A new frontier for cities on water
Rinio Bruttomesso - Working on the Water's Edge
In a book on the urban affairs of
the world's major waterfront cities from World War II to the present, an important
chapter should be dedicated to what increasingly appears to be a genuine urban
revolution, to what we can call 'waterfront development'.
The 'upheaval' began in the late-1970's and took on the characteristics of a generalised phenomenon over the course of the following decade.
What happened is already well-known.
The once vital but later abandoned or only partially occupied industrial-port
areas bordering between the city and the water underwent radical reorganisation
and revitalisation that transformed their physicl layout, function and use.
Though every project had its own
characteristics and goals, some were emblematic, and in some small way, every
project proposed certain aspects as a sort of common denominator or 'leit-motiv'.
Perhaps the most important principle
among these was the city's 'rediscovery' of its water frontage, the 're-stitching'
of the relationship between the water and the urban fabric.
Historically this relationship had
been very intense, and an unencumbered continuity of people and goods flowed
between the water, the waterfront, the city and the surronding region.
The water's edge was open to everyone,
and the zone between the water and the city was often a symbolic place, an emblem
of the city's beauty and richness.
Beyond this representational vakue, the area was rich in activity, packed with functions, and full of life. Harbour piers, wharves, waterfront walkways, gardens, arcades, splendid public buildings, all kinds of markets, inns and brothels attracted a feverish mixture of citizens and foreign tourists from all social classes, active merchants and browers.
Then came the split, the censorship, the differentation of roles: the port was on one side with its increasingly specialised structures in direct contact with the water; the city which was growing out of all proportion, was on the other, bounded at the perimeter of the port and often dispossed of its waterfront and its view of the aqueous mirror in front of the harbour. (A perfect example is Amsterdam where, at the and of the 1800s, the construction of the new railway station on the old port site barred forever the view of the Ij.)
From then on there were two worlds,
two territories, two different jurisdictions - their development rationales
were not always convergent and their interests and objectives often contrasted.
Then, once again, development needs
profoundly modified the picture. The appearance of containers brought out completely
new contours, reshuffling the cards in the city-port harbour-water relationship,
permitting the area to be redesigned with the goal of exchanges.
The city could return to being on
the water. In many cases this great 'chance' to regain public access to the
waterfront was utilised, in much more complex terms, as a means of rethinking
the role and organisation of the entire urban area encircling the waterfront
(which often included wide sectors of the city-centre.
Revitalisation of the waterfront zone became a strategic operation that redefined many urban functions: redirecting previous decisions, shifting resources from one part of the city to another, reshaping the general urban layout.
Intervening on the waterfront could
modify the very image of a city, furnishing it with a precious occasion to re-focus
itself on the water (with important land recovery and old or new building projects)
and to reconsider its very 'destiny'.
In short it was important opportunity
that was met and managed by a vast array of forces: administrators, designers,
entrepreneurs, and economic entities (particularly tourist oriented concerns).
The phenomenon was (and still is)
very complex and has not always brought about unambiguous and brilliant results.
The urban geographers were probably the first to analyse what happened: the works of A. Vigarié, and the group that gave life to what quickly became an essential reference for studies on waterfront problems (Brian Hoyle, D.A. Pinder, M.S. Husain. Revitalising the Waterfront, 1998). The geographers acutely and oppurtunely helped us to understand the 'scenes' in trasformation, the causes of the modifications, and the trends.
At the same time, perhaps even a
few years earlier, concrete and lucrative urban waterfront projects were undertaken
in the United States. Through the fortunate intuitions of James Rouse, Boston
and Baltimore became two early examples of revitalisation that would serve as
a model world-wide.
Numerous other projects followed
in rapid succession. Some were immediately famous: the Docklands in London or,
on the other side of the world, the Darling Harbour Project in Sydney. Other
lesser known projects were also intersting and merit study - projects like Mission
BAy (San Francisco), the artificial islands at Kobe or those in Antwerp and
Much of the richness, the variety
of ideas and suggestions contained in these proposals is presented in this volume,
which is charachterised by the diversity of viewpoints from which the 'waterfront'
phenomenon is observed and 'judged'.
There are proposals by architects and planners, as well as considerations by developers, administrators and technicians. After all, the 'waterfront' demands this 'crossbred' attention, this analysis conducted according to different logics and interests, this definition of revitalisation goals sought after with a harmony of will.
If this weren't the case the winner
would be the one with the strongest interests and most correct or in any event
most suitable for the area's balanced development. (We have already seen many
It is here that the great challenge
of recovering tehse zones - which we have already said is not only important
in recovering the waterfront link but often in establishing strategies for redefining
the role of large parts of the city or even the entire city itself - has been
reduced to an operation of limited impact, one that is incapable to taking commercial
advantage of certain waterfront sections, which can be cleaned up and readapted
for mercantile use.
'Saving' these areas from degradation
and abandonment is certainly praiseworthy.
However if the scope is limited to refurnishing and turning them, one after another, into copies of the same model essentially based on the presence of commercial structures associated with amusement parks and the addition of some strong 'attraction' (such as an aquarium or a 'convention centre'), then the result of these projects is, to say the least, debatable.
This doesn't mean that the waterfront
recovery shouldn't repropose models that have already been experimented elsewhere
(even in countries with different urban cultures) or that the expansion of the
area's commercial function should be firmly limited; however, it must proceed
according to criteria that are typical or 'urban construction', reflecting its
complexity and rich articulation rather than a spatial and functional specialisation.
If the primary objective of these
projects should be to recover, even if only partially, the original significance
of these places by reaffirming their 'maritime tradition' and their indissoluble
link with the water (and therefore the uses derived from this relationship),
then certainly the secondary goal should be that of defining the new land use
through different activities and functions: a mix of commercial, office and
service uses; leisure amenities; and a central role to living spaces.
Once permanently inserted in this
fabric new inhabitants will bring life to the streets, squares, buildings, open
spaces, public and private places - not only for a few hours or for a few days
of the week, but all day, every day.
Intertwining the needs of the residents
with those of the workers or tourists would give a waterfront the coherent characteristics
that would define its most congruent 'face', its most opportune aspects, its
most justified layout - the one that would emphasise the distinguishing characteristics
of the site. In many projects it is precisely this sense of identity that is
lacking: distinctive and characteristic elements are not gathered together to
halp you orient yourself, to let you know where you are.
Instead the very nature of the space is confused or concealed.
In the infinite re-proposals or mimesis
of 'held to be' winning models there is a lack of identity, decay, and a lose
of urban design quality in the construction of these authentic 'pieces' of new
The danger - especially for project
planners - lies in abandoning oneself to a few canons, a few assumed unbreakable
rules, leaving intelligence and creativity aside.
When you visit many reconverted waterfront zones this is confirmed by sensations of 'dejà vu' and the difficulty of knowing in that moment exactly where in the world you are.
This is why the waterfront remains a great challenge, one that must be conducted with strong determination and a renewed faith in the possibility of restoring the city-water relationship and, within this framework, coherently redesigning precisely those portions of the urban area that this relationship can and must renew, stabilise and render operative.