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Waterfronts Are Great for Cities — When They’re Done Right

People love to be close to a lake, a river or an ocean, and waterfronts can be a major urban achievement. Why have so many cities done a poor job of cultivating this amenity?

San Antonio's River Walk
San Antonio’s River Walk. The dining and shopping corridor, part of the design for a world’s fair in the 1960s, got things going in bringing urban waterfronts back to life. (Photo: David Kidd)
Jack Mabley, the Chicago newspaper columnist long regarded as one of the most perceptive observers of local life, liked to rhapsodize about the city’s Lake Michigan waterfront. “You ride the length of Chicago’s magnificent shoreline,” Mabley once proclaimed, “and think that other cities, corruption or no, should have been able to produce something as beautiful.”

My father felt the same way. He never went in the water, but he loved driving down Lake Shore Drive and boasting that his hometown had something no other city in America could match.

People love water. And they love to be close to it. My family and I once lived in a house on a hill in Berkeley, Calif., and if you stood at a window on the second floor, stretched out and craned your neck, you could see a small piece of the Pacific Ocean. I was told by a reliable source that the ocean view, modest as it was, added some tens of thousands of dollars to the resale value of the home. I didn’t understand that, and I still don’t, but I have no reason to doubt that it was true.

Fondness for water seems to be wired into the human brain, and urbanites feel it about as strongly as anyone else. And they don’t have to be swimming in it, fishing in it or sailing a boat. They’re simply drawn to waterfronts.

For many large American cities, the presence of water is a precious amenity. It doesn’t matter a great deal whether the water in question is a lake, a river or a small piece of ocean. Residents appreciate having it, being near it and just looking at it. And this raises a puzzling question about modern urban life: Why have so many cities done such a poor job of cultivating this amenity?

You can make your way along the Mississippi River and come upon town after town that turned its riverfront into an eyesore. You can visit Cleveland and ponder the fact that its Cuyahoga River and contiguous Lake Erie turned into an embarrassment, bodies of water so polluted that they actually caught fire in the 1960s.

For every city that has taken good care of its waterfront, as Chicago has, there are many that, over the 20th century, let the waterfront decline into a dingy commercial dumping ground that nobody would want to visit, even if they could find a way to get there. In the last few decades, that has begun to change.

IN RETROSPECT, THE REVIVAL OF URBAN WATERFRONTS in American cities should stand as one of the major advances in urban life in the late 20th century. Urbanists don’t give it nearly the attention or recognition that it deserves. Still, in many cities the process remains incomplete, and in others the once-vibrant waterside has yet to wake up at all.

Most urban waterfronts have a pretty similar history. They started out as ports, because virtually all the commerce, from near or far away, came in on the water. Just about every great American city (Houston is the major exception I can think of) was born along a river, lake or ocean. The next step was development as a manufacturing hub that took in maritime shipping and distributed its products to the city and the nearby hinterland. Then, in the mid-20th century, came waterfront decline and abandonment as trucking replaced water shipping as the primary economic engine.

The realization that waterfronts could come back to life was a slow process. It was furthered by River Walk, the successful effort by San Antonio, in designing a world’s fair in the 1960s, to create a dining and shopping corridor along the San Antonio River that meanders through downtown. Tourists and locals flocked to it. River Walk was a rather odd catalyst for waterfront renewal: The river was basically a narrow stream whose main attraction was that you could sit at a waterside table, have a drink and look at it.

But River Walk got things going. The 1970s was the decade of the festival marketplace, and some of the most popular of these derived their appeal from their location on the water. Baltimore’s Harborplace was a roaring success, although it has suffered in the pandemic years. Others, such as Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, struggled to succeed even in good times.
Portland's Tom McCall Park
The Waterfront Blues Festival is held every summer at Portland’s Tom McCall Park. (Photo: Travel Portland)
Then, most consequentially, came Portland, Ore. An ugly freeway along the Willamette River was demolished and replaced in the late 1970s with Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park, a multi-use 36-acre common used for everything from jogging, walking, biking and skateboarding to lunching, basketball, fireworks viewing and boat watching. Tom McCall Park set a standard for what cities could do along the water if they had the will, the political support and some money to play with. Other cities began planning similar ventures; most were not as good as Portland’s, but nearly all of them contributed something.

