What To Do If You Don’t Have a Waterfront

Nearly every great city has a waterfront. From big world centers like New York, London and Rome, to smaller cities like Chattanooga, rivers and oceans play a major role in drawing people to a city and giving them a place to walk. And of course, that’s because historically water was the best way to move goods and people.

The waterfront in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Like many cities, Salvador grew up on the coast and the waterfront continues to play an important role in the city — culturally and economically — to this day. And in the end, how many beautiful, economically vibrant cities can you think of that don’t have waterfronts?

So what are medium-sized cities like Provo supposed to do without a major downtown waterfront? Are they doomed to forever languish in the shadow of watery metropolises?  Many waterfront cities have used their prime locations to spur revitalization, so can a city really reinvigorate its core without water?

Birmingham, Alabama, hopes to prove they can. The Atlantic Cities recently reported that the southern metropolis plans to use its railyards as a kind of make-shift waterfront.

The $17.5 million Railroad Park, opened in 2010 and designed by Berkeley, California–based landscape architect Tom Leader, is the second phase in what is planned as a string of green-space projects throughout Birmingham, intended eventually to give Birmingham more green space per capita than any other city in the country.

The park borders the historic railroad lines, uniting the two sides of downtown physically and, more important, socioeconomically.

Provo is clearly smaller than Birmingham, but it does share several attributes: it lacks a central waterfront, it’s home to a large university that’s physically detached from downtown, and it’s even somewhat divided socioeconomically by its railroad tracks. Those are some fairly substantial similarities.

Birmingham’s project is more massive than anything Provo can or should undertake at the moment. But it also demonstrates that landlocked cities like Provo can use historic transit features to create vibrant, revitalizing space. The article concludes,

The projects in Birmingham prove that a city does not need a waterfront to be beautiful or to experience a revival. Cities looking for a renaissance can find a catalyst inland just as cities along a coast can base their resurgence on the water.

Provo will never have a downtown waterfront, but the city’s railroads and railyards are about to become a far more prominent part of the city when commuter rail arrives later this year. Over time, the city can either those spaces as a means to an end — places that exist only to get to other places — or it can make them vital, special locations in their own right. Birmingham provides one pattern for how to do that.

The commuter rail platform in south Provo. The train arrives in December, and over time will likely make the surrounding rail district more important in the city. At the same time, Provo could use that section of the city to create vibrant, public spaces.

Ostia Antica, outside of Rome, provides a dramatic example of the importance of waterfronts. The city was a major Roman port relying on both the Tiber river and the Mediterranean. Then the river silted up and eventually extended the shoreline out several kilometers. Once the city lost its waterfront, it died. Modern cities often use their waterfronts for different purposes, but Ostia Antica proves how important they can be.



Filed under Development, Downtown

5 responses to “What To Do If You Don’t Have a Waterfront

  1. Matt Tayor

    Not the type of waterfront that you have in mind, but the redevelopment of the Macey’s grocery store area and the area north of the Provo River there presents a great opportunity for a mixed-use riverfront are. Working on the General Plan update we changed the designation of that area to ‘mixed use’.

    Downtown should redevelop first but when it does and appropriate urban connections are made to the Bulldog Avenue area, I think this makes for an opportunity for an expanded downtown district. However, the market will probably not catch up with that idea for another 25-50 years.

  2. Sarah

    It’s such a shame that Utah Lake is so disgusting and unable to be enjoyed. Even though it’s not downtown, it’s within biking distance to practically everyone in the city.

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