Feature Article - March 2020
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The New Community Waterfront

Boost Recreation, Revenues, Social Equity & Sustainability

By Chris Gelbach


Lead With Sustainability

As water levels continue to rise, communities across the United States are making combating this threat an important part of their waterfront development plans.

In building Seattle's new waterfront, one of the first completed portions was the reconstruction of the seawall in the main section of the project. According to Foster, this was done both because the seawall was seismically unsafe and needed replacement, and because it provided the opportunity for significant habitat enhancements.

"We basically wanted to soften the shore to protect some really important salmon migration that takes place along our downtown waterfront, and also to make sure that we were prepared and protected from major storm events—essentially protecting the asset that we were about to build above it," Foster said.

In addition to habitat restoration and flood mitigation, many waterfront projects are also reclaiming beaches and shorelines that have been diminished by erosion. In Post Falls, Idaho, the design for Black Bay Park along the Spokane River will include a boardwalk that will mitigate wave action and counteract the erosion from recreational boat traffic that is causing the loss of land that people have been using for generations. "The boardwalk is going to reduce the wake action, but it's also going to create a protective area where kids can swim within the bay and doesn't allow boat traffic beyond it, so it's serving two purposes," said Scott Jordan, principal at Civitas.

Like many new waterfront projects, it also builds upon and highlights the distinctive natural assets of the area, giving people access to a rocky landscape forged by Ice Age floods through the connecting boardwalks that are placed both along the river and 60 feet above. The wooden boardwalk's look also references the town's logging heritage.

Serve the Multitudes

The most successful new waterfronts are attracting users and visitors by providing amenities that appeal to a wide range of users as opposed to highly skilled and specialized groups. This is the case even in projects more traditionally associated with extreme sports, such as designs incorporating whitewater elements.

Gary Lacy, president and founder of Recreation Engineering & Planning in Boulder, Colo., has worked on a multitude of whitewater projects and recommends that communities opt for ones that cast a wide net in appealing to the broadest range of users.

This was an important element of a new river park in Grand Junction, Colo., that's currently under construction. "In that case it's just two whitewater features and quite a long lazy river, so it's certainly not challenging, dynamic, heavy whitewater," Lacy said. "But it doesn't take much, and it's really conducive to novices and the general public for floating, tubing, duckies and standup boards, so it's really geared toward a general population."

According to Lacy, a constructed drop in water across a river of 14 to 18 inches can create a wave that can be used by users on surfboards, boogie boards, standup boards, inner tubes and more. "It's fun and you don't have to be very advanced to hop on a boogie board and jump in there … versus intimidating whitewater, which, unless you're an advanced paddler, you look at it and think, 'I'm going to drown out there,'" Lacy said.

These kinds of water features can also serve multiple types of users. "The identical wave could have a high-end surfer on it and then the next person comes down in an inner tube," Lacy said. "Same feature, same everything, they're just used differently."

In addition to whitewater features, Lacy is seeing more projects include elements such as beaches, paths for river access, bank terracing where people can sit and watch others use the river, and private partnerships to develop nearby old historic buildings into brewpubs or other similar offerings. Even projects with higher-skill features are trying to include amenities that make them appealing to spectators, hikers, kids, foodies and others.

The best waterfronts are also providing a healthy mix of both passive and active options, as well. And when projects do include higher-skill features, they are being complemented with other amenities that appeal to a broader range of users. Ron Romens, president of a Verona, Wis.-based provider and designer of recreation products and services with a specialty in waterfront projects, noted the example of Shark Wake Park at the North Myrtle Beach Sports Complex in South Carolina. It features a wakeboard cable park near a more family-oriented inflatable floating playground with monkey bars, climbing towers, slides and more.

"So you have a high-throughput, low-skill event paired with a high-skill, low-throughput event," Romens said. "The cable park is really sexy, they have competitions, it's cool and cutting-edge, but the inflatables in the sports park are low-skill … and it goes to all demographics."

That being said, as Romens installs these inflatable water features into more settings, they are often put in as part of a larger family-based entertainment center that develops a water and land environment that may have been previously underutilized. And since the inflatable parks generally are for those 7 years or older (49 inches or taller), they are often complemented by features such as splash pads or large sandbox environments designed for even younger patrons.

By creating numerous fun activities for various user groups, all connected in a cohesive and accessible way, these projects are turning underutilized waterways into local and regional destinations.