The next wake-up call was an earthquake. San Francisco’s Loma Prieta quake in 1989 all but destroyed the Embarcadero Freeway, the ugly highway that separated the bay waterfront from the rest of downtown. Critics warned that demolishing the freeway would lead to horrendous traffic jams, but nothing like that happened. What happened was that walking down close to the water was now possible. A bustling shopping arcade moved into the territory between the water and what used to be the highway.

All of these interventions were major civic projects; Brooklyn showed that waterfront revival could be generated as the virtually spontaneous work of private developers. Its long-decrepit Williamsburg waterfront began to sprout luxury high-rises, some of which boasted sale prices that ran into the millions of dollars or rents that only the wealthy could afford. The Williamsburg waterfront isn’t universally admired; some critics say the collection of skyscrapers blots out natural light and unravels the cohesion of the nearby community. But it’s one more step in an ongoing process.

WHAT LESSONS HAVE WE LEARNED from a half-century of waterfront initiatives? One, as explained by the engineering firm MFS, is that waterfront restorations have to be more than the creation of carnivals. They can’t just be tourist gimmicks. They should incorporate the history of the neighborhood and the city. They need to make use of old buildings. And they need to make creative use of the water itself. It’s fine if people want to stop by and enjoy the views. But a lake or river retrofitted for public use is a better candidate for long-term results.

The city that made the most of those principles is probably Boston, which tore down its elevated Central Artery freeway with its Big Dig, the much-maligned project that ended up costing more than $14 billion by the time it was finished, making it a laughingstock for comedians and critics all over the country. Today, the defenders of the Big Dig have had the last laugh. The removal of the Central Artery reconnected downtown with Boston Harbor, created a public boulevard and jump-started an urban revival that even the project’s loyal supporters never imagined. The Big Dig cleared 300 acres of parkland and open space and attracted 1.1 million square feet of retail along with corporate giants such as Reebok, General Electric and Amazon, as well as becoming a magnet for dining and public art and a hot residential market. “The whole city has reoriented itself to face the harbor,” one Boston developer told a reporter. The Seaport, he said, “is the place where the most forward-thinking people, companies and cultural organizations come to innovate and create.”
Buffalo's Canalside
Buffalo’s Canalside. The tourist-oriented park lacks the retail and residential components that have made other waterfront developments a success. (Photo: Visit Buffalo Niagara)
Buffalo did most of the right things, perhaps with fewer advantages, and has enjoyed modest success. Once the nation’s leading inland port, its declining industries left behind a toxic Buffalo River and a row of unused grain elevators, and the city spent decades trying to figure out what to do with it. Finally it built Canalside, a tourist-oriented park at the terminus of the Erie Canal that hosts concerts and festivals, ice skating and summer fitness classes. But it lacks the retail and residential components that have made the Boston waterfront such a success; Buffalo is still working on that, and the mayor has promised “a massive rebuilding effort.”

Then there is Cleveland. That city has been struggling for more than 30 years to connect its fragile but improving city center to the largely inaccessible Cuyahoga River at the foot of downtown. There were plans for a collection of massive office towers in the 1990s, a convention center and casino in the 2000s, a mayor who made waterfront development her most visible priority, and still nothing much happened. Now the city is working with the globally recognized architect David Adjaye to finally make the idea work. Adjaye is proposing 2,000 residential units, 850,000 square feet of retail space, and carefully designed esplanades and stairways to make the river truly accessible to visitors and locals for the first time. It’s a bold vision, but the city has had those before. What everyone in civic Cleveland believes is that something like it is worth a try.

There are many urban challenges that we aren’t meeting, either because we lack the knowledge, the resources or the political consensus to handle them. We aren’t going to end homelessness, inequality or failing schools simply by making speeches or even spending money. But we can take the waterfronts that exist in nearly every big city and turn many of them into civic assets that bring people comfort and enjoyment. A number of big cities have already done it. For those that haven’t, the time is ripe to take a shot.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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