The Theater of the Urban Waterfront: Where the City Opens


By Cathy Simon, AIA Fellow

A Research Advisor contribution to Dispatches from the Challenge.

Original posted on Fast Co. in September 2011. Original article linked here.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth…. then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 1
Credit: Michael Van Valkenburgh]

The urban waterfront is that special place where the city opens up beyond the topography of daily life. Almost universally, it is the locus of enormous energy and magnetic attraction: where commerce and public life intersect, where the vertical city meets the flat blue plane of water and the seemingly infinite horizon.  That unknown filled with mystery, potential and danger beckons and appeals to both our practical everyday occupations and our dreams. The space it occupies is poetic in its meaning, powerful in its expression and pragmatic in all it must integrate.

What is it about water—its dynamic surface, its reflections, its tidal rhythms, its ever-changing colors, its movement—that attracts so profoundly and universally?  Why have so many cities in the history of the world been built and thrived at the edge of a body of water? In the past, these waterways were the city’s lifeblood, at once its front door and its service yard.  They served as pathways that made vital connections possible for commerce, travel,  energy, fishing, aquaculture and ocean farming as well as communication, interaction and discovery. 


In the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, waterfront cities had the competitive advantage of uniting warehousing and transportation and often their power and wealth depended upon it. Frequently the industrial development of the urban waterfront led to strategic restriction of access, a need for secrecy and total security, rail lines and elevated highways and severe environmental degradation, then an unacknowledged by-product of production and growth.

Since that era, industrial uses of the waterfront have changed profoundly, as have the distribution networks that defined the boundaries between city and water. Cargo shipping now requires new uncompromisingly industrial terminals, acres of lay down and storage space for containers, new docks and advanced technologies that cannot be accommodated at the heart of the city. Different types of security are required, as containers are received and loaded onto interstate trains to be sent everywhere.  At the same time, as technology has changed, the traditional military bases that guarded the urban coastline have been decommissioned, opening up vast in-town areas for reinvention as public space.


Today, while still serving some of their traditional functions, these waterfront sites at the edges or centers of cities are beginning to be viewed differently. In combination with global and local urbanization and the desirability of coastal or waterfront living, suddenly these post-industrial, post-military city edges have taken on new and wonderful meanings. Here, at the seam between land and water, some of the country’s most exciting and innovative environmentally sustainable design is taking place, bringing vibrant public life to regenerated waterfront brownfield sites.

All cities thrive on physical and cultural expression.  As the city’s iconic front yard, reinvented waterfronts—richer for their contrast with their past—can reshape a city’s identity in a post-industrial world. These magical spaces present us designers with the opportunity to define and describe a contemporary view of public life—seam and barrier, play land and profit center, civic stage and common ground for young and old, cultural landscape and contemporary expression of place and time.  It is at these transitional edges that both habitat and human experience can be richest and most interdependent. Around the world there are many contemporary examples: London’s Canary Wharf and Docklands, New York’s High Line and Hudson River Park, Sydney’s Darling Harbor, Toronto’s Central Waterfront, the Louisville Waterfront Park and Hong Kong’s West Cultural District, to name just a few.


Two contemporary American waterfront parks that exemplify this spirit of place are located in a couple of our country’s most iconic waterfront cities: New York and San Francisco. Both were designed within the past 15 years by leading American landscape architects. Each has continued to evolve, generally for the better, as its patterns of uses and surroundings change.  Both occur in amazing physical settings that include world famous historical infrastructure and landmarks. They are also brilliant examples of sustainable site- and climate-specific design inextricably linked to the places where they have been built.

Opened in May 2001, Crissy Field is at the northern edge of the San Francisco Presidio, a historically significant decommissioned army base now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Designed by Hargreaves Associates, this 100-acre park stretches for a mile along the city’s northern edge, just east of the Golden Gate Bridge. The park reinvents what was a ramshackle military installation—wooden barracks, warehouses, a rail line and acres of asphalt—and now includes a 17-acre tidal lagoon and inlet, an education center, several beaches, dunes, an amphitheater, a fishing pier and a huge lawn—a palimpsest of the West Coast’s first urban grass airstrip. To the south of Crissy Field, beyond the dramatic bluffs of the Golden Gate and Doyle Drive, an elevated New Deal WPA highway that provides vehicular access to the Golden Gate Bridge, the city rises. Today Doyle Drive has been totally reengineered, yielding positive changes at Crissy Field.


