Almost all major cities embrace the water: Rome was founded on the banks of the Tiber, Paris is bisected by the Seine, London by the Thames; Los Angeles sits on the edge of the Pacific, Hong Kong straddles the Pearl River Delta. And almost all urban waterfronts are bound up with the dynamic, messy history and complex legacy of industrialization. This history is well known: for much of the industrial age, waterfronts were favored sites for industry and shipping. Factories multiplied near shipyards and docks, where raw materials and commodities were easily delivered by road, rail or sea; mills, refineries and chemical plants clustered at transit nodes where goods were imported and exported. Waterfronts bustled. Cities and economies grew. But so too did the byproducts of progress. Effluents accumulated and marine life died; pollution and sedimentation choked once clean-flowing waters. By the height of the industrial era, harbors and ports were increasingly associated with dirt and disease; water transport was being abandoned in favor of road and rail; urban docklands lost their commercial value and businesses and residents moved away. Only the poor lived near the water. Contaminated and desolate, waterfronts were left to decay.
But in recent years, as cities have grown into regions and shifted from manufacturing to service and knowledge economies, many have reassessed their underused harbors and riverfronts, and committed to costly and complicated clean-up processes with the goal of stimulating redevelopment. Cities worldwide are rediscovering and reengaging with the water’s edge. Early projects like London’s Docklands and New York’s Battery Park City, which took shape in the 1980s, have been followed by a groundswell of revitalization efforts. Today the water’s edge is a front — a battlefront at the edges of the postmodern metropolis, where serious conflicts arise around brownfields and greenfields, around the health of cities and the availability of water.
Hamburg, Stockholm Sydney, Seoul, Mumbai, New York and Toronto are among the cosmopolitan cities undertaking significant waterfront projects. Major waterside parks are being planned, arts and cultural centers built; new residential and commercial districts are springing up. Most of these initiatives are located on contaminated sites, and many redevelopments require sustainability and green building components. The more progressive renewal plans, such as Stockholm’s Hammarby-Sjöstad and Hamburg’s HafenCity, stipulate sustainability goals, often combining market-based strategies with social housing, alternative energy generation, multimodal transit, community centers, parklands, mixed-use neighborhoods and plenty of green space. Given the often extensive contamination (caused by industries that are usually defunct) and the high costs of remediation, cities are devising creative ways to fund such projects; for instance, government agencies or public–private partnerships are selling or leasing derelict waterfronts to private developers, usually multinational consortia, who propose to build new communities. The selection process for the urban design team typically includes an international competition intended to increase the project’s profile, attract investors and leverage political support. Sydney’s revitalization of East Darling Harbor, for instance, used a competition to rebrand the area as “Barangaroo Park,” and the short-listed teams competed to develop a 54-acre office park and mixed-use residential community, offering panoramic views of the famed Sydney Harbor. The winning plan included a 35-acre park in which native vegetation would be reintroduced to a former shipping and container port.
Today yet another shift is occurring; waterfront projects are going beyond green development. In a new wave of postindustrial revitalization, some cities are pioneering innovative approaches to site regeneration in which designers are considering land and water in synergy. In such coupled systems, it is dynamic processes, performance and adaptation through time, that are the crucial goals, replacing outmoded emphases on static structures and the illusion of control through preservation. In these more ambitious projects, designers develop strategies to harness the complex ecologies of culture and nature at the water’s edge. Three notable projects that deploy this ecological approach are worth describing in some detail. These are Lifescape, the master plan for Fresh Kills Park on New York City’s Staten Island, created by a team led by the New York City urban design firm James Corner Field Operations; Soak: Mumbai in an Estuary, a speculative recalibration of that city’s waterfront, by the Philadelphia-based firm of Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha; and River+City+Life, a proposal for Toronto’s waterfront led by the Boston firm Stoss: Landscape Urbanism. All three projects engage culture, nature and time in ways that challenge conventional ideas about what it means to live, work and play at the water’s edge.
At 2,200 acres, Fresh Kills, in the borough of Staten Island, in New York Harbor, was once the world’s largest landfill; officially closed in March 2001, the site became both grave and monument when it was briefly reopened to receive the ruins of the World Trade Center in the fall of that year. With Lifescape, Field Operations proposes a radical transformation of waterfront landfill into urban park. Indeed, the challenges of the site demanded a subtle, long-term approach to planning: the designers could not simply plop a conventional park on top of a trash heap, nor could they impose a didactic landscape lecture decrying the legacy of waste and the perils of consumption. In response to the site’s ecological, cultural and economic complexities, the project team chose to approach Fresh Kills as a narrative — the design would tell a story of life unfolding. As Robert Sullivan observed in the November 23, 2008, edition of New York Magazine: “They would make the old dump a part of the new park, by acknowledging it, reclaiming it, recycling it on behalf of a modern metropolis.”
