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Urban Waterfronts: a challenge to redevelop, an opportunity for greatness

By Brian Doucet
June 13, 2011

Over the next few months, I'll examine waterfronts in different cities of Europe and North America. This short series of articles will present five waterfronts in an effort to understand what has made some places work, and other places not. We will also examine the challenges and opportunities faced when undertaking waterfront regeneration.

Historically, waterfronts were working spaces. Harbours allowed goods to be easily imported and exported around the world. Cities with good harbours, or those situated at important spots along rivers, had natural advantages over other cities. Up until the Industrial Revolution and the advent of railways, moving goods and people by water was the most efficient means of transport. So waterfronts were centres of trade, commerce and transport. During the industrial era, this trend only continued. Port cities like Liverpool, New York and Rotterdam grew incredibly wealthy due to their harbours and their connections with their hinterland.

Today, however, waterfronts are far different. Many of the great industrial cities have not only seen their ports decline in importance, but also their urban economies as well. In cities such as Glasgow, for example, where once thousands of ships were built and hundreds of thousands of men were employed, now empty fields, derelict land, occasionally punctured by a flagship redevelopment scheme, now characterise the waterfront. This transition – from a working waterfront to one based on recreation, leisure, living or other post-industrial uses – has been one of the biggest factors influencing urban development in the past three decades. In many cities, such as Glasgow, it has been a tremendous challenge. However in other places, the transition has been more successful, and the waterfront has been transformed into a dynamic, exciting and prosperous space and been incorporated into the urban fabric of the city.

This series will examine five waterfronts to understand what role they play in their respective cities, how they have come to be what they now are and how they have made the transition from an industrial, to a post-industrial space. We will begin with Frankfurt, Germany, which, despite still being an industrial city, has turned its waterfront into a wonderfully simple urban park, much to the enjoyment of its residents. In Glasgow, we will examine the severe scale of the challenge facing the city due to the deindustrialisation of the Clyde. Because of this scale, the waterfront remains a patchwork of developments surrounded by brownfields. In Rotterdam, the municipality took the initiative and focused on transport infrastructure, residential, commercial and leisure developments have been more successful than in other old industrial cities. However, the windswept and concrete spaces have yet to become a major destination for the city’s inhabitants. For New York City, my colleague Rianne van Melik will outline how Gotham’s waterfront has changed from a space of work to a space of play and luxury. Finally, we will look at Toronto, which is only now opening up to the fact that the waterfront does not need to be full of condominiums. But a major question still hangs over the city’s waterfront: with all the development over the last three decades, is it too little, too late to create a great public space?

Working waterfronts were deliberately cut off from the city. For generations, cities turned their backs on their water and concentrated development further inland. Today, cities are rediscovering the benefits, economic opportunities and pleasures of being beside the water. Some cities have fared better than others, but in every city, there is an opportunity to create truly great places.

Next: Frankfurt’s riverfront: its genius lies in its simplicity