Feature Article - March 2021
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Just Add Water

Creating Opportunities for Waterfront Recreation

By Dave Ramont


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.