Keep it flowing

Look to history to avoid missteps with the riverfront

Riverfront development has been a popular strategy for cities over the last two decades. From San Antonio to Chattanooga, communities across the country have spent valuable resources envisioning how they could better engage their natural waterways in hopes of spurring economic growth. With this growing interest in urban riverfronts, the development profession has gotten better at understanding what elements are critical for sustained success. We also know now what mistakes to avoid.

Project for Public Spaces (PPS), one of the world’s premiere placemaking strategists, outlines seven common mistakes many communities have made when redeveloping their urban riverfronts. As Northeast Indiana takes a larger interest in its rivers, this list serves as a collection of missteps that should be avoided as we look to the future:

Single-use development: Big, stand-alone projects can often monopolize the user experience and squeeze out other activities. Any time a single use dominates the area, the identity of the place becomes stagnant.

Car focused: Many cities, especially metropolitan areas, have placed roadways directly adjacent to rivers and lakes. This not only limits future development, but often prohibits pedestrian access.

Excess passive space: Scale matters. Relaxing passive spaces can be a successful strategy for riverfront development, but only when they connect vibrant destinations. If the passive space is too big, it becomes hard to retain any sense of vibrancy and it feels disconnected from its surroundings.

Privately controlled: The privatization of waterfronts is inevitable in robust economies. In many cases, the purpose of redevelopment in the first place is to entice private development. However, as these developments (such as housing and retail) grow, communities need to communicate a clear expectation of how the public will access and engage the waterway.

Lack of destinations: Even the most well-designed spaces fail when there is nothing to do. Riverfront development relies on diversity. It needs a variety of people, places and activities to thrive – relying on a collection of small-scale destinations (such as boat docks, restaurants and playgrounds) for people of all ages and abilities.

Development-driven process: When development is the primary focus, public goals often go ignored. As cities hand over control of precious real estate, there should be a clear expectation that future projects will acknowledge and react to the needs and desires of the community. The development of these key civic spaces should fit within the community’s vision, not override it.

Design statements: Many riverfronts have become singular expressions of architecture, providing iconic, singular attractions that often dampen public activity. More often than not, authentic places are provided through a collection of smaller venues.

Fort Wayne is embarking on the first phase of the city’s ambitious riverfront development (see the plans at www.riverfrontfw.org). The rivers will play an enormous role in the economic prosperity and civic vibrancy of our community, just like they have for centuries. And as we continue to pursue an activated riverfront, we should revisit this list from time to time.

First appeared in the May 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.


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