As cities replace declining industrial waterfronts with public open space, they have to contend with the effects of extreme weather and changing rainfall patterns. Rather than relying on concrete walls to keep water out, these projects can be designed to handle flooding without damage and allow stormwater to drain easily and quickly. By incorporating a variety of spaces, from playgrounds to gardens to urban beaches, they attract people to downtowns and reconnect the urban realm to waterfronts that have long been inaccessible.
The following ten projects—all completed over the past five years—include a curvilinear bridge swooping across two rivers, waterways freed of concrete channels to restore a natural look and feel, a historic barn renovated into an arts and environmental education center, and a pop-up beer garden made up of barges and shipping containers.
Ron Nyren is a freelance architecture, urban design, and real estate writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.
Bradenton Riverwalk, Bradenton, Florida
During the 1960s, the city of Bradenton dredged silt from the Manatee River to add 50 acres (20 ha) of land adjacent to downtown. Dubbed “the Sand Pile,” the area was slow to realize its potential. In 2010, the municipality collaborated with the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority and the nonprofit organization Realize Bradenton to create a riverfront promenade to catalyze development and revitalize the existing waterfront park. Completed in 2012, the Bradenton Riverwalk has an interactive water feature, a playground, a fishing pier, three event lawns, a botanical walk, and a custom skate park. Pavilions, fabric canopies, and shade trees provide relief from the summer sun.
The linear park stretches about a mile (1.6 km) along the riverfront, from Manatee Memorial Hospital to the South Florida Museum. Designed by the Sarasota office of Kimley-Horn, it also incorporates two dozen works of public art and a new bioswale treatment system to filter stormwater before it reaches the river.
Chicago Riverwalk, Chicago, Illinois
High levels of pollution have long kept Chicago’s namesake river from serving as a popular recreational amenity. In addition to improving water quality, the city has been creating a continuous park along the river’s edge by extending the shoreline 25 feet (8 m) into the channel of the river. Local firm Ross Barney Architects (RBA) designed the first phase of the Chicago Riverwalk, which opened in 2009. Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Massachusetts, collaborated with RBA on the three-block second phase, which opened in 2015, and the three-block third phase, which is scheduled to open in late 2016.
To create variety, the designers gave each of these six blocks its own character and amenities: space for recreational boats to dock, a water feature, a plaza with restaurants and outdoor seating, floating wetland gardens, a boardwalk, and a sculptural staircase/amphitheater. The parks’ rugged materials, designed to withstand flooding, passed their first test during the heavy rains of June 2015.
Crescent Park, New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans’s nickname, “Crescent City,” derives from the curve of the Mississippi River along the city’s southern edge. Thanks to centuries of sedimentation, the riverbank is one of the city’s highest topographical points, making it a great place to watch ships pass and to take in the city’s skyline. But access to the riverbank has long been cut off by industrial uses, a flood wall, and an active rail line. To reclaim connections to the water, the city created Crescent Park, a 1.25-mile (2 km) park between the flood wall and the river’s edge.
The park is accessed via two new pedestrian bridges that span the wall and rail lines, offering views to the water and city. Environmental cleanup and removal of rubble cleared the way for vegetation to spring up in the fertile soil. The park offers picnic areas, native landscaping, pedestrian and bike paths, a dog run, and event pavilions housed in renovated wharf structures. The first phase opened in 2014, with the second opening last year. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, office of Hargreaves Associates was the lead designer, with local firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple as prime architect and the New York office of Adjaye Associates and the Los Angeles office of Michael Maltzan Architecture as design architects.
Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park, Queens, New York
New York City is carrying out what is billed as the city’s largest affordable housing development since the 1970s at Hunter’s Point South, transforming a former industrial site along the East River to include 5,000 residential units, a new public school, retail space, and a public park. The park’s first phase opened in 2013 with a recreational oval at its center, fitted with artificial turf and flanked by a crescent of natural grass for picnicking and relaxing.
Designed to handle storm surges, the 11-acre (4.5 ha) park successfully shed floodwaters even before completion when Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012; the park’s native plants were chosen for their ability to survive exposure to saltwater. Local landscape architecture firm Thomas Balsley Associates and local architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi designed the park, which includes a playground, a dog run, and an urban beach. A corrugated metal pavilion provides shade and shelters offices for the parks department, restrooms, and a café. A “rail garden” with native grasses and flowers marks the path of the rail line that once ran along the river.
Long Dock Park, Beacon, New York
Located a few minutes’ walk from the Dia:Beacon museum, Long Dock Park sits atop a manmade peninsula that has for most of its history supported toxic uses, serving as a railroad siding, a ferry terminal, an oil storage site, and an automobile junkyard. Scenic Hudson, a Poughkeepsie, New York–based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the Hudson River and its valley, has been redeveloping the site into a park for decades, remediating the soil and turning the peninsula’s tip into an installation by artist George Trakas that includes a terraced deck and a new boardwalk.
