The Power of Urban Waterfronts

Humans' love of water makes waterways a particularly attractive urban amenity. Why did so many American cities let theirs languish?

2 minute read

January 9, 2023, 8:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

View of San Antonio River Walk with colorful umbrellas at tables on waterfront and with boat lights blurred by long-exposure

San Antonio's River Walk began as part of the 1968 World's Fair. | cheng cheng / San Antonio River Walk

“People love water. And they love to be close to it,” writes Alan Ehrenhalt in Governing. “Fondness for water seems to be wired into the human brain, and urbanites feel it about as strongly as anyone else.” So why do so many American cities fail to activate their waterfronts? “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.”

More recently, this is starting to change. Ehrenhalt traces the history of many U.S. waterfront towns, which naturally began as ports. “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.”

Now, cities are looking to their neglected waterfronts as potential engines of economic recovery and civic revitalization. Starting with San Antonio’s River Walk in the 1960s, cities around the country encouraged redevelopment along their waterways. “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.”

For Ehrenhalt, unlike the thornier challenges of the housing crisis or inequality, revitalizing waterfronts is one of the easier urban challenges to solve. “[W]e 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.”

Friday, January 6, 2023 in Governing

Red on white 'Room for Rent, Inquire Inside' sign

In Most U.S. Cities, Archaic Laws Limit Roommate Living

Critics argue laws preventing unrelated adults from living in the same home fail to understand the modern American household.

May 24, 2023 - The Atlantic

Vancouver Chuck Wolfe

Ten Signs of a Resurgent Downtown

In GeekWire, Chuck Wolfe continues his exploration of a holistic and practical approach to post-pandemic urban center recovery, anchored in local context and community-driven initiatives that promote livability, safety, and sustainability.

May 24, 2023 - GeekWire

New York MTA subway station

Off-Peak is the New On-Peak

Public transit systems in major U.S. cities are starting to focus on non-rush hour travelers as pre-pandemic commuting patterns shift and transportation needs change.

May 19, 2023 - Curbed

Nighttime view of Tacoma, Washington skyline

Tacoma Coalition Calls for ‘Tenants’ Bill of Rights’

The group wants to put more power in the hands of tenants, but the city has its own, competing proposal for addressing the housing crisis.

May 26 - The Urbanist

Wind turbines sillhouetted against a sunset sky along roadway in New Mexico

New Power Transmission Line Approved in the Southwest

The proposed transmission line will transfer wind-produced power from New Mexico to cities in Arizona and California.

May 26 - U.S. News And World Report

Aerial view of 238 freeway in Oakland, California cutting through neighborhood with small houses

The Limitations of ‘Reconnecting Communities’

The Biden administration has pledged to correct the damage imposed on communities by highways and infrastructure, but many projects are only committing to minor improvements, not transformative changes.

May 26 - The New York Times

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.