Waterfront and Center: With Renewed Interest in Revitalizing Their Waterfronts, Many Cities Are Turning Their Attention to Parks and Green Spaces as Critical Elements to Success

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It has been three decades since the opening of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, New York's South Street Seaport, and Boston's Faneuil Hall brought city dwellers back to their long-neglected waterfronts. The tempting combination of shops and restaurants, historical attractions, and boat rides ushered in an era of the "festival marketplace."

Replacing forlorn warehouses and battered piers with slick urban malls, they were hailed as successful urban revitalization and tourism projects. But critics decried their lack of real connection to the water, their emphasis on manufactured entertainment over natural attributes.

Sorely missing from the mix: green space, gardens, and benches.

Today, cities are tackling their waterfronts once again. With new popularity and increased development pressures, many have found that their most significant opportunity for economic and physical revitalization--the only place left to go--is their derelict edges. This time, parks play a significant role in that development.

"The great legacy of the early part of the 21st century as far as waterfront development is concerned will be the amount of acreage devoted to parks, greenways, and trails," says Ann Breen, co-director of the Waterfront Center, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "The 10-acre mixed-use waterfront developments of the past can't compare with, say, the 35 miles of greenways that are being undertaken today."

It's a model that's been long-standing for Chicago, which has writ in its charter the command that the shoreline be left "forever open, free, and clear." And Boston, through its famous Emerald Necklace, has long used infill parks to connect the waterbound city.

Finding New Park Land

A newer Boston effort, HarborWalk, links six neighborhoods via landscaped paths by encouraging property owners and developers to introduce new segments as they build. The walk was created to specifically protect the city's waterways from creeping gentrification, according to Vivien Li, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association. Because development is a given, she explains, the idea is that as projects get green-lighted, public waterfront access is built into them.

"The walk doesn't have barriers, it doesn't have admission fees, and it's all about the water; exhibits, interpretive signs, and binoculars are provided," Li says. Sometimes the HarborWalk passes a public attraction--such as the new Institute of Contemporary Art, which dramatically cantilevers to the water's edge. Sometimes it extends into maritime industrial areas, allowing the public to view at close range the operations of a working industrial port.

And, not incidentally, it meanders through nearly a dozen extant and new city parks.

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Not all cities similarly surrounded by water have found such success by greening their waterfronts. In New York, for example, beyond the South Street Seaport and the newer Battery Park City, not much has been done until recently.

The change is directly related to the fact that many of the city's neighborhoods remain woefully underserved in terms of per-capita green space. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration's stated goal that all New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk of a park has forced the city to think creatively, with one solution being a re-examination of its watery boundaries. Major waterfront parks are being created or are on the agenda in all five boroughs.

That's not to say that mixed-use development--whether it's festival marketplaces, apartment and office high-rises, or hotels--won't continue to be part of rebuilding urban waterfronts, Breen says. "But more and more, the bar is being raised," she adds. "People want access to the water, and they're asking for much more than a patch of grass and a few benches from a catalog."

Mike Kimmel, deputy director of the Louisville Waterfront Development Corp. …