New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, the competition-winning design by Michael Van Valkenburgh, reinvents what was a 1950s 85-acre shipping complex, decommissioned in 1983. Dedicated in the spring of 2010 and still very much a work in progress, this new 85-acre park is located just south of the Brooklyn Bridge. It extends below Brooklyn Heights, and its famed promenade, and a tiered eight-block-long section of Robert Moses’s Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which definitively divorced the neighborhood and the water when it opened in 1954. The 1.3-mile-long park follows the historic Brooklyn shoreline and consists of six reinvented old piers, originally used for shipping, and the seawall lots behind them. In addition to the piers, which are used for a variety of recreational purposes, the park includes a tidal spiral, an amphitheater, “swing valley” and water playgrounds, the historic Tobacco Warehouse, beaches, coves, a boat launch and restored wetlands.

I am fascinated by the contrast between these two great new waterfront parks.  While BBP opens its view to the New York Harbor and its highly built islands (Manhattan, Governors, Liberty and Staten), Crissy faces the Golden Gate, the open Marin Headlands landscape, Alcatraz and Angel Islands.  Two magnificent bridges stand as powerful bookends, giving character, scale and dimension. Though the two sites are relatively flat (compared with the vertical topography defining the inland boundary of both), there are topographical nuances including hills, valleys, and a recycled stone amphitheater at BBP, and mounds, dunes, bluffs and a minimalist concrete amphitheater at Crissy.

Materially, both parks are purposefully tough, modest and inventive—with repurposed granite, pine and industrial landscape fencing at BBP, and concrete, decomposed granite, industrial fencing at Crissy. Plantings in both cases are coastal, seasonal and indigenous. BBP has rugosa roses, hydrangeas, oak, catalpa and beetlebung (or tupelo) trees. Crissy boasts Monterey cypress, Canary Island Palms, beach strawberry and primrose, monkey flower, cow parsnip, bush lupine to name just a few of the park’s over 110 species of native beach and marsh plants. While BBP with its six piers reaches out perpendicularly into the NY Harbor, Crissy’s tidal lagoon, set behind the beach and dunes, penetrates the site perpendicularly—each intervention providing a tidal registry and habitat for unexpected wildlife.


While BBP is intimate in places, Crissy is wide-open.  Yet each is a metaphor for place, time and community— the layered cultural landscape of the Atlantic and the wild and windy Pacific Rim. What is so compelling about these two parks is their near perfect pitch in capturing the vigor and energy of each city and its watery edge.  Providing a variety of settings for activities in sites recently off limits to public use, Hargreaves and Van Valkenburgh have revealed in their designs the very spirit of these two places in the world, in time—past, present and future. By definitively bringing the city to the water and offering to all a generous invitation to experience that special landscape and seascape, they each have created a new paradigm about building on the waterfront. In their design choices, environmental aspirations and brilliant invention, these two new public parks offer inspiring lessons to cities all over the world as they bring life to these fascinating watery edges.

What do these two exemplary waterfront parks suggest to other cities as they contemplate their own underutilized, derelict or obsolete urban waterfront infrastructure? First and foremost, they must summon the extraordinary vision, immense political will and civic creativity necessary to realize transformations of this magnitude, and the patience and fortitude needed to bring to fruition innovative long-term projects of such scale and importance.  They must be passionately committed to the notion that precious urban waterfronts should be developed so as to ensure access and create places for the greatest number of people--residents and visitors alike--to experience, enjoy, play, walk, stroll, picnic, nap, gaze, learn, and engage with each other and with the settings that embody the very identity of that city and its edge.  Great site-specific design, profound environmental sensitivity and invention, attention to human scale and materiality, variety and coherence, harmony and contrast—all these are values demonstrated brilliantly in Brooklyn Bridge Park and Crissy Field.  The careful reading of the grammar of these beautiful parks, the narratives they weave and the stages they set can inspire other cities to attend to their own waterfronts while extending the public realm, an essential ingredient of healthy civic life.

Tira Okamoto