The urban waterfront is the site of countless challenges and opportunities, one that must accommodate housing, commerce, and recreation without extinguishing traditional industries and port facilities. The Asia Society and AECOM are collaborating on a series of “living conversations” titled “Imagine 2060” that are designed to address a range of issues that cities do and will face, and the inaugural series of events focuses on that complex question of urban waterfronts. Land use experts recently gathered in New York City to discuss these challenges facing the United States and the greater New York region, following on related events held in Manila, Sydney, and Los Angeles earlier this year, with a final event planned in Hong Kong.

Waterfront management is one of the most pressing issues that any city near a substantial body of water can confront. Judith Rodin, president emeritus at the Rockefeller Foundation, delivered the event’s keynote address, noting that since that foundation’s Resilient Cities initiative began in 2013, 80 percent of the participating 1,100 cities have identified water as a significant vulnerability. The cities have also recognized that traditional methods of handling the issue are inadequate: “Cities are recognizing that in the 21st century, they must build and rebuild when hit with water because the 20th-century solution of simply paving and pumping and piping—those solutions are failing.” Much room exists for encouragement in their progress, though: if considerable work remains to be done, addressing these issues even partially offers encouragement. “The cities that are preparing for any crisis will rebuild faster from every crisis.”

Host to over 500 miles (800 km) of waterfront—larger than many other U.S. port cities combined—there was plenty of impressionist seascapes to be painted for the event’s first panel, “Reimagining the New York City Waterfront.”

A recurrent question was the tendency to paint this waterfront only in rigid zoned shades with few gradations. The former rigid conception of the working waterfront gave way to an image of unbroken park promenades when neither is adequate to a city’s needs. Andrew Kimball, CEO of Industry City and former CEO of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, spoke to the vital need to combine uses.

“In a lot of ways, in New York what we’re trying to overcome . . . is 100 years of planning and zoning that separated uses, that kept industrial away from residential. The Navy Yard and Industry City are examples where those uses haven’t necessarily been brought together, but we brought a broad range of commercial and academic [uses] in with residential relatively nearby. At the Navy Yard, you see the modern economy with Steiner Studios and the academic uses linked to Brooklyn College. He continued, “You have that 50 feet [164 m] from drydocks where barges and ships are getting repaired.”

Even ostensibly easy sites often involve plenty of challenges. Joanne Witty, former director of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, noted a simpler use situation with the park’s site, with the Port Authority having no use for the piers that were to become its site. Initial planning came under criticism for failing to engage with the water sufficiently. This was altered in significant ways. “You have kayaking, you have fishing, you take away the hard edges so the water can come in.” She cited a wide range of design features intended to enhance resilience from sandy soil to drainage systems, which proved strikingly effective in one significant test. “We were underwater for Sandy—the water came in and it left. Everything survived.”

Challenges of balancing development and relationships with the community endure, however. With some market-based housing development being the predicate for the park’s revenue stream, the proposal of additional housing development has proven to be a point of conflict with neighbors. Affordable housing, encouraged across the borough and the city, has been opposed by some locals. Similarly, some recreational amenities desired by the city have inspired local objections. The questions are never simple; they don’t merely concern what a given body does with waterfront land, but who is making that decision. “How do you decide who participates in that decision?”

Parkland alone is inadequate to serving the community. Waterfront park uses are of occasional utility to all potential residents, but waterfront jobs are a daily benefit to many. He cited the occasionally criticized Brooklyn Navy Yard gates as symbolically valuable in some ways in signaling continued employment use in an age of recreational waterfronts. “It was a feeling that we needed to keep the navy yard sacrosanct for commercial and industrial and for local job creation.”

Affordable housing is a pressing question, but he emphasized the importance of employment. The Brooklyn Navy Yard adjoins large amounts of public housing, which Kimball made it a priority to link to in employment efforts. “We had an employment program there that 25 percent of the people we were placing every year at the Navy Yard came from NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] houses.” The expansion of Navy Yard employment has also led to a boom in market-rate housing nearby. It’s not just altruism but common business sense to find or to encourage employees who live nearby, he stressed, and nothing is as effective in activating a waterfront as drawing someone there every working day. “If we can help them find somebody local who can walk to work or bike to work or take one subway ride, that person is much more likely to stay in that job more than six months than someone who’s commuting more than an hour.”

Architect Calvin Tsao stressed that the waterfront should be conceived of not merely as a boundary but as a border, both between the water and human use and between the uses of this great variety of stakeholders. The central imperative is for all to communicate. There is a tendency to separate specialties, for some to focus on parks and others on industry. “So where is that connectivity where can we have that dialogue so we all just stop doing that thing? How do we create better partnerships?”

Addressing Commerce

The second panel, “The Global Business of Waterfronts,” offered an even stronger stress on the opportunities and necessity of some of the most traditional of waterfront uses: shipping.

