Cutting-Edge Waterfront Communities

what other cities have done to transform their waterfronts

Compiled by Volume One, with recommendations by Ayres Associates & Project for Public Spaces.

San Antonio, TX - population: 1.39 million

Their famous Riverwalk is