"Take me to the water": Approaches to Waterfront Access

Creating public access to the water is one of the central challenges in the design of urban waterfronts. Innovative design solutions are needed in order to overcome the legacy of two centuries of urban waterfront development – the late 19th-century industrialization of maritime and commercial waterfronts, followed in the 20th century by the construction of urban ring roads further blocking access to the water. How do we ensure that communities today can easily access and enjoy their waterfronts as amenities while preserving the unique physical stamp of the past? And how do we create a level of access so that waterfronts become places for everyday use and not just occasional, special destinations?

The key to designing a vibrant and accessible waterfront is to focus at first more broadly on the fundamentals of urban place making, or what makes a great public place. For architects and urban designers, there is much to learn from studying the best urban waterfronts in the world – Vancouver’s Granville Island, Circular Quay in Sydney, or Helsinki’s Esplanade, to name but a few. These waterfronts bring the city right up to the water’s edge and possess the elusive quality of being both of the city and yet magically apart from it. They share a common emphasis on their signature public spaces – the esplanades, docks and the parks that shoot off them, providing ample places for communal gathering and events, people watching, and casual mixing, while at the same time offering a rich mix of cultural, commercial and residential uses. A great waterfront may offer striking new architecture– one thinks immediately of the Sydney Opera House or even the London Eye – but its distinctive local character is usually a product of integrating new with existing urban fabric wherever possible.

Through our experience working on waterfronts in such places as Baltimore, Long Beach, California and Buffalo we have learned that there are certain essential principles for ensuring waterfront access. To begin with, the focus of successful urban waterfront design should be on the streets. Waterfront promenades and esplanades, and the streets that lead to them, offer the most basic and flexible opportunities to enhance and expand the public realm. They create maximum public access as well as access to any necessary services and support for maritime activity.

Secondly, blur the distinction between streets and parks whenever possible. At Battery Park City, we blended two kinds of public space – streets and parks – making the experience of arriving at the waterfront one and the same with staying and enjoying the water.

Thirdly, integrate with existing transit infrastructure. This is a sustainable way to encourage the most visitors while minimizing the parking problems, as well as a means of increasing transit ridership.

By the same token, however, it is critical to think beyond land transportation. Maximizing waterborne transportation opportunities and encouraging people to arrive at the waterfront from water in ferries and water taxies, will enhance the experience and dynamism of the waterfront as a whole. At Downtown Yonkers, a new high speed ferry to Manhattan, has made the Hudson River itself becomes another kind of “street.”

Finally, in any waterfront plan, the issue of access must be addressed as a crucial part of the first phase. Getting started is the biggest challenge of any plan. And access must be a central feature of the initial vision.

By Stan Eckstut