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A truly great urban waterfront is hard to come by. The PPS staff has examined more than 200 urban waterfronts around the world–cities on the sea (Hong Kong, Vancouver, Miami, Athens), rivertowns (London, Paris, Buenos Aires, Detroit), and sturdy lakefront burgs (Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Zurich). It is exceedingly rare to find a waterfront that succeeds as a whole, although there are promising elements in almost all of them. So when we sat down to share our notes about which waterfronts deserve to be called the world’s best, it only made sense to create two categories. The first, “Waterfront Cities,” considers the entire waterfront–how well it connects by foot to the rest of the city and sustains a variety of public activities in multiple areas. The second category, “Waterfront Places,” looks separately at individual destinations along the water. When you experience these extraordinary public spaces, you realize how much more would be possible with a coordinated strategy to make the whole waterfront a place for people.
Best Waterfront Cities
These six cities offer a taste of what’s possible. They vigorously incorporate the waterfront into the broader life of the community, using it to showcase their best assets. By exploring the water’s edge you can get a sense of the whole city
1. Stockholm, Sweden
As a city of islands, the waterfront here really is the heart of town and has quietly adapted over time as Stockholm evolves, providing many new and different ways for people to use it. With few traffic-heavy roads along the water, walking and bicycling become great pleasures, enabling people to discover an array of attractions all along the city’s shoreline. What really sets Stockholm apart are the promenades and esplanades that naturally draw people to public destinations on the water, such as the outstanding City Hall (where the Nobel Prizes are awarded) or the wonderful Kungstradgarden (King’s Garden). Then, when you are ready to move away from the water, another pedestrian-oriented path will appear, ready to whisk you off to a destination elsewhere in the city.
2. Venice, Italy
Amsterdam may be called the Venice of the North and San Antonio the Venice of the Western Hemisphere, but the real Venice is one-of-a-kind. The quintessential waterfront city, Venice’s famous canals make the streetscape into a seascape — the whole life of the city revolves around waterways. In most cities, roadways are the most problematic aspect of the urban landscape; in Venice, the ‘roadways’ are the most beautiful part. Indeed, getting lost on the footpaths of Venice is the best way to experience the city. In such a picturesque setting, where every scene leaves a lasting imprint in your memory, the challenge is to identify which ingredients can be of use to more contemporary urban environments (see How to Turn a Waterfront Around for lessons drawn from Venice and other great waterfronts).
3. Helsinki, Finland
Located on the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Baltic Sea, Helsinki’s compact downtown is almost entirely on the waterfront. In addition to its role as a regional transit center for ferries, tourist boats, and ocean liners, the waterfront serves as a popular gathering spot with markets, parks, and an esplanade. A bike ride along its safe and tranquil paths takes you past numerous neighborhoods centered around small public spaces. These intimate community places are complemented by main destinations of a grander scale,
The upshot is a constant hum of people having fun at a huge variety of activities. Hamburg stands as an excellent example of how cities with working waterfronts can still create active public places without interfering with economic activity. Despite its sometimes gritty character. Dotted with lively public spaces that connect to an ancient street layout well-suited to pedestrian use. Germany Hamburg is one of Europe’s largest ports. Maryland Chicago. and the Botanical Garden fit well with the harbor itself to create a unique waterfront atmosphere. Canada Nice. Australia One of the most visually stunning bays in the world. As in Stockholm. France Porto. 5. Hamburg. San Sebastian. The best of these is the central waterfront (which tops our list of waterfront destinations. this waterfront feels like the center of the city. Bilbao. the waterfront is accessible to people through a scenic promenade linking the shore to the downtown. Sydney Harbor is also an amazing place to stroll. Portugal . or they can simply follow the water. all “roads” (including waterways) lead to this focal point. Honorable Mention • • • • • Baltimore. which could easily occupy someone for days on end.also along the water. its beautiful promenade follows the arcing coast from one end of the city to the other. in fact. Illinois Montreal. the superior waterfront. 6. Sydney. The Rocks. 4. home to an industrial waterfront located on an estuary where the Elbe flows into the North Sea. take a boat ride or just sit a spell. they are apt to hang around much longer and do more things on the waterfront. San Sebastián offers. Hugging the rim of the Bay of Biscay. below). Locations like Circular Quay. In a sense. Sydney’s waterfront destinations are best accessed by ferry. When people can get around via the water. People can intuitively follow an intricate network of small streets and promenades to arrive there. Spain Though it lacks the media buzz of its Basque country neighbor.
