On this note, an insightful recent article on CityTank by Lyle Bicknell, principal urban designer at the City of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development. Bicknell spent the last two months in Denmark, studying waterfront design on a grant from the Scan|Design Foundation. He notes that Seattle is not alone in its task to reclaim and reshape its relationship with the water:"Cities around the world are transforming industrial and utilitarian harborfronts into great places for people. As Seattle embarks on its own waterfront transformation this is an opportune time to explore these global solutions."
Bicknell's points condense around careful attention to the user experience. To fulfill the already sky-high expectations for Seattle’s new waterfront, we will need to make sure it feels as good as it may look in renderings, from the first step to the last.
For a full read, see Bicknell's original post here, key takeaways summarized and annotated below:
1) Activate the waterfront - with diverse activities, throughout the day and evening: food, cultural, and commercial. Bicknell points out that Seattle has at times hesitated to allow commercial activities in public places and opens the subject for fresh discussion.
2) Ensure pedestrian access across barriers - ie: the post-viaduct Alaskan way. Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, remains separated from its waterfront, bisected by a five-lane ground-level arterial. This is a timely reminder that removing the current viaduct and designing a great waterfront are collectively necessary, but not sufficient. If we want downtown to connect to the waterfront in a meaningful way, it must feel safe and convenient to get there and back.
3) Quality matters more than speed – material and construction quality make such a difference in how places feel that it is worth investing to get it done right, even if it takes a little longer.
4) Design to specific place - memorable, enduring designs are unique and genuine to their context.
5) Beware the photoshop swindle - just because renderings show crowds, doesn't mean those crowds will come. Public spaces need to feel good at all hours of the day and provide reasons for real people to come, and to stay, in order to thrive.
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Building on Bicknell’s observations, the large-scale redevelopments which engender the highest degrees of loyalty and come to define the neighborhoods that host them often tap into additional element:
Waterfront Toronto, Ontario Canada
Looking north, the Toronto waterfront re-development, a 1,977 acre project including the re-routing of a river and major thoroughfares, provides a host of inspiring examples. Among them, eight impossible-looking wavedecks. These bent-wood walkways are not just for transport, they are works of art and craftsmanship, intended to surprise and delight.
It IS enormous. Toronto’s waterfront is the largest urban revitalization project in North America, larger than Lower Manhattan south of Houston Street, and four times the size of Monaco. “We’re rethinking, reimagining and redefining what the waterfront can be, and working to create a world model for urban space. Our priorities are simple. We put people first...”
Other large-scale contemporary renewals, albeit a few blocks off the water, include the High Line in New York. James Corner Field Operations, the same firm running Seattle’s Waterfront design, is the project lead on the High Line, which already provides ample opportunity for the unexpected.
Now in consideration: suspension of a full-sized train car above the next phase of the park, complete with lights, whistle and occasional bursts of steam. The sculpture, Train, by Jeff Koons, would “point to the city’s industrial history and how freight trains used to run” there. Train has been compared in cultural impact to the Eiffel Tower and would cost at least $25 million, but is projected to bring in enough revenue to cover expenses many times over.
How can we be sure? The economic value of beauty and whimsy is often exemplified by Christo’s The Gates, a series of massive, orange-draped gates temporarily installed in Central Park in 2005. The bill: $21 million for only 16 days. The reported revenue: $254 million to the City of New York.
Herman Miller, on The Power of Purposelessness
Steve Frykholm and Clark Malcolm, star designers with Herman Miller since 1970 and 1983, respectively, echoed the importance of whimsy in their presentation at ARCADE in Seattle earlier this year. An undercurrent of playfulness wove into serious discussion of values, research and communication, and came to the fore in an entire portion dedicated to serendipity.
Herman Miller is an enduring success, one of the most consistently laurelled and beloved firms in design. It is hugely profit-driven, and yet the two spoke emphatically on the value of occasional "purposelessness" - of doing something “just for the joy of doing it.” They referenced ice castles, installation art and experimentation, insisting that play has a deeply restorative and productive effect, often indirectly producing some of the best ideas and interactions in the firm, much to the delight of furniture buyers old and new.
Athletes have long been instructed along the same lines. A dear family friend and two-time Olympic athlete, turned coach, insists on play for truly competitive athletes. She believes play, joy and aimless fun are prerequisites to achieving and sustaining the highest levels of performance.
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While it is necessary to focus on function (including a strong seawall foundation), Bicknell's article appropriately frames the conversation in terms of the experience and feelings of the people who will use the space, evaluating the functionality and ultimate success of public space through a specific user's lens. As in any good product design, the customer should come first. This may seem obvious, but, as Bicknell notes, reality can occasionally get lost in a sea of optimistic renderings. This is particularly risky for projects aiming to change the nature of public space into something that hasn't been done there before. James Corner, the Waterfront Seattle teams and many involved citizens have raised numerous delightful, considerate ideas for the waterfront. Now that the project is one step closer to coming to life, budgets for the seawall and ensuing LID will be under increasingly fearful and critical review and it may be worth revisiting the rationale with fresh eyes.
Examples of thoughtful, inspiring and financially valuable waterfront design from around the world can be found indexed on the Waterfront Toronto website here, including Battery Park City in New York, London’s Canary Wharf, Glasgow Waterfront, Portland South Waterfront, Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, Fjord City in Oslo, and many more. What are you seeing?