Urban Waterfront Developments have to be Built

Creating successful riverfront or waterfront development in cities is a challenging task. It may seem like an easy task of just cleaning up the banks and giving public access to it, but its much more complex and there are numerous underlying issues. Cities across the world have undergone a similar pattern of development when it comes to water fronts. In pre-industrial cities, waterfronts played an important part in people’s lives. In India, where traditional rituals were and still are, linked to rivers, riverfront used to be an active interaction space for citizens. During the industrial era, the riverfront was opened up for industrial processes. Waterfront areas were lost to industries and urban services, thereby disconnecting the river from the people. In the post industrialised world of today, cities are once again focusing on connecting waterfronts to people.

But people have changed and urban lifestyles are no longer similar to the pre-industrial areas. Also, waterfronts are facing two opposing pressures – one, the push of the land use, transportation networks and real estate and two, the pull of its water carrying capacity and ecological processes. Any waterfront development will have to essentially balance these push-pull forces, to become successful.

So ideally, how should a waterfront of a city look like? Recently, in one of the newspaper articles in Pune, a group of prominent citizens have commented that Pune’s waterfront cannot be “ghats built to make it a concrete edge”. The same group also commented that the riverfront cannot be a part of the transportation network of the city. A group also went on to condemn the investment in public wastewater expenditure to clean up the water in the river. These comments threw up the question of “how should a waterfront of a city look like?” What have other cities across the world done to their waterfronts? Which are the most exemplary case studies which we can and should replicate?

A project for Public Spaces, a not for profit organisation that focuses on creating great, sustainable public spaces for cities, has ranked good waterfront developments across the world. The list is as below:
1. Stockholm, Sweden comes first. Part of an archipelago, Stockholm has water everywhere. I have personally experienced the amazing waterfronts that this city has developed. Additionally, Sweden is a country that ranks high on the Sustainability quotient. All across the entire waterfront face of the city, the city has built walls and channels to carve out its urban land and define its waterways. The city has massively invested in wastewater infrastructure to clean up every drop of wastewater before it is discharged into the waterfront. In some parts of the city, buildings abut the waterfront, while in others there are parks, recreational areas and boating docks. Very few, if any, areas are left untouched and “undeveloped” and pristine. Stockholm has realised that urban waterfront challenges require that waterfronts need to be defined by promenades, walkways, bus routes and public places in some areas, while also giving access to build buildings in some areas, to monetise land.

Waterfront at Stockholm, Sweden

2. Venice, Italy comes second. This is a city that is romanticised by everyone in India for its great waterfronts and canals and gondola transport. The canals in Venice are completely built to define land and waterways. At some point in the development of the city, this investment and infrastructure was put in by the city to create beautiful waterfronts that we all admire and enjoy today.
3. Helsinki, Finland – the entire waterfront is defined by this city to create markets, eateries and public gardens right at the edge of the water. A retaining wall defines the water edge and offers extension of land in some places for people to access the water edge.

Waterfront at Helsinki, Finland

4. San Sebastián, Spain – Standing fourth in the order, this waterfront is a large promenade that arcs along the coast and connects the entire city to the waterfront. This huge promenade had to be built to make this a thriving public space in the city. Great waterfront developments have recognised that unless waterfronts can attract people to it, they cannot become successful public spaces.

Waterfront Promenade and prime Realestate Development at San Sebastián, Spain

5. Sydney, Australia – one of the most stunning waterfronts of the world, also has had to define water edge from land by building public areas. What would have been a rocky and open water edge is converted into an urbane public space that thrives.

Stunning Waterfront views at Sydney, Australia

6. Hamburg, Germany – This is a great example of how an economic activity of a port can get integrated with a thriving and lively public space as well. Waterfront is completely built and defined and used both for recreation, markets and for economic activities of the port as well.

Integration of port activities and Markets at Waterfront Hamburg, Germany

Here is a glimpse of some other great waterfronts in Paris, France; Porto, Portugal and San Antonia, USA and Copenhagen, Denmark (top to bottom).

Modern Urban waterfronts have modern urban challenges. Expecting that modern waterfronts in cities today will be designed to make them look like river fronts of pre-industrial era is a futile effort. Such a natural and pristine waterfront does not exist today. What today’s waterfront developments need are new and innovative design solutions to attract people back to the rivers and seashores. It can be interspersed with some natural areas, but primarily an urban waterfront will be full of people. So they need to be secure & capable to handle public movement. They should be maintenance free to avoid operational costs. Waterfronts should connect the entire city via transport routes so that all along the river, citizens can access this open space.

Defining the water and land edge is a necessary component of a successful and thriving waterfront development. For seasonal rivers, it will be important to retain water before it is let downstream. Accordingly, engineering solutions will need to be crafted. Focusing only on the logistical aspects of how much construction, amount of concrete and infrastructure that needs to be built will defeat the larger purpose of waterfront development – which is to create a thriving public space for the city.

I have personally witnessed the transformation of the Rio Salado in Arizona as it coursed through a rough, desert landscape, with minimal flows. The Tempe Town Lake project at downtown Tempe very close to Arizona State University. I was part of the team to assess the Environmental Impacts of the project. The Tempe Town Lake has totally connected people and the city to the river. While, once it was a mere trickle of a river, today, it is a thriving lake that has also benefited the ecology of the region. (http://www.tempe.gov/city-hall/community-development/tempe-town-lake)
Long term environmental benefits are often ignored in the clamour against short term environmental impacts. Possible retention of water in the river may lead to many positive impacts on the ecology and groundwater levels in the city. It can also affect the micro climate of the inner city. It is important to remember that construction impacts and durations are smaller versus benefits of a developed waterfront are longer and trans-generational. Possible monetisation of sections of a waterfront to fund this investment is also an accepted tool in waterfront developments.

Indian cities can benefit greatly from developing their waterfronts. This is the right time to invest in public spaces of the city. Revitalisation of Waterfronts is known to inject economic activity in city centres and connect citizens to water. Waterfronts have been also responsible in making people more active, taking to walking and bicycling and preferring public transport over private vehicles, as waterfronts extend across the city. While cleaning up the water is a first step to waterfront development, sustaining the clean water happens when people reconnect with the river or the sea shore and public pressure demands clean water in rivers. Waterfront developments are a great idea for a city to becoming an economic powerhouse and is a start of a city’s journey towards Sustainable urbanism.

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