Alex Krieger: Transformations Along Urban Waterfronts

Along the waterfronts of cities world-wide, from Shanghai, China to Boston, USA, the human instinct to both preserve and to reinvent are robustly acted out in the passion play of urban waterfront revitalization. 

City leaders seeking to increase the qualities inherent to urban living, eager to rescue land from industrial obsolescence, or provide an alternative to peripheral sprawl, turn to their waterfronts more than ever, and for a broader array of reasons.  Along waterfonts it seems possible to accommodate the changing needs of today’s urban dweller, as modern societies continue their millennial shift from industrial-based economies, and their spatial demands, to service- and lifestyle-based economies and their requirements.  Waterfronts are, of course, unrivaled in their potential for providing for an exceptional or celebratory enterprise.  Imagine the Sydney Opera House, or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, or the neo-classical customhouses along Shanghai’s Bund not juxtaposed against each city’s major body of water?  The London Eye, London’s majestic Ferris wheel, actually sits in the Thames River.  Much of contemporary Chicago’s identity and self-image, not to mention wealth, comes from its spectacular 20-mile long facade stretching along Lake Michigan.  Humanity, it seems, delights in and finds inspiration at waterfront settings, but increasingly asks more of them than spectacle alone.  

The impending reuse of an urban waterfront generally combines grand expectations with considerable self reflection about the very nature of contemporary urbanism.  Should planning for reuse support traditional maritime industries or promote new economies?  Should cities seek new markets/status through refurbished waterfronts or maintain long-standing identities?  Should public investment favor residents’ needs, attract newcomers or cater to tourists; should it be used to shore-up adjoining neighborhoods or encourage gentrification; increase public access or leverage private development at water’s edge?  Should commercial expansion be favored or multiple civic needs addressed, especially those that private initiative does not readily achieve?  Should, for example, cities seek to profit from the scale of modern development attracted to reconnected waterfronts or restrict density while enlarging recreational space for good places to dwell?  Wise waterfront planning seeks to unravel such unnecessarily polarized visions, while anticipating that through a repositioning of an urban waterfront a local economy and the city’s stature can both prosper.

Skip to toolbar