Feature Article - March 2018
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From Industrial to Recreational

Ideas in Waterfront Restoration

By Dave Ramont

When communities were first being settled in the United States, they often sprung up near bodies of water. Of course, the original major cities such as New York, Boston and Baltimore, had access to ocean harbors, where large ports would become important trade centers. Ships could load and unload goods, which could be moved to other locations by land or rivers. As development made its way inland, canals were constructed to move people and goods, and along these canals, tiny communities often grew into larger cities.

There were other reasons to settle near water, aside from the obvious benefits of having a limitless food and water source in your backyard. Land that surrounds rivers and lakes is often found to be particularly fertile, making for excellent agricultural opportunities. And if you were raising animals, a water source was important. But trade and travel—the ability to connect to the rest of the country, and world—was what really spurred growth. The Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri Rivers, among others, led to boom towns like Cincinnati, St. Louis and New Orleans.

But by the 20th century, and the prevalence of roads and railroads, water transport and travel became less crucial. Waterfronts in communities often became industrial spaces, and as the decades went on, these industries not only utilized the water, but often used the waterways for disposing harmful chemicals and byproducts. Waterfronts became eyesores and areas that citizens avoided.

Cities and towns are realizing that these amenities are an asset, and urban waterways from coast to coast are once again drawing visitors.

But tougher regulations and shifting mindsets have enabled many bodies of water to detoxify and become viable again. Cities and towns are realizing that these amenities are an asset, and urban waterways from coast to coast are once again drawing visitors. The reasons for communities to enhance and restore their waterfronts are numerous, aside from the aesthetic value, whether it's conservation initiatives or creating recreation opportunities and generating revenue. Or designing and developing waterways for resilience, particularly now with seemingly changing weather patterns and the effects this has on waterfronts and surrounding communities.

"For many years, urban and suburban waterfronts have been neglected, indeed in many places turned away from and considered an unfortunate burden rather than an asset," said Andrew Duggan. Duggan is a principal with Studio Outside, a landscape architectural practice based in Dallas, and has completed many types of projects worldwide, including waterfront restorations. He describes how some communities lost connections with their waterways all together by piping major channels or walling them off behind buildings. "Resurgence in interest in these natural corridors and waterfront edges is envisioning them as points of community gathering, recreation and identity," he added, pointing out the irony of how oftentimes the water was the reason for a settlement at a given location in the first place.

Duggan explained how linear corridors, along a creek, river or lakeshore, create benefit and value on many levels when managed properly, but especially in the realms of natural systems, green infrastructure, recreation and real estate property values. The public's demand for meaningful outdoor experiences has grown, he said, driving an interest in safe, inviting areas for recreation via trails and other park amenities. "Green infrastructure opportunities, however, seek to balance how a restored natural system can do more than a maze of underground pipes, for example, to convey storm events, clean stormwater runoff pollution from urban areas, create wildlife corridors and offer public recreational experiences."

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Ill., was looking to develop a camping program across its vast acreage throughout the Chicagoland area, and Duggan's firm was brought on to assist. The planning team completed a series of assessments, including tours of the land holdings, discovery sessions with preserve staff, and identifying opportunity sites. Stakeholders were interviewed, and market studies and public forums were conducted, ensuring that the final plan would serve the needs of the community.

"Several linear camping experiences (canoe camping) were identified along its urban rivers to deliver an accessible natural immersion in the heart of the urban environment," Duggan said.

He added that while public outreach showed the demand was there, it's up to local governments to ensure that such experiences are preserved, so cities can retain a diversity of offerings to residents and tourists alike. "For such offerings to be appealing, however, they must be designed in such a manner that the public investment is protected—thereby requiring a resilient design approach for long-term viability."

Ultimately, Forest Preserve offerings will include day camps, overnight camping and nature study programs.