10 Waterfront Design Strategies with Examples

Since the dawn of time, humanity has been drawn towards water bodies and settled around them for the most precious resource- water. The earliest civilizations grew from river banks. As the scale and fabric of the city changed, so did the function and relevance of the waterfront. 

A waterfront is the area that borders the water body.  From an irrigation source for agriculture to ports for industries, waterfronts have always been the core part of cities making significant contributions to their development. They are not only pleasing to the eye, but also have a great economic potential. 

What attracts people to a waterfront?

  • A contrast to the mundane city life
  • For peace and calm,  inherent in water
  • A place for recreational and commercial activities
  • For a sense of belonging to the community 

Here are 10 factors to consider when designing a waterfront 

  1. Connection
  2. Comfort
  3. Social Interaction
  4. Pedestrianization
  5. Sustainability
  6. Economy
  7. Identity
  8. Materials
  9. Regulations

1. Connection

The residents and tourists of a city should have a sensory connection with the water body. 

  • Buildings bordering the waterfront must have restricted height to enable visual connection from a greater distance.
  • The streets and buildings around the water body should be designed carefully to provide unobstructed view corridors. 
  • Physical connection is also necessary to make the water body accessible. Walkways and piers help achieve this. A closer physical connection results in an aural connection when the water is not visible. 

Grant Street Pier by Larry Kirkland

The pier at night 
The pier at night 

This pier cantilevers 90m into the sea and derives inspiration from the sail of a ship. 

A view of the pier jutting over the sea
A view of the pier jutting over the sea

2. Comfort

As the waterfront will be a place of public gathering, it must cater to the needs of the different groups of people visiting it.

  • Shaded areas, public restrooms, seating, streetlights at regular intervals, and signages are necessary. 
  • The waterfront design must also have required provisions for the specially-abled.
  • The facade of the surrounding buildings should not be monotonous, breaking the monotony of a large water body and mitigating any visual discomfort. 

Hobart waterfront by Street+Garden

A view of the cut-outs on the illuminating headrest
A view of the cut-outs on the illuminating headrest

Custom-made seatings facing a lake, with glowing headrests with cut-outs inspired by the local corals. They also consist of concealed storage units and increase the comfort of those enjoying the lake. 

3. Social Interaction

  • Open spaces and streetscapes should be used to facilitate the gathering and interaction of the public.
  • They must be designed to instigate connection among the people and with the water body. 
  • Recreation activities on and near a water bodies are great attractions for tourists and increase the economic value of the waterfront. 

Currie Park by Carlo Ratti

The park at the middle of a lagoon
The park at the middle of a lagoon

This park features a party-submerged plaza that functions on the same technology as a submarine, with air chambers that adjust the level of water intake based on the number of people. It provides access from West Palm Beach to the middle of the lagoon. An organic restaurant with hydroponic cultivation and an auditorium make this the perfect social gathering spot. 

4. Pedestrianization

Creating pedestrian-only areas around the waterfront brings the people one step closer to nature and helps fully absorb the beauty of the water body.

  • Pedestrianization reduces traffic, noise, and sound pollution around the waterfront. 
  • Adequate parking must be provided for the visitors’ vehicles

Luiz Pualo Conde Waterfront by B+ABR Backheuser e Reira Arquitetura

Pedestrian areas of Luiz Paulo waterfront project
Pedestrian areas of Luiz Paulo waterfront project

 This project in Brazil was built on land reclaimed after a viaduct that hurt the marine ecosystem was demolished. The citizens got more access to the waterfront on this pedestrian-favoring promenade, which also facilitates bicycles and cars. 

5. Sustainability

The commercialization of the waterfront brings along with a greater possibility of pollution. Preventive practices should be enforced to create an environment-friendly design. 

  • Garbage bins must be provided at required intervals and cleaning must be done regularly. Industrial waste disposal should be checked. 
  • The marine ecosystem must not be harmed. The construction on the waterfront must cause minimum damage to the surroundings. 
  • The changing water levels must also be considered to create a long-lasting design. 

Little Island Pier by Heatherwick Studio

An ariel view of the pier
An ariel view of the pier

This pier in Manhattan was constructed over the remnants of an old pier that succumbed to Hurricane Sandy. With raked pier seatings,  the audience enjoys the events of the auditorium comfortably while sunlight can penetrate beneath the pier and support marine life.  

6. Economy

A waterfront is a natural crowd puller and this can be used to boost the local economy.

  • With the right displays and signages, businesses can take full advantage of the waterfront. 
  • The roads to the waterfront can be curated to pass through commercial districts, naturally pulling the crowd through the commercial zones.
  • Mixed-use spaces around the waterfront that ensure a permanent crowd and well-connected paths can divert the crowd to the right places. 

Jinwan Mall by 10 Design

The mall and the retail street on the edge of a lake 
The mall and the retail street on the edge of a lake 

Sitting on the edge of Jinsha Lake in China, this commercial spot is a blend of traditional courtyards and hypermodern design. It includes a mall, retail street, and waterside pavilion with many food and beverage options. The circulation is carefully curated to provide the citizens with a shopping experience that lets them explore nature. 

7. Identity

While redeveloping a waterfront, preserving its genius loci is necessary. 

  • The buildings must reflect the vernacular style used in the existing buildings.
  • New buildings or redevelopment projects should keep in mind the existing flavor of architecture in its proximity. 
  • As the waterfront draws a tourist crowd, it becomes the perfect spot to showcase the cities’ natural heritage and culture through installations and events.

Huanglong Waterfront Bamboo Corridor by Atelier CnS

A view of the bamboo canopy at the riverfront 
A view of the bamboo canopy at the riverfront 

Baijilao, meaning hundred interlaced rivers, is an ancient village that depends on water for its livelihood. This bamboo installation inspired by the rural bamboo weaving provides shade fot the day-to-day activities on the waterfront. 

8. Materials

The appropriate materials should be used in a waterfront design. 

  • The material must not bring any harm to the surroundings and the ecosystem.
  • It should be durable and resistant to the harsh effects of moisture. 

Under by Snøhetta

An external view of the half submerged building
An external view of the half submerged building

This restaurant and research center in Norway sits partially submerged underwater, providing a surreal dining experience. Made with rough 5-foot-thick concrete walls, the structure is intended to become one with the surroundings, providing a good base for the growth of limpets and kelp while also surviving strong currents.  

9. Regulations

Bylaws and codes about the design and construction of buildings on the waterfront must be consulted. 

  •  Foundation, setback, ground cover, and maximum permissible height are some of the rules that must be checked before construction. 
  • This ensures proper use of the space, with lesser damage to the environment or marine ecosystem. 

Taking the above factors into account, we can design spaces on waterfronts that bring the community together, boost the economy while being kind to nature. 

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