November 10, 2005

New waterfront mandate: OK isn't good enough

  • Economic forces, lifestyle choices and changes in our cities demand better use of these valuable resources.
    LMN Architects

    Photo copyright Soundview Aerial Photography
    The new Kitsap Conference Center in Bremerton is a catalyst for new public space and development along the waterfront. The development includes a hotel, office space, restaurants and a public link to the water's edge.

    Virtually every major city in North America is witnessing an astonishing reuse of its waterfront. For hundreds of years, cities devoted the land to railroads and industries such as pulp mills and shipping. Rarely were these environments deemed appropriate for other uses.

    But this is a new economy, with a new set of social and demographic imperatives. Railroads have dramatically scaled back operations, mills are closing almost monthly, and water-borne freight has shifted to large container ports located some distance from historic waterfronts, with better links to the highway system.

    The urban waterfront requires an aggressive reprogramming that acknowledges the romantic role the water's edge plays in our collective memory, historic rootedness and future leisure experience.

    Municipalities with burgeoning growth in their downtowns are facing increased demand for civic and recreational amenities and open space. Activists see waterfronts as places for redressing environmental impacts and providing a wide range of recreational choices. The private market views these locations as prime for dense mixed-use development with ready access to views, culture and urban "quality of life."

    Boston embarked on this transition two decades ago, as did Baltimore, San Francisco and Chicago. Portland has made headlines with its enlightened combination of parks, paths and housing intermingled along the Willamette River. Even closer to Seattle, Tacoma has seen a miraculous revitalization along the Thea Foss Waterway.

    Now, other cities are following. Bellingham is planning to integrate the Georgia Pacific paper mill site into its downtown and to create whole new neighborhoods. After decades of languishing, Bremerton is seeing a new downtown emerge with a focus around its waterfront.

    This growing phenomenon has presented policy-makers and planners with a host of challenges. Communities have had to balance desires for new investment with the public's insistence on access to the water's edge. Tacoma, Portland and many other cities have demonstrated that this balance can be achieved.

    Waterfront for all

    Key to planning efforts across the board is recognition of strong public sentiment involved in reuse of the urban waterfront. Due to a divergent wish-list that includes activities and facilities for working and leisure, infrastructural master plans are adopting a mix of intensive public space programming. Included are multi-level access and circulation, multi-modal connections, and a broad mix of private, civic and commercial uses.

    These democratic demands bring with them a plethora of regulatory and public process requirements involving governments, tribes, special interest groups and neighbors. Clear communication and intent are essential, as are thoughtful and creative responses to challenges and concerns. An understanding of stakeholders' priorities early in the process will smooth bumps and potential conflicts, and identify fatal flaws which could prove costly later on.

    Authenticity and heritage

    Within the jumble of industrial remnants, contaminated sites and civic neglect often lies the maritime heritage of communities. A challenge lies in the retention or recognition of historic patterns and artifacts, while creating a new future predicated on new priorities of recreation and urban life. Rotterdam, one of the world's largest ports, has successfully balanced the two by creating new neighborhoods around the old harbors and tying them together with a program of "industrial tourism" that embraces the workings of the port.

    Cities are resisting the "Disneyfication" of their waterfronts in favor of "living" neighborhoods and valuable recreational amenities. "Satisfy the locals, and the tourism will come" is the mantra echoed by municipalities and visitor bureaus alike.

    Architecturally, a challenge arises in the transition from urban scale and fabric to a maritime, industrial scale dominated by gigantic cruise ships, container terminals and shipping cranes. Successful projects will retain the authentic feel and character of the working waterfront without resorting to pastiche and gimmickry.

    Healthy fish, healthy people

    The third imperative is to create habitat along the waterfront — even in heavily populated and developed areas. This calls for the innovative design of esplanades, seawalls and breakwaters. The planned Vancouver, B.C., convention center expansion uses a limited-access green roof along with other "green" strategies to extend the public realm of Stanley Park while providing habitat for air, land and sea creatures.

    Particularly in the Northwest, the connection between recreation and the great outdoors is essential to many, even in a highly urban context.

    The few opportunities that arise to redress years of contamination and abuse on our urban waterfronts are being seized upon not only by environmental activists but by the general public and business as well. The recognition of the scenic beauty and recreational potential of our bays, lakes and watersheds is encouraging environmentally sensitive development. Healthy parks and bodies of water are being seen as crucial to regional and urban growth.

    Mandate: great waterfronts

    The new demands on our changing waterfronts add up to a new mandate: OK isn't good enough. The new economy, new lifestyle choices and an evolving urban fabric demand better use of valuable limited resources. Maintaining and creating jobs requires attracting the best and brightest, while hanging on to traditional industries like shipping and fishing.

    Our urban waterfronts need to accommodate additional uses. The urban waterfront requires an aggressive reprogramming that will create the framework for the romantic role the water's edge will continue to play in our collective memory, historic rootedness and future leisure experience.

    As we move into the next decade, we will continue to see challenges and issues arise as old piers, plants and industrial edges are replaced by a new breed of uses and activities. The challenge will be to retain and respect the authentic heritage and character of our waterfronts while providing hospitable places for both our children and the fingerling salmon.

    Randal Bennett is an associate architect with LMN, with experience on large mixed-use and urban regeneration schemes in the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States. Mark L. Hinshaw, FAIA, FAICP, is a principal and the director of urban design at LMN Architects.

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