to amenities like beach chairs. that naturally leads you right into the heart of the city. not the Seine). Its enormous popularity can be traced to strong management and innovative programming. Finland Helsinki’s top waterfront draw combines an indoor market hall with a large public plaza which is itself home to an open air market. 1. Market Square and Esplanade. Paris Plage. the acknowledgments are appropriately modest. this spot reaches out like an octopus. Denmark These two spaces have a symbiotic relationship. making for a public space that approaches perfection. climbing walls. Nyhavn and Kongens Nytorv Square. . Paris Plage is a truly public space of tremendous benefit to everyone. To visit any of them leads to the inevitable question: Why aren’t there more places like this? Every city needs places on its waterfront with the qualities and sheer appeal of these destinations. A dazzling array of attractions vie for your attention–from activities like dance lessons. tram.• • Rio de Janeiro. with the large. Helsinki. the Georges Pompidou Expressway along Paris’s Right Bank transforms into a pedestrian refuge replete with a sandy beach. The boats coming and going complement the market bustle. 2. its location in the center of bay enhances the sense of destination. 3. which keep the place humming well into the night with shows and performances. and the experience never feels overwhelmed by commercialism. where anyone can sit down and look out over the scene. Easily accessible by foot. packed with restaurants overlooking a small canal that harbors classic old ships. The most remarkable “tentacle” is the esplanade that leads here from the heart of the city. Brazil San Francisco. Though financed in part by corporate sponsors. and shady palm trees. or ferry. Copenhagen. and swimming (in floating pools. games. Paris. cafes. Copenhagen’s top waterfront district. oval-shaped Kongens Nytorv Square serving as the gateway to Nyhavn. There are no outrageous logos on display. Walking down to the shore on this path is a finely paced. There are no major roads and hardly any cars to be found. creating an ideal setting for human-scaled buildings and small parks. France For one month every summer. Nyhavn makes a compelling promenade. drawing people toward it–both from the city streets and from the waterborne routes of the bay. California (North Waterfront) Best Waterfront Places The following spots are the best of the best of waterfront public spaces. misting fountains. tantalizing journey–a veritable study in how to take advantage of a waterfront setting by building anticipation and heightening the senses on the route there. As PPS likes say about all great squares.
In what might aptly be termed a human circus. even in the oppressive heat and mugginess of a Texas summer. but don’t let that fool you. San Antonio. and of course. Granville Island. seniors. It has marvelously succeeded not by adhering to a master plan or pursuing a themepark-like design. sunbathers. Copenhagen. businesses and public destinations. Venice Beach. the water and shade cool things down–an important quality of waterfronts everywhere that we often overlook. Vancouver. Riverwalk is a tourist magnet. and cultural activities. It’s enough to put an ear-to-ear grin on your face and make you thank the world for such interesting people–and interesting places. Los Angeles. And besides. British Columbia Rising from the husks of old factories and workyards. Oh. Riverwalk. and don’t forget the street markets. 5. For one thing. basketball players.The square has recently been improved with more active management. Venice Beach provides a public stage for artists. which add a whole other dimension of social interaction. Today it is a top draw for tourists as well as a beloved community place for the burgeoning population of high-rise dwellers in downtown Vancouver. California This wonderful promenade and beach symbolizes the very definition of eccentricity. with many streets emanating out toward other destinations in the city. why worry about the heat when you are surrounded by such a beautiful setting and such fascinating crowds? 7. religious proselytizers. People’s Park at Islands Brygge. Most impressive is that people choose to come to Riverwalk all year round. Granville Island offers a cornucopia of markets. all tucked into a stunning waterfront setting. half-naked muscle-bound exhibitionists. and now hosts public events and programs that draw people to the area. A lesson in how great places can be created under any conditions with minimal expense. but by evolving organically along with local institutions. Both places also exemplify the octopus effect. Texas Yes. Denmark . play areas. 6. San Antonians come here in droves too. 4.
