4 minute read

We Can’t Wait

Creating solutions for today’s waterfront challenges

By Jay Valgora

All along the edges of cities, you find them: the gaps and interstices, the missing pieces, the abandoned industrial buildings, and polluted sites, the “nowhere” spaces along highways and rail lines. And most of all—you find them on waterfronts.

Rising sea levels, abandoned industrial ruins, sites contaminated or divided by decaying infrastructure, and the disconnected remnants of former failed urban renewal—all these conditions litter our urban waterfronts. They are the dumping grounds of our unwanted and least desirable: industry, infrastructure and the mass relocation of displaced people. Urban waterfronts offer tremendous challenges that are not for the faint hearted. But today, they also offer our single greatest opportunities in a generation. They create new options for much needed housing (all kinds—affordable, luxury, market rate, co-living). They offer new sites for parks, public spaces, schools and institutions. They provide new routes for transit networks and water-born transportation. And urban waterfronts offer unprecedented opportunities to address the most pressing issues facing us today: how to make cities more livable, more green, more diverse, more equitable, more connected and more resilient. And, if you think waterfronts divide communities, we also need to look to politics, policies and people. The divisions between community groups and developers, activists and financiers, officials and bureaucrats, architects, and agencies, mirror the dislocation and disconnection of the waterfronts themselves.

All too often, these groups work at cross purposes in a zero-sum game of competing interests that lead to an inevitable result: stagnant, underutilized, undeveloped waterfront sites (safer than the alternative; a vision that offers an opening for an opponent’s attack). These groups must find new ways to work together and find common ground for bold solutions to bring our waterfronts to life. Remediation, reconnecting and resiliency must guide these diverse groups to successfully transform urban waterfronts.


Waterfronts are often polluted brownfield sites that require repair to support healthy living. They often are barriers to communities, but remediation opens them to greater possibilities. Innovative design approaches combine creativity with financial incentives, offering multiple approaches. Elevation that exceeds code requirements can support both resiliency and encapsulation. Bioremediation offers “remediation in place,” using microbes to digest contaminants within the soil, avoiding expensive tenting or transporting truckloads of contaminated soil through residential communities.

Creative adaptive reuse of existing industrial structures, from grain elevators to factories, oil tanks and bridges offers surprising opportunities to capture brownfields while preserving history. Finding funding sources with tax credits can balance development and density with community giveback: these funding models can clean up sites while contributing to communities. Improved public health, reuse of existing land and infrastructure, and the rejuvenation of disadvantaged communities are a few of copious benefits awaiting communities who support the responsibility of decontaminating and revitalizing polluted brownfield sites.


In addition to contamination, waterfronts are cut off from communities by outmoded infrastructure, rail, and highways. Failed urban renewal projects impose barriers with single-use monocultures and mega-blocks lacking streets and vibrant uses. Physical connections must unify communities and their waterfronts. We must restore public access, tear down fences, and remove or repurpose existing infrastructure. Social connections are equally important, restoring equity and access, and programs that support diverse uses and job creation. Waterfront connections offer a rare opportunity to combine green and blue networks. Green networks including parks, greenways, paths can support blue networks that focus on maritime uses, transportation and the working waterfront.

The power of design helps different groups to understand their competing interests and agree to a path forward.


Remediation is a prerequisite; reconnecting is a social imperative—but resiliency looks to the future. We must not only consider what is known about the climate but anticipate how those challenges will transform and escalate in both the near and distant future. Communities and designers, activists and developers must push for higher standards that exceed local and national code to ensure their designs are innovative enough to withstand future weather events. We must rethink resiliency as a creative act. Elevation is not enough; we must increase standards to account for future climate change. But we can also design innovative multi-level elevated storefronts that engage public streets. We can explore innovative waterfront edges, including “soft edges,” offering rain gardens, littoral zones, and saltwater marshes; native plantings can act as sponges, absorbing and treating stormwater. We can find new ways to protect existing buildings, including rapidly deployable barriers using minimal material such as the “aqua-fence.” We can no longer afford to wait. As the government struggles to react and build consensus, private development and investment offers funds and innovation, pointing the way for others to follow. Private investors and government must converge to fund innovative “Resilience Hubs” as showcase projects to model test cases for waterfront communities utilizing innovative resilient solutions. Re-zonings and planned urban developments offer opportunities for private investment and public entitlement to prove their worth by adding value, creating showcase waterfront communities and innovative models for climate change.


Community input is not an afterthought. Waterfront site revitalization is dependent on the ability of city agencies, developers, investors, and community groups to work together. Design is a critical tool to allow all these groups to find common purpose with a unified vision. The power of design helps different groups to understand their competing interests and agree to a path forward. Innovative waterfront design can provide the tools to build consensus. Now is the opportunity to work together to reinvent our waterfront communities. CCR

Jay Valgora, FAIA, AICP, LEED AP, WEDG, is founder and principal of STUDIO V, a cutting-edge design practice dedicated to the reinvention of today's city. His designs focus on the edges and gaps of cities—industrial and contaminated sites, divisive infrastructure, former urban renewal, historic and industrial artifacts, and waterfront’s potential to address climate change and reconnect communities.

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