Pave paradise, but skip the parking lot.
Pave paradise, but skip the parking lot. (Raymond Forbes/Stocksy)
Best Towns 2018

How to Create the Perfect Waterfront

Developers want rivers lined with high-rises and environmentalists want reintroduction of native grasses. A successful waterfront revitalization needs both.

Pave paradise, but skip the parking lot.
Will Cockrell

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Few civic projects transform a city like a rejuvenated shoreline. But competing visions often doom these ventures before they even start, says Alex Krieger, a professor of urban design at Harvard and contributor to the book Remaking the Urban Waterfront. Should it be a nature preserve? An office park and shopping center? Something more residential? Deciding what to do can be harder than actually doing it.

“That situation exists almost everywhere,” Krieger says. “The solution is to remember that rivers are long. People actually want diversity, so create different segments—some that draw people and development, others that make sure development stays away. Find ways to make each bank different from the one opposite it.”

Using this as our guiding principle, we looked at a few of the country’s most successful projects and broke down how to create the perfect waterfront.

Brooklyn, New York
Brooklyn, New York (Seth Mourra/Stocksy)

Step 1: Invite Diversity

Design element: Accessible public space.

Case study: East River, Brooklyn, New York.

Gentrification is a common pitfall when polishing up decayed waterfronts. “It can actually prevent those who need access the most from spending time there,” Krieger says. But the parks by the Brooklyn Bridge along the East River draw a diverse group of users from across the city with amenity-filled public spaces that include basketball courts, walking trails, and picnicking areas.

Louisville, Kentucky
Louisville, Kentucky (John Gollings/Hargreaves Associa)

Step 2: Plan Perpendiculars

Design element: Streets and bike paths that connect outlying communities to the water.

Case study: Ohio River, Louisville, Kentucky.

Many cities have roads that run parallel to their water feature. But without spur paths that connect to inland areas, some residents can be left without ready access. One solution is to build perpendicular routes, like those in Louisville, where many of the city’s bike lanes and “neighborways”—low-volume streets optimized for cyclists—link with a multi-use trail along the Ohio River.

Brooklyn, New York
Brooklyn, New York (Raymond Forbes/Stocksy)

Step 3: Make It Livable

Design element: Mixed development.

Case study: The Water­front, Allentown, Penn­sylvania.

“People attract other people,” Krieger says. “If your waterfront is just a place to work, there won’t be anyone there in the evenings or on weekends.” The Waterfront’s designers set aside more than a third of the square footage for housing and vowed that the former industrial area won’t feel like an office park once the project is completed, sometime  in the next decade.

Boston, Massachusetts
Boston, Massachusetts

Step 4: Reinterpret the Space

Design element: Replace heavy industry with civic institutions.

Case study: Boston.

Post-industrial cleanups are common for waterfronts, but truly transforming these tarnished areas requires a bold vision. Krieger suggest going all in with museums, galleries, and other cultural landmarks. “Put your best stuff out there,” he says. “Boston built its impressive New England Aquarium and the Institute of Contemporary Art right on the harbor. These draw a large, diverse audience.”

James River, Richmond
James River, Richmond (Dean Hoffmeyer)

Step 5: Leave Some of It Alone

Design element: Protected habitat.

Case study: James River, Richmond, Virginia.

Riverfronts can help prevent population loss by providing much needed access to nature for recovering suburbanites who have returned to the city and people who are thinking of relocating to less populated areas, Krieger says. Richmond’s James River is dotted with 600 acres of scattered parkland, and it’s the only urban river in America with Class IV whitewater downtown.