We had an extensive public engagement process. People came with different perspectives and from different neighborhoods. It was a citywide effort because the key is how we can bring [together] all the people from every area of Clearwater. We had seven community workshops."

The waterfront masterplan includes four key strategies that the city's consultants have identified as leading to the success of the waterfront area.

Turning waterfronts into effective recreational amenities involves a lot of planning, expertise and a thorough awareness of the environment.

"We have to have a dynamic open space and new open space along the waterfront. Coachman Park has to have an active edge framing the park …" she said, adding that access to the waterfront also would have to complement all modes of transportation.

One part of the plan is to take the now-defunct convention center and create a civic gateway in its place, as well as establish an opening to the park. Another plan is to reorient the current concert band shell area.

"We have concerts and events, jazz and blues festival. We are increasing the size, oriented to work better with the sunset and into the band shell," she said.

Another plan for the area is a playground space that is like a garden, but incorporates play equipment. "In this area, we hope to improve interaction for people with families going to the library and go into a play space into the park," Clayton said.

Another vision is to have ponds and vegetation in the park area. "Have it as a natural setting and draw different types of users and ages and backgrounds. Hopefully, there is something there for everyone," she said. "The park needs to be framed with active uses, people eating and shopping there, and that will increase activity to the park."

To boot, the masterplan calls for improved connectivity in regards to the different ways to get in and out of the park, such as bicycle lanes and even a trolley to drop off people.

"The park right now is bounded by two streets. We are changing the way we access the park," she said. "There would be no cars by the waterfront."

The idea, too, is to design the space so that when there is an event, people would have to go through the heart of downtown to get to the park area. Right now, visitors bypass the heart of downtown.

Clayton said the waterfront project involves a two-phase implementation process. Each phase would take about five years to complete.

The Do's and Don'ts

When planning for a waterfront development, experts suggest to keep in mind some important do's and don'ts, too.


For instance, "Depending on the specific location and intended use of any waterfront development, planning for natural events is imperative," Crawford said. "This could be storm surges and rising ocean levels in coastal areas, floods and large storm events along greenways, rivers, creeks and wetlands, or other natural events that can impact the design of a waterfront development."

He also said that "planning for the continued and, in some cases, increasingly frequent occurrence of these events is important to ensure a resilient waterfront development project."

Meanwhile, Romens suggested that for the do's, you:

  • Research what others have done by talking directly to them and asking about the results.
  • Enlist the help of proper resources and experts.
  • Clearly define goals and objectives.
  • Be realistic.
  • Create a space with multi-age, multi-ability appeal.

And, as for the don'ts, Romens said:

  • Don't overextend your budget. Instead, use a multi-phased approach to account for budgetary restrictions.
  • Don't try to overdevelop the space. Accept natural limitations and create a plan that works with the space rather than trying to make the space work with your plans.