This article is a part of our series on waterfronts, and the unique ways in which they can boost the appeal of a community and contribute to a vibrant social life.
Of all the types of public spaces that exist, waterfronts are among the most strongly linked to the identity and history of a city. There could be no Stockholm without the harbor; no San Francisco away from the Bay; no Rio without its beaches. Most cities grew up around the water, but in all too many cases, these urban birthplaces later became shunned as polluted, disreputable places. We think it's time to get back to these waterfronts and re-awaken their natural role as places of exchange and movement.
Exploring waterfronts around the world has always been a passion of ours. Having spent a good part of our career working on and visiting them, we find we have a lot to say on the topic. Lately, we've leaned towards the prediction that waterfronts will explode in popularity at the first signs of relief from the pandemic. So, the time is right for exploring how we can make them better! In our experience, taking a close look at how things are done in successful communities—as well as communities that fall short of the mark—offers clear lessons. Here, we will take a look at eleven of the best waterfronts.
The key to making sure places thrive is fulfilling the needs of everyone who lives there—rather than focusing on the demands of cars, traffic engineers, iconic designers, and real estate developers. Luckily, many waterfronts have resisted much of that type of development: A few waterfronts have even shown the benefits of removing vehicle traffic! Paris and Porto have done that recently with great success.
11 of our Favorite City Waterfronts
Below are just 11 off of our extensive list of what we believe are the best waterfronts in the world. In many of the cities you'll read about below, waterfronts have been reimagined as vital civic assets. This type of vision presents an ideal opportunity for launching placemaking campaigns that involve the entire community in shaping public spaces that reflect their aspirations. Just like in the history of many cities, the waterfront can be the start of something new: this time, a movement toward placemaking.
The way to do that is by creating multi-use, multi-dimensional public spaces— attractive, engaging places with many things to do, so people of all ages and backgrounds will want to gather there. It's important to remember that placemaking means more than just adding distinctive or "cool" features to a location. It's about creating a place that engages people to do something more than look at it. It's about generating activity we all want to join in on; connecting us with other people.
To make that happen, it all boils down to paying attention to how people actually use waterfront spaces.
Porto's waterfront spaces cascade down the slope to the water, with human-scaled developments all along the way. The waterfront has direct access up the slope in three distinct entrances, all of which start in wide plazas. This connection creates dynamic nodes, linking two levels of a promenade along the waterfront.
Paris, France: Seine and Bassin de la Villette
Starting back in 2003, Paris has transformed its waterfront on the Seine and the Bassin de la Villette entirely. The approach has been revolutionary—and perhaps for a unique reason! The Seine often floods in the winter, meaning that it necessarily transforms from year to year: a challenge that encourages new ideas to emerge over time.
All of Venice is on the water, making it unique for one very simple reason: no cars. This means that the only way to get around is by water taxi, Vaporetto (water bus), or on foot.
London, South Bank
London's waterfront is fast becoming one of the best in the world for one important reason: There are specific destinations! Borough Market, Gabriel's Wharf, an international food truck market and a book/map/postcard vendor under a bridge. All unique, and all an important part of a much larger set of destinations.
Stockholm is an entirely different waterfront landscape, in that it has two waterfronts: one on a lake and another on the North Sea.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco has developed along a waterfront that is very deep, which allows for a significant collection of activities on the water and inland. This gives nearby neighborhoods opportunities to connect and build off of the historic waterfront.
Cape Town, South Africa
The Cape Town waterfront is the largest employer in Southern Africa with multiple operations: Its shopping center, multiple hotels, markets, restaurants, museums, and an active waterfront port make it one of the most vibrant of waterfronts worldwide.
Stavanger, along with Bergen in Norway offer waterfronts defined by fjords that create compact, highly active, multi-layered places. They offer both contemporary and historic attractions that stretch deep into the hills around each of the waterfronts.
Miami Beach, Florida
With Art Deco buildings lining Ocean Drive on one side, and a park and extensive beach on the other, streets in Miami Beach are not about traffic, but about experiencing the "show" and enjoying the sights. Many buildings have porches to view the passing throngs of visitors.
There are few small towns like Camden, Maine that offer so many attractions. Along the waterfront, ice cream venues, paths for strolling, and benches with a view make it a perfect spot for leisurely gatherings.
Otranto, Southern Italy
We have to admit, it was a big surprise when we landed in Otranto one Sunday afternoon. With a population of only six thousand people, the place was nonetheless chock-full of people hanging out, visiting with friends, eating in cafes. When we learned more about Otranto, it was clear that a common habit in this part of Italy is the "Passeggiata" that draws people out for strolls.
One Clear Takeaway
As you review this "best of" waterfronts list, we want to stress the fact that "designer-driven" waterfront cities like Barcelona, Copenhagen and New York City are significantly held back when compared to the program- and activity-driven, historic waterfronts we've mentioned. All three have some bright spots, but a significant part of each city is under-performing when compared to the best. When cities miss the mark on their waterfronts, it can be a tragedy that deeply limits the appeal of that city.
We know this because we've seen the difference a bit of attention to waterfronts can make: It's no surprise that cities that support their waterfronts and cultivate activity and a mix of uses often see a rapid uptick in their use. From there, their impact can be extraordinary.