New York City–based Architecture Research renovated a historic red barn into an arts and environmental education center and designed a new pavilion for kayak storage and rentals. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, office of Reed Hilderbrand designed the park to accommodate storm surges and resist winter ice floe damage, creating protective landforms and repairing existing wetlands to retain, treat, and release stormwater and floodwater. Completed in 2014, the park also includes walking paths and picnic areas.
Mill River Park and Greenway, Stamford, Connecticut
In 1642, the Puritans were the first to dam the stretch of the Rippowam River that runs through Stamford. Their gristmill, followed by other mills, gave that portion of the waterway its name, Mill River. Another dam followed in 1922, and the river was channelized in concrete. As silt built up, area flooding was common until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the city, and the public/private organization Mill River Park Collaborative teamed up to remove the dam and concrete channels, return the river to a natural state, and reconnect it to the surrounding neighborhoods.
Designed by the Philadelphia office of landscape architecture firm Olin, the new Mill River Park includes a 28-acre (11 ha) park and a three-mile (5 km) greenway, opened in 2013. The wide variety of habitats has brought back native fish and other wildlife. The park keeps storm surges from spreading to the surrounding area. Wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and cherry trees provide a pleasant walking environment; a great lawn accommodates large events.
New Westminster Pier Park, New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada
With the decline of industrial uses and port activity along the Fraser River, the historic downtown of New Westminster was left with a derelict, toxic waterfront. The municipality purchased the narrow strip of land sandwiched between rail lines and the river, initiated environmental remediation, and gathered ideas for a new park through a public process. Vancouver-based PWL Partnership Landscape Architects designed the park, choosing manmade and natural materials that could last through the park’s expected 75-year life span.
Placing the park on piers allowed for restoration of riparian habitats. Festival lawns, gardens, picnic tables, volleyball and basketball courts, and playgrounds draw activity.
Long piers and heavy timber and metal furnishing reference the site’s industrial past. A boardwalk runs from one end of the park to the other; alongside it runs a metal band into which are engraved words related to the city’s past, keeping its history alive. The park opened in 2012.
Rochor Canal, Singapore
Singapore developed an extensive network of waterways to handle the tropical city-state’s heavy rainfall and prevent flash flooding. As the frequency and intensity of storms increase, Singapore’s public utilities board is transforming that network to improve drainage as part of its “Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters” program. The program also focuses on improving water quality and quality of life, transforming utilitarian, rectilinear canals into attractive, natural-looking waterways.
The first project in the city’s downtown involved increasing the capacity of the concrete Rochor Canal and replacing the narrow pathway alongside it with a wide promenade fitted with benches, lookout decks, and a new plaza for public gatherings. Two pedestrian bridges connect the neighborhoods on either side of the canal. Eleven rain gardens along the canal filter stormwater before it reaches the reservoir. The local office of Ramboll Studio Dreiseitl Singapore designed the new canal, which opened in 2015.
Spruce Street Harbor Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Along an underused stretch of Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing waterfront area, a pop-up beer garden and event space has been drawing crowds back to the river in summer. Created by the local nonprofit Delaware River Waterfront Corporation and Groundswell Design Group of Hopewell, New Jersey, Spruce Street Harbor Park first appeared in the summer of 2014. Composed of three barges and six shipping containers brought in for the purpose, the park is open from late morning to late at night each day in the summer.
Attractions include floating gardens, an urban beach with lounge chairs and umbrellas, a fire pit, and a boardwalk. Fifty handmade hammocks hang throughout the park, including a “net lounge” that cantilevers out over the river for adventurous relaxers. Shipping containers provide shelter for games such as air hockey; two containers house a bar and restaurant. A pop-up market on Saturdays brings in vendors of clothing, jewelry, and other items. “Trees” made of metal pipes spray passersby with cooling mist.
Yanweizhou Park, Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, China
Where the Wuyi River meets the Yiwu River to form the Jinhua River, one of the area’s few remaining wetlands was at risk, fragmented by sand quarries. In addition, the wide rivers limited access to the nearby opera house and various parks. The municipal government asked Beijing-based landscape design firm Turenscape to protect the area from monsoon flooding and to create a cohesive open space for visitors and opera-goers alike. Instead of building high concrete walls, the designers created a terraced river embankment that incorporates flood-adapted native plants and pedestrian paths. As floodwaters recede, they leave behind silt that fertilizes the tall grasses.
Gravel paths, bioswales, and permeable paving filter stormwater. Inspired by the local dragon dancing festival, a colorful, curvilinear pedestrian bridge winds above both rivers, knitting together nearby parks, the city, and the opera house. Raised well above the 200-year flood level, the bridge’s ramps provide easy access from multiple points. The park opened in 2014.