such as the Library and the new Opera House. Porto. Portugal Perhaps the best of many great waterfronts destinations of Portuguese origin around the world.The charm of People’s Park lies in its simple authenticity. Norway . the park’s activity creates a unique fusion of recreation and culture. Copenhagen should make it a priority to site these new parks next to important civic buildings along the water. a floating pool. The new design features are very attractive. elderly friends talk and stroll. Aker Brygge Harborfront. Together with artist-designed benches and plentiful public art. much of the public area has been redesigned with contemporary materials and amenities. It is so successful that six more are going to be developed in the near future. such as boating. 9. a recreation center with lawn bowling. and several open grassy areas for games and picnicking. Main Beach Park. The park itself draws thousands of people every day. play structures. functional. California Laguna Beach offers an inspiring example of how to link a downtown to the water. serving as a sort of flexible platform for activities and supporting a range of gathering options for groups. and community meeting facilities. and in no way ostentatious. Oslo. Children play. so that drivers move through the space with less priority than pedestrians. Set in an historic district. Its Main Beach Park is easily accessible on foot from downtown because the highway has been traffic calmed with landscaped medians. tourists drink port in cafes. 10. with a boardwalk that seamlessly weaves together basketball and volleyball courts. 8. the Ribeira District is simple and compact yet supports a wide variety of activity. that could showcase themselves to the public to far greater effect if given the opportunity. even when a major road–in this case the Pacific Coast Highway–stands in the way. Laguna Beach. Ribeira District. It has grown organically as new activities requested by the public. have been gradually added to what used to be a very plain site. Automobiles pass through on a narrow channel with a low curb.
Brighton’s seafront is lined with a delightful mix of shops. and small fishing boats that sell their catch at the dock. its grassy plaza. A major destination is the beautifully restored Brighton Pier. galleries. Brighton. 12. Aker Brygge is now a vibrant and densely packed new district.Formerly a shipbuilding area. Sweden Stockholm City Hall is proof that an iconic building doesn’t have to detract from the places around it. UK One of the UK’s most popular seaside towns. City Hall. it’s not necessary to go there with a plan. But it’s the mix of people who give Brighton’s seafront its excitement and energy. and entertainment. With so much to choose from. the Victorian-era structure lends a feeling of nostalgia to the experience. engaging public art. sittable steps. Brighton Seafront and Pier. Located by one of the busiest sections of the city’s waterfront. New York Brooklyn’s southern shoreline is home to the best stretch of waterfront in New York. playgrounds. Fuente: http://www. an area for strolling that has become the focal point of the harbor and the entire city of Oslo. pubs. the promenade is alive with people strolling and taking in the views and the sea air. Coney Island remains a one-of-a-kind destination. Tourists and locals alike enjoy the cafés. meanwhile. Brighton Beach. 11. Brooklyn. The boardwalk and amusements are jammed with people during the summer months.pps. floating restaurants. Russian cafés serve customers on the boardwalk and locals of all ages engage in animated conversation while enjoying the sea breeze. cafés. Though it features such modern entertainment as amusement park rides and arcade games.org/articles/greatwaterfronts/ . Coney Island and Brighton Beach. Both places share a special quality: They are public spaces where spontaneity flourishes. feels like a different world from the carnival atmosphere of its famous neighbor. Stockholm. while on Surf Avenue. courtyards and interior public spaces welcome everyone who set foot there. 13. Even on a blustery day. Its public promenade is one of the best-used public spaces anywhere. beloved attractions like the Cyclone roller coaster and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs operate cheek-by-jowl with small food vendors and flea markets.