Urban Waterfront Design Principles
The following adapts an article I had written over 20 years ago. I believe its main points remain valid today.
Regrettably, where people have settled on the coast, habitations, work places, and leisure places have too often ignored the fundamental aspects of the coastal environment. The result has been architecture and urban development that all too frequently has not harmonized with its unique surroundings. Visual clutter and ecological insensitivity characterizes much of the development along America’s coastlines.
Of particular concern are the urban edges, where cities meet the sea. In California, over two-thirds of the state’s population resides in two coastal urban centers: the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin. In these and other coastal urban areas, the competition for waterfront space and the need for public access to the shore exacerbate the problems of past haphazard development and present deterioration.
The problems of the urban waterfront match its potential— in the urban coastal environment, the varied physical contexts and multiplicity of needs make design a challenge and an opportunity. In contrast, design for undeveloped rural areas on the coast must take into account fewer but more, obvious considerations, such as the impact of development on views, sensitive habits, landforms, and traffic circulation.
This paper discusses some principles of urban coastal design that will hopefully guide architects, designers and planners through the process of preparing development plans. The principles are general; they are meant as building blocks. California’s efforts in coastal design development where relevant, reflect the author’s experience.
California’s Coastal Program
For the past fourteen years, the California has regulated design and development in the coastal zone, a band of land that stretches from Oregon to Mexico and extends from a few city blocks inland to as much as five miles from the shore. In 1972, California’s voters approved a citizen-initiated referendum, Proposition 20, intended to protect the state’s coastal resources. In 1976, Proposition 20 led to the adoption by the Legislature of a program for the protection and enhancement of the California coast. The creation of an agency to plan and regulate coastal development, the Coastal Commission, and one to restore coastal resources, the Coastal Conservancy, were the two most prominent features of that program.
In 1981 the Legislature expanded that program by adopting the “Urban Waterfront Act of 1981” and authorizing the State Coastal Conservancy to undertake and fund restoration of the state’s urban waterfronts “to promote excellence of design a n d [to] …stimulate projects which exhibit innovation in sensitively integrating man-made features into the natural coastal environment.” In 1983 the Legislature further confirmed the state’s commitment to waterfront restoration by authorizing the sale of $650 million in bonds to fund the program.
As a result of this intensive involvement in its coastline, California has developed an approach to urban waterfront design that provides insights into the fundamental design criteria for urbanized coastal areas. California’s coastal program has attempted to encourage and, where necessary, require designs which take into account a proposed development’s immediate and surrounding environmental characteristics. Too often, designers of coastal projects have concentrated almost exclusively on the structures themselves and their component parts, and have not given adequate thought to protection of scenic values, ecologically sensitive areas, and public access to the shoreline. The Coastal Commission has tried, therefore, to provide design parameters, an “envelope” based on the Coastal Act within which the structure must fit.
Urban Waterfront Design Criteria.
From California’s experience with urban waterfront development certain design criteria become evident Almost without exception, sound coastal design reflects development that appears to fit its setting. This does not mean that development must hide from view. Development designed for human activity can enhance a site, adding to the natural setting. But enhancement is a quality that is subject to opinion and thus difficult to treat by regulation. What one person considers an enhancement, another may consider obtrusive.
Development design along the coast should not consider a structure’s design in isolation. The primary concern should be the designs suitability for its environmental setting—a view of architecture that seems more in keeping with the oriental tradition of seeking harmony with nature than with the western tradition, of imposing human order upon the natural world. In the western tradition architects create a design by arranging a set of design elements to harmonize with each other, though not always with their natural setting. For this reason, the aim of any coastal program should be to subordinate new construction in rural areas to its surroundings and to require new construction on urban waterfronts to be compatible with the type and scale of existing structures and uses.
Development should also encourage public use and enjoyment of the coast and wherever possible, require new development to preserve and encourage traditional coastal activities—fishing, shipping, water-oriented recreation, and other activities that are dependent on a coastal location. The Coastal Act’s designation of these activities as priority uses preserves not only the aesthetic diversity of the waterfront but its economic diversity as well.
Five Principles of Urban Waterfront Design
The key to success in urban waterfront redevelopment projects lies, in my opinion, in adherence to the following simple design principles:
1. Public access must be a central feature. Public use areas should be made inviting in terms of size and location. Structures should be set back from public areas to avoid any sense of intrusion. Places to sit, rest, eat, and drink should be provided adjacent to and generally inland of the public area. Access areas should be linked wherever possible. Planners must be aware that if public access is treated merely as a legal requirement, which can be satisfied by providing an uninviting walkway that winds through an intimidatingly large project, the concept of public access has no impact.
2. Major public views of the coast must be protected by design. This has both public and private components. The public component requires that views of the water from public access areas should be unobstructed. If existing views of the water from a public roadway are unavoidably obstructed by development then the development should have alternative viewing areas in the design plan. Also, view corridors from public areas to major points of interest should be provided. As for the private component, wherever practical, and where it would not conflict with public views, the development should allow inland buildings a view of the waterfront For example, in Battery Park City in New York the buildings were located in such a way that a view corridor was preserved for buildings inland of the site that would normally have had their views blocked. This quite simple public requirement (or private initiative) could extend the economic values of a waterfront site beyond the first tier of buildings to inland sites as well.