While even accelerating climate change hasn’t dimmed the appeal of waterfront recreational and residential uses, the utility of urban waterfront spaces for shipping uses remains essential. Roland Lewis, president and CEO of Waterfront Alliance, noted, “Every coast can be a gold coast. I can imagine condominiums on Newark Bay.” If urban waterfronts are monopolized by condos, however, goods are still going to have to arrive somewhere. Urban cargo and shipping facilities can offer the briefest possible connections to large markets, avoiding the extensive use of trucking. Lewis encouraged the preservation of these convenient sites: “It’s incumbent on all of us to protect those critical maritime resources.”

William Cole, president of the Baltimore Urban Development Corporation, testified to the resurgence of traditional shipping uses in that city. He recognized the irony of Baltimore’s turn from pioneering tourist uses in its inner harbor from turning other land to industrial uses. “We gave up property to expand a tourist district and now we’re out acquiring more property.” Hundreds of acres of land at the former Bethlehem Steel Site at Sparrows Point have been converted into a logistics hub, and similar uses are flourishing around the city. Development did not always take account of ocean-going drafts: to a tourist, a harbor is agreeable whether five feet or 50 feet (1.5 m or 15.2 m) deep, but shipping is not so easily accommodated anywhere. “The gentrification that happened around the waterfront is eating away at deepwater access and we’re now struggling with that.”

The working waterfront isn’t merely a question of a smaller environmental footprint, but—to return to the day’s main emphasis—one of jobs. If this panel’s ambit was global, its attentions were trained on connections of both thousands of miles over oceans but also a few miles inland. MSNBC host Richard Lui, the panel’s moderator, theorized a heat map of economic activity created by commercial waterfront uses and asked, “How important is a hue of red a mile in, two miles in, five miles in from waterfronts?”

The answer was uniformly that this was centrally important, and an often-overlooked element of waterfront employment. Some uses might generate few jobs, but others support multitudes. Lewis noted that while a cruise terminal might not have much local impact, a wide range of other shipping operations would. “The shipping industry at large creates a great multiplier effect,” whether their scale is global and requiring “back-office functions, accountants, truckers,” or even very local. “A tug operation, they’ve got to get their vehicles and engines repaired.”

Cole offered abundant evidence of this proposition from his work in Baltimore, in which 50 different careers were studied to determine which offered the best prospects for on-the-job training and vertical advancement. Of the fields that offered these prospects, “almost half of the jobs in the region were at the port.”

Countless challenges remain, however. Nearly all panelists cited the risks of rail chokepoints and similar inefficiencies in failures to harmonize global and regional or local shipping networks. Kenneth DeWoskin, senior adviser and eminence fellow at Deloitte with a concentration on China, spoke to the lessons of long-term planning in China, where “tight integration between long shipping and local shipping” has been a decades-long priority, with ports, rail, and airports tightly linked. Similar opportunities remain in the United States.

Waterfronts that accommodate increasingly diverse uses involve increasingly diverse maintenance demands. Lewis spoke of New York:

“We have the greatest harbor in the world, but it costs money to maintain it. At Brooklyn Bridge Park, they have a cross-subsidy; they’re fortunate enough to have luxury condominiums and a market for it. Not true of every linear mile of that 520 miles [837 km] of waterfront. Finding ways to finance and govern those waterfronts in these cities is probably the unanswered question right now. We used to have it very simple: when industry owned and used the waterfront for commerce, they paid for it. Now we have . . . [to] find ways to maintain those bulkheads, those piers, dredge those channels.”

DeWoskin also cautioned that improving shipping efficiencies is not necessarily the same thing as improving employment and that it can often produce the opposite result. He mentioned yesteryear’s image of “people loading bales of cotton by hand to containers.” Today, “even the crane operators are being replaced by automation.” Future transport methods will increasingly be driverless. “It’s not so good in terms of employment.”

Hope endured, though, in the multitude of uses that the waterfront can sustain: even a driverless car will disembark somewhere. Cole spoke to the prospects of increasing exports, particularly “the lost small and medium business[es] that fail to understand their export opportunities.” Or those countless businesses that fail to perceive more local opportunities for making use of aquatic transport. Lewis speculated, “Your FedEx package comes in by water to JFK—get that thing not on a little truck, but a little boat that runs to port facilities. Your apples come down from upstate New York. Get them on a barge. Get that marine highway moving locally.”

The possibilities of urban waterfronts are more varied than ever before: with the mind-set that waterfronts were fit only for industry having been shed, these panels argued against the idea that they’re only fit for jobs. Lewis wondered why cities couldn’t more easily embrace both. “Take down the fences, let us see the tug operations, let us see the ship repairs. Put on [a] show. Fulton Fish Market used to be at [South Street] Seaport. Bring down the boat with fish.”

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