Consequently the team’s vision for Fresh Kills is more about process and performance than about an arrangement of objects. The plan calls for a decades-long succession of development stages, focused first on the trash mounds, then on the fields and prairies that will be left as the mounds settle, then on the possibility of public open spaces, as programmable surfaces emerge. In the short term, Lifescape retains the impressive height of the trash mounds — at their peak, they were 80 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty — and provides for restored wetlands, recreated tidal flats native to the Atlantic coast, and various other native and designed ecologies between the mounds. Recreational areas for inland and water sports — mountain biking, kayaking and canoeing — are also included in the near-term plan. Yet these details are really not the main point. For Field Operations, the central goal of Lifescape is to conceptualize and design a series of spaces that will be produced and naturally evolve over time by locally emergent ecologies. Inevitably these spaces will unfold and be used and interpreted in ways unforeseeable by the designers.
Mumbai sits in a natural harbor on the Arabian Sea, on the west coast of India. The city is the country’s commercial center, with thriving banking and entertainment industries, and its port is the largest on the subcontinent, handling some 40 percent of India’s trade. With a metropolitan population of 20 million (the city proper is about 14 million), Mumbai is the second largest city on the planet, after Tokyo. It is also home to extensive slums and squatter districts, with more than 7 million residents living in extreme poverty, many located along the Mithi River in the settlement of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum. As a result the Mithi is severely contaminated with both human and household waste; compounding the public health risk are the seasonal monsoons that inundate Mumbai.
In 2005 Mumbai suffered a catastrophic flood when an entire season’s typical rain (37 inches) fell in one day, causing hundreds to perish. The government’s response called for hard engineering: its waterfront management plan widened and deepened the Mithi channel to enable it to drain storm water more efficiently. At the time, many argued that this strategy was shortsighted. Not only would it displace the poorest residents, those nearest the edge, and leave unsolved the problem of city waste, which clogs the drains and outflows; it would also worsen the flooding. And in fact, the channelization of the Mithi, the increase of nonporous materials like asphalt and concrete, has made flooding more severe: it takes much less water to flood Mumbai today. Given predictions of rising sea levels, the situation will likely deteriorate, and quickly.
To confront the myriad problems of the Mithi River in the context of Mumbai’s complex landscape and waterfront, the urban design team of Mathur and da Cunha departed from the sort of conventional approaches taken by the Indian authorities (and before them by the British). Their project, Soak, aims to revitalize the riverland, to transform it from a sewer into an estuary. The larger goal is for Mumbai to emerge as a resilient, water-adapted and water-dependent city — no longer a seafront port that fears the monsoons, but a synergistic aqueous terrain that welcomes and is sustained by seasonal rains and the sea.
For three centuries, beginning with the era of British rule, Mumbai has been in an adversarial relationship with the sea and the monsoon season’s winds, heavy rains and floods. The British began the practice of “shoring up,” of building seawalls and embankments, reclaiming land from the sea while, in theory at least, flood-proofing the city with deeper channels, overflow ditches and concrete levees. This engineering was designed to keep the sea at bay and to drain floodwaters from the land as quickly as possible. Current government initiatives have continued in this tradition; as Mathur and da Cunha note, the goal of this approach is “to [train the river] with walls to conform as much to two lines on a map as to a channel on the ground.” But as a city within an estuary, Mumbai has no choice but to obey the rhythms of the sea: the tides move upstream twice daily into the Mithi and they flow back — “exhale” — to the sea, carrying with them the detritus of the city. When the ocean swells, or the rains come, this natural process of flushing is intensified by severe flooding. The city literally steeps in its own waste. The only sustainable course, Mathur and da Cunha argue, is for Mumbai to be returned to its natural tendency to soak, rather than to flood.
