Blog Post

Walking the Tightrope: Creating Great Coastal Communities

In my last blog post, I talked about some of the challenges and growth pressures coastal communities are facing.  Within 10 years, the coastal population is expected to grow by 12 million people-or by 3,600 people per day.  This growth poses unique opportunities-and challenges-to coastal communities. The issue facing these communities becomes one of balance: how to maximize the opportunities waterfront development can provide to a community and, at the same time, meet the often significant challenges.  

Many communities have used the ten smart growth principles to get development that strikes this kind of balance.  Developed in 1996 by the Smart Growth Network, the principles are based on the characteristics and experiences of thriving, diverse, and successful communities. These principles help guide growth and development in communities that have a vision of what they want their future to be and of what their residents value in their community.   

But should a smart growth development -- e.g., one that is compact, mixed use, pedestrian friendly, and offers a range of housing types and transportation choices -- that is directly on the water look and feel the same as a similar development one mile inland?  I don't think so.  Development next to a water body offers a wide range of opportunities, different from what an inland development can offer, to create a thriving, diverse, distinct neighborhood that can serve residents and visitors alike.   

To fully realize the opportunities that waterfront development can yield, coastal and waterfront communities may need more context-sensitive smart growth principles to better address the unique opportunities they face.    

Recognizing this void, I worked with Sea Grant Extension agents from Rhode Island and Michigan to draft ten waterfront and coastal smart growth elements.  These elements build off the smart growth principles but add coastal and waterfront context.  For example, in considering transportation options, a waterfront development could include ferries, water taxis, and similar options, in addition to walking, biking, driving, and taking transit.  Or the community might create "blue" trails or plan a TOD next to a ferry stop.   

These waterfront and coastal smart growth elements are still in draft form; I'm offering them here as possible guidelines for development immediately adjacent to the water and as a possible tool for local governments to use as they balance the many competing demands for water access, waterfront land, and water views.  Like the smart growth principles, these elements can help a community get better new development or retrofit existing development.  Coastal and waterfront communities across the U.S. have found they improve their economy, environment, community, and public health by incorporating the elements described below.  

  1. Mix land uses and ensure that working waterfronts and access to water-dependent uses remain a viable part of this mix.
  2. Take advantage of compact building design to maximize waterfront and water-based activities in appropriate areas.
  3. Provide a range of housing opportunities and choices to meet the needs of both seasonal and permanent residents.
  4. Create walkable communities with visual and physical access to and along the waterfront.
  5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place while protecting, preserving, and enhancing waterfront and coastal heritage.
  6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and coastal features and processes by protecting critical dunes, wetlands, marshes, barrier islands and other essential environmental areas.
  7. Direct development to existing communities and use it as a catalyst for waterfront revitalization.
  8. Provide a variety of transportation choices, including ferries and other water-borne modes, to compliment land-based options.
  9. Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost-effective, including state and federal waterfront permitting processes.
  10. Promote community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions, including stakeholders who represent the public trust legacy of coastal waters.
Do these sound about right?  I'm interested in your feedback.  I am hearing increasingly from waterfront and coastal communities that they need more and diverse tools to help them capture the opportunities associated with growth without forever damaging the resources that make these places special, and I hope these elements can help them. 


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