From Hamburg and Singapore to Los Angeles and Paterson, the reclamation of long-shunned waterfronts has become a defining feature of the 21st century city. Upon nearly every urban shore, it seems, once-gritty industrial zones have been reborn as newly desirable neighborhoods, their derelict piers and bulkheads supplanted by high-end condominiums and portside promenades.
The relentless rise of residential towers along urban rivers and canals has provoked a movement of sorts among designers, policymakers, and advocates who envision a more holistic waterfront for all. Driven by a confluence of factors — tightening environmental regulation, renewed interest in social justice, and ever-worrying climate change — these experts are asking how cities can shift from a monocultural landscape to a multiple metropolitan shore.
“The pendulum can’t swing so far as to be only residential,” said Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance, a policy and advocacy organization. “We’re working toward a balanced approach, which recognizes that multiple uses is the 21st century way. We can’t build condos on every square foot of the waterfront.”
We can’t build condos on every square foot of the waterfront.
New York’s next-generation shore
With its 520 miles of shoreline, New York City has been a poster child for the shift from heavy port activity to upscale apartment living (see: Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood). Now, Lewis and others are leading the quest for a more multifaceted kind of waterfront in the five boroughs and beyond: one that provides flood-risk management, boosts public health, serves social equity, and builds economic opportunity.
Balancing these demands was the goal of the Alliance’s Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG), launched in 2015 as a manifesto for world-class waterfront design. Developed through consultation with public- and private-sector partners (including Arup), the voluntary guidelines offer a rating system similar to the widely used LEED program, with a menu of best practices ranging from site planning to edge resiliency to operations and maintenance. Organized around three major themes of access, resiliency, and ecology, the guidelines offer a blunt call for next-generation waterfront design: “We simply cannot develop our shorelines as we have in the past.”
Besides technical guidance, Lewis noted, WEDG helps corral often clashing waterfront players whose collaboration is essential for change. “It helps communicate among parties that have had trouble seeing eye to eye: the professional class, the regulators, the stakeholders who build the waterfront — whether a maritime business or a major developer — and most importantly, communities,” Lewis said. “It’s a way to get everybody on the same page in a positive and productive dialogue about what to build at the water’s edge.”
Such dialogue has already helped designers and developers better balance the competing but not incompatible priorities of jobs and the environment, affordable housing and open space, waterborne transportation and in-water recreation. For example, at much-lauded Brooklyn Bridge Park, diverse shoreline access, resilient design elements, and a blend of recreational, cultural, commercial, and residential uses have created one of the city’s best new waterfronts.
“We can’t build Brooklyn Bridge Parks in every single area of the city,” Lewis added. “But we can create lots more access, recreational areas, and inner-harbor transportation facilities.” As a case in point, he cited the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where a landscaped nature walk, completed in 2007, includes stepped-down seating areas for access to the waterway, as well as bird-friendly habitat and other natural features. “If you can do that next to an excrement factory, you can do it probably most anywhere,” Lewis said.
A domino effect for the rest of us
The rebirth of urban waterfronts — and the waterways they depend on — has led to a domino effect for upland neighborhoods that wouldn’t otherwise benefit from shorefront revival. To keep runoff from finding its way to heavily polluted waterways like Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal, New York City has sought to saturate streets with green stormwater infrastructure.
As part of this effort, an Arup team led by civil engineer Vincent Lee has helped plan and design hundreds of new sidewalk bioswales across 1,400 acres of pollution-prone neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. While the planted swales help the city adhere to federal stormwater regulations by infiltrating runoff before it ends up in the harbor, they also enhance industrial, residential, and commercial corridors sorely in need of green space. “It helps clean our waterways, it helps beautify neighborhoods, and it provides other amenities for neighborhoods that might not otherwise see capital investments,” Lee said.
Back at the water’s edge, green infrastructure has proven instrumental as part of a more equitable waterfront vision. At Hunter’s Point South, on the East River waterfront in Long Island City, a 30-acre former shipping terminal was moribund when Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration picked it as a prime spot for a model affordable housing development. Arup, which led the site’s infrastructure design — and collaborated with Weiss/Manfredi and Thomas Balsley Associates on the park and open space — worked to include green infrastructure such as stormwater planters, permeable pavement areas, and a long, linear bioswale that captures runoff from a bicycle path.
Such features helped the park, a WEDG-certified waterfront that opened in 2013, weather 4 feet of standing water during Hurricane Sandy without major damage. A second phase will include more ecologically oriented features, with wooded walking paths and wetlands incorporated into the design.
Resilience as creative catalyst
While much of New York’s urban coastline is constrained by highway infrastructure, Lee pointed out, projects like Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hunter’s Point South offer a broader canvas on which multilayered landscapes can be created, ones with interlinked residential, educational, commercial, recreational, and ecological uses.
A next wave of projects, including those instigated through the region’s Rebuild by Design competition, stands to deepen this interplay of culture, ecology, and risk reduction, making resilience a more potent force for social and environmental progress. One imagines even more ambitious waterfront visions and uses: an urban oyster farm, perhaps?
Indeed, the great diversity of New York’s shoreline can be a catalyst for new kinds of social, cultural, and environmental resilience. “The reality is that once you enter a neighborhood or a particular stretch of shoreline, the specifics of how you achieve that become really distinct,” said Pippa Brashear, director of planning and resilience at SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, whose Rebuild by Design project, Living Breakwaters, proposes a necklace of new breakwater habitat and programmed “water hubs” on Staten Island’s South Shore. “It’s a merging of larger ideas with a pretty close reading of the immediate context. That’s what makes a city like New York really interesting and exciting — it’s not one size fits all.”
For New York — and coastal cities everywhere — the rising tides are an opportunity to creatively rethink the role of the 21st century waterfront.“Resilience alters how you design your buildings, how you design your sites, and I think over time, we will start to rethink land use within waterfront areas,” Arup’s Lee said. “New York’s waterfront will continue to evolve because of pressures from climate change and sea-level rise.” Historically zones of commerce, exchange, and discovery, urban waterfronts might once again be a place where one finds that precious urban commodity: the unexpected.
Photography by Cameron Blaylock.