What is more, Mathur and da Cunha suggest that many of Mumbai’s ecological problems follow from the common perception of the monsoon as “foul weather” — to be feared and prepared for as for an enemy attack. Rather than conceptualizing the city and its river as a field for battle — complete with maps on which the river and its channels are represented as lines and fronts — they propose a fundamental shift from the military bird’s-eye view to a ground-level perspective. Viewing the city at eye level, from the river’s edge, Soak proposes a series of what the designers call “initiations,” speculative interventions at various places along the Mithi, where earthworks, vegetated berms and gentle swales would be introduced to form natural sills and corrugated surfaces that facilitate the gradual spillage, holding, percolation, infiltration and slow absorption of water as well as effluent.
Mathur and da Cunha thus reconceive the Mithi from a closed channel with predictable flows to an open field. Each of their proposed interventions (twelve in total) works to resolve the “problem” of flooding by transforming the Mithi basin at specific points and as a whole, taking away old lines, territories and land uses and installing a more complex system, defined by dynamic change, adaptability and, ultimately, in the healthiest state, complete resilience. Their project requires a mental transition as well as a physical recreation: Soak challenges the colonial control of a landscape delineated by categories of use and instead reaffirms the openness and fluidity of the spaces between land and sea, point and line, water and wave. In these newly open spaces, Mumbai is no longer a brittle, precarious front in a never-victorious battle between land and water, but a resilient, absorbent city defined by its ecology, alternating between its natural states of floating and soaking.
Like Soak, River+City+Life is a speculative plan that engages the ecologies of an urban waterfront, in this case the Don River of Toronto. The work of a team (of which I was part) led by Stoss: Landscape Urbanism, the project was runner-up in a 2007 international design competition sponsored by WATERFRONToronto, the agency charged with revitalizing the city’s 99-acre waterfront at the mouth of the Don, a site long compromised by a legacy of contamination and complex mix of private and public ownership. 1
Located in the Great Lakes Basin, on the north shore of Lake Ontario, Toronto is a city-region of 5 million, and now one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in North America. It is an ethno-culturally diverse city whose social ecology is as complex as the natural ecologies of its shoreline and of the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence–Lowland forest that characterizes the landscape. In Stoss’s design, the redevelopment of the Donlands would be based on the synergistic intersection of these diverse ecologies.
From its headwaters in a glacial moraine north of the city, the Don River flows through the heart of Toronto, bisecting the region and cutting a series of forested ravines before reaching Lake Ontario. The Don watershed is the largest urbanized watershed in Canada, draining an area of 141 square miles. At its outflow the river, which has been channelized for the final 1.6 miles of its journey to the lake, is significantly degraded, stagnant and polluted, like so many postindustrial city waterfronts.
The design team faced a complex challenge: to renaturalize the mouth of the Don River while simultaneously reengineering the flood plain and creating a new thriving edge to the city’s downtown. Working at the confluence of urban core and derelict waterfront, Stoss pursued an adaptive strategy based on the primacy of the river and its dynamics. Of particular significance is the project’s explicit emphasis on building resilience, which was to be achieved by recalibrating the mouth of the river and its floodplain as a new estuary — not a restored estuary, but a landscape transformed through the creation of a new river channel and “river spits” — sculpted landforms capable of withstanding changing lake levels and seasonal flooding, while also providing new spaces for recreation and housing.
By proposing new, integrated ecologies for the site, organized principally by the river and its innate properties, the Stoss plan “puts the river first.” This constitutes a complete reversal of a century and a half of straightening, channelizing and deepening the river for the economic benefit of the citizens of Toronto. Centered on renewal rather than restoration, the design strategy comprises adaptation to occasional flooding, mediation between native and alien species, and a thick layering of habitats and edges, both cultural and natural, seasonal and permanent. In this way River+City+Life weaves a resilient urban tapestry of public amenity, urban edge and ecological performance, conceiving the city as a hybrid cultural–natural space and setting in motion long-term evolutionary processes in which new ecologies would be encouraged not suppressed.
Lifescape, Soak and River+City+Life each challenge us to think differently about our urban landscapes. In their plans for the contemporary waterfront, these postindustrial projects could be seen as design equivalents of the “braided channels” that organize river flows — a complex of new storylines in which the old dualisms of culture and nature are integrated and hybridized in order to emerge in dynamic, recombinant expressions. All of these projects make the vital point: the urban waterfront must necessarily embrace the diversity and uncertainty of the confluent forces that continually shape it. For the millions who live, work and play at the water’s edge, this new approach to design offers the prospect of a renewed, more resilient relationship, in subtle but powerful communication with the waters that sustain us.