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opinion | Gina Ford and Steve Brittan

Plan better, give new life to waterfront

From the Charles River to the central harbor to the burgeoning Seaport District, much can be done to create the 21st-century waterfront that residents crave. David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file 2012

THANKS TO a decades-long campaign to open up the waterfront, Bostonians now enjoy 38 miles of continuous access along the water’s edge. Access, however, is not enough. As we are seeing around the globe, the next-generation waterfront must be active and engaging.

We recently surveyed six US cities and found that parks and open space are crucial to resident satisfaction and visitor experience, with waterfronts being the favorite type of open space for nearly half of those surveyed. Boston residents were least satisfied with their parks, public spaces, and waterfronts, despite big investments. From the Charles River to the central harbor to the burgeoning Seaport District, much can be done to create the 21st-century waterfront that residents crave.


Common themes emerge from other world-class cities such as Chicago, New York, Seattle, Sydney, and London, as they make large-scale improvements along their waterfronts — and from them we can learn to:

Promote aquatic ecosystems. Man-made infrastructure, such as sea-walls and stone revetments, offer little in the way of habitat or water quality. Around the country, cities are deploying innovative features to bolster aquatic life. In Seattle, salmon shelves attached to a seawall promote the spawning of this critical species. In Chicago, the $100 million Riverwalk now under construction features subaquatic marine structures and large floating wetlands providing food and cover to insects and fish. There are ample opportunities to rethink our own shoreline and to retrofit existing structures. Imagine if, for example, the New England Aquarium pier became a living laboratory for this kind of innovation.

Make recreation easy. Recreational boating is on the rise. Kayaks, canoes, and other forms of human-powered craft are today as common as tour boats and fishing vessels. However, many waterfronts have yet to adapt to these new users. Chicago’s future Riverwalk will include a shallow water space called “The Cove” to accommodate docking for smaller vessels and amenities for resting boaters. Along the Brooklyn waterfront, boat launches seamlessly blend into an active park edge. While the Charles has boat launches, extended recreational boating access all along Boston Harbor would be welcome.

Create spaces that inspire good programming. Infusing new programming into modern waterfronts not only attracts people to the water’s edge, but also gives them something imaginative and memorable to do there. In Australia’s Sydney Harbor, the Circular Quay has the dynamic interchange of water ferries and trains alongside the international cruise ship terminal. Buildings with a mix of uses — restaurants, retail, arts, and housing — are built right up to the edge of the boardwalk, all with views of the magnificent Sydney Opera House. Boston’s waterfront has most of these features, but they are disengaged from each other. They should be creatively connected, revitalized, and developed without severing industrial uses from everyday commercial and institutional uses.

Incorporate strategies to better prepare against natural threats. The modern waterfront also needs to be resilient — an imperative in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Londoners, led by a mayor with a vision for a resilient city, have created an adaptation plan. It includes 34 strategies to address storm water management, plans for more buffering along waterfront space, and an intention to retrofit buildings for floods. The Boston Harbor Association is working to mobilize Bostonians on this topic, issuing a series of smart reports about the threats and opportunities of rising tides.

Work together. Collaboration and coordination are keys to the creation of an active and engaging waterfront. Without a clear vision — and one that stakeholders embrace — a potentially cohesive, connected public realm can become a series of disjointed projects. New York City has made great progress in this area, innovating public-private partnership models and developing master plans for large districts of waterfront. The transformation of the West Side Highway and the Brooklyn waterfront embody this success.

Boston’s Seaport District — with recent legislation for over $1 billion in funding for the Boston Convention & Exposition Center and major landowners that include the Boston Redevelopment Authority and Massport — represents the ultimate opportunity for a shared waterfront vision.

Investments in ecology, recreation, programming, and resilience — along with shared commitment to bringing a common goal to life — are well within reach for Boston to recapture the potential of one of its most valuable assets. Now that access is protected, it’s time to make our city shores places that attract, engage, and inspire.

Gina Ford and Steve Brittan are principals at Sasaki Associates, an architecture, planning, and landscape design firm based in Watertown.