Feature Article - March 2020
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The New Community Waterfront

Boost Recreation, Revenues, Social Equity & Sustainability

By Chris Gelbach


Across the nation, waterfronts from lakes to rivers to quarries and beyond are being transformed. These efforts are successfully turning underutilized, neglected and formerly industrial areas into cherished public spaces that are enhancing the recreation, culture, health and aesthetics of the communities they serve. And many of the most successful share common attributes that can be replicated and adapted to the unique needs and waterfronts of communities nationwide.

Start With a Bold Vision

A growing roster of successful waterfront transformations nationwide are making more and more communities realize that in some cases, an ambitious waterfront vision is not only possible, but often preferable.

For example, the City of Seattle is currently executing an epic, multi-year $724 million waterfront transformation that began as a community vision to remove the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a double-decker freeway on the waterfront, and reconnect the downtown corridor to the waterfront area.

Since beginning the public process in 2010, more than 10,000 community members have participated in visioning sessions, community meetings, walking tours and environmental reviews to ensure that the project meets community needs. "It was probably the largest public process we've ever had in Seattle, at least in anyone's memory," said Marshall Foster, director of Seattle's Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects.

But the early process also involved a strategic early debut of an extensive concept design from the design firm James Corner Field Operations. "Like a lot of cities, Seattle has a healthy record of planning … where we have public process after public process and it can lead to stalemate or paralysis," Foster said. "We wanted to avoid that by having a team that would really bring the public together around a set of strong design ideas for the waterfront, and that's what James Corner's team did."

During the public process, the city learned that what residents want from city parks has changed. This has accompanied Seattle's demographic transformation, as an influx of young professionals over the past decade has also resulted in more of the population living in smaller households and renting versus owning.

"We're becoming more urban, and with that people's attitudes toward parks changed," Foster said. "People used to see parks as the Olmstedian ideal—a pastoral park as a contemplative place to rest and to take in nature," Foster said. "What we heard in this process is that what people really wanted was a dynamic, urban, more cultural park. A place for music. A place where I could get really good food and drink. Where I can enjoy the water and views and can bring my friends and family. I can have this kind of urban experience with parks and culture as opposed to this more traditional idea about parks as a passive open space."

As a result, the final design incorporates spaces that will be used for farmers' markets, festivals, music and culture. Seattleites also said they wanted spaces for biking and running—desires that dovetailed nicely with the planned linear waterfront park's configuration.

Focus on Equity

When preserved or recaptured as public amenities, waterfronts also can provide a potent opportunity to provide increased recreational opportunities to all citizens, often at little or no cost.

When planning the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park for the City of Tampa, Fla., Civitas Principal Mark Johnson had an instructive conversation with an elderly man in his 90s who many decades ago used to go out fishing and crabbing on a boat as a child, and even sell what he caught to local markets.

"Then he mentioned that there was nowhere in the City of Tampa today where you could put a boat in the water without paying," Johnson said. "Which I thought couldn't be possible in a city like Tampa, surrounded by water on all sides. And yet, it turned out to be true."

In a later conversation, the city's mayor, a boat owner himself, was also stunned to learn the fact. "He was shocked when he realized the inequity that the city had created by essentially allowing the privatization of all the waterfront, and not allowing access on a public waterfront," Johnson said. "He got committed and raised a tremendous amount of money and convinced the parks department that they were suddenly in the new business of aquatic recreation management, which they had never been in before."

Today, the new waterfront park along the Hillsborough River has revitalized a 25-acre park that had fallen into disrepair. It is part of the new InVision Tampa plan to regenerate the riverfront of west Tampa and its historic African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

The design provides public access to the waterfront along with amenities that include fitness trails, picnic sites and an events lawn, as well as a boating center for crew boats, kayaks, standup paddleboards, canoes and dragon boats, all supported by the local parks department. "You can check them out and take classes, which are all either free or very inexpensive, so that for the first time the African-American community has equal access to water play and water recreation that they have not had for probably 70 years," Johnson said.

For many of these waterfront projects, a growing focus is also on providing access to bike trails, shuttles and other transportation opportunities. These efforts not only help create more dynamic, natural and walkable waterfronts by deprioritizing parking lots, but also contribute to greater social equity by making a keystone natural attraction more accessible to all users.

Johnson is seeing this focus on social equity as one of the top three things that continue to rise in importance in new waterfront projects at all scales. The other two are a related focus on public health and an effort to mitigate stresses related to climate change, including rising water levels and erosion.