3. Recreation and commercial uses (such as commercial fishing) that require a waterfront location and are not inconsistent with the surrounding area should have space allocated for their development. Adequate space within the public area will encourage these uses to locate there.
4. Radial planning. The urban waterfront should not be planned as most other areas are, in a checkerboard pattern, with industrial uses here, commercial uses there. Regular zoning should not simply be taken to the waterline. Instead, planning for the waterfront should be radial on nature, progressing from the specific to the general. It should be specific as to uses along the shoreline and more general as one progresses inland. It should begin with a recognition of the waterfront’s particular setting. What does a person need to be able to enjoy the waterfront?
5. Dynamism. The aim should be to design a beginning, rather than an end product. The design should allow the dynamism brought by people who will use the waterfront in varied ways. An over-designed plan might be easier to sell, but easily crumbles with changing uses and fashions, while a design that provides structure but allows for change is likely to be long-lived.
These design principles are not only consistent with an altruistic notion of the public good, they are also grounded in sound economics. When the attractiveness of a resource is enhanced, its value to surrounding business also increases.
It should also be kept in mind that the essential interest of the developer is to capture the complete value of the amenity. A developer cannot rationally be asked to do otherwise. When required only to conform to a general plan, a developer is led by self-interest to develop plans that call for maximum revenue-producing space. He will discount open space and access ways along the waterfront as costly luxuries in terms of foregone revenues. Developers’ designs usually seek to force the public through their shops to view the water. The result is often a double-loaded (shops on both sides) passageway. Yet without access to open space and viewing areas, the local population will not be drawn to the waterfront, and projects are sure to be financial burdens rather than civic assets.
Urban waterfronts have received a major share of recent attention because of their historic and economic importance, their great resource value, and their importance as growing population centers. Local governments and private investors are rediscovering waterfronts as potentially valuable resources. A significant aspect of this rediscovery is that waterfront design—and designs for the waterfront—are beginning to reflect the natural advantages of the waterfront location.
Revitalization of a waterfront is linked to the city’s economic health. A city can afford waterfront redevelopment even in an age of austerity. Amenities—that is, tangible public benefits in the form of facilities, settings, and activities— benefit not only city residents, but also the city’s economic health. Amenities are now being used by public agencies as economic development tools, along with financial packaging, tax incentives, site acquisition and development, and other conventional approaches.
Clearly, the public sector has a crucial role to play in achieving compatible waterfront designs and, indeed, all coastal design. Government must play the dual roles of entrepreneur and mediator, roles not typical of government, but which it is nonetheless capable of learning. Government’s role also includes preparing the ground— literally, as well as politically and financially—for the development to come. Of necessity, government takes the overall management role in waterfront design and development. Compatible waterfront design that includes public amenities, far from being a costly luxury, is now being considered by both the public and private sector as an essential—and leading—part of waterfront development.
There is room for diverse interests on the waterfront and the entire coastal edge. The need for multiple uses can be accommodated in many ways. The public sec tor—state and local government—has a basic responsibility to foster the best and most appropriate use of the waterfront and the coast. Design professionals and their clients, as creators of structures which will dot the coastal landscape for years to come, are obligated to work within public established constraints. And of course, the ultimate responsibility for preservation of the coastal edge belongs to the public.
A policy and regulatory framework can establish the boundaries within which multiple uses of waterfront land can be accommodated. Operating within these boundaries, public agencies can use the creative development approach to resolve coastal land use and design conflicts. In this way, public enjoyment and use of the coast can be achieved, sensitive coastal resources can be protected, and legitimate private investment can be made in a manner consistent with environmentally sound policies and regulations.
*Portions of this paper are taken from: Petrillo, Joseph E., and Peter Grenell, The UrbanEdge, Where the CityMeets the Sea, California State Coastal Conservancy and William Kaufmann, Inc., Los Altos, California, 1985.
Joseph E. Petrillo played a key role in drafting the California Coastal Plan and in shaping the bills that made it law in 1976. He was counsel for the California State Coastal Commission between 1973 and 1975, consultant to the State Senate Land Use Committee from 1975 to 1977, then became the First Executive Officer of the California State Coastal Conservancy. After nine years in that post, he resigned to go into private practice as an attorney and consultant on land use planning.
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- On the Edge: Stories about the Creation and Early Years of California’s Monumental Coastal Protection Program: Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHA) (planningimplementation.wordpress.com)
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- Stay or go? Some towns eyeing retreat from sea (usatoday.com)
- Cities change thinking on rising tides (skynews.com.au)
- A Proposal To Give Harlem Two Things It Lacks: Canals And A Waterfront Boardwalk (harlemworldmag.com)
- Downtown Waterfront – it’s the little details that really matter (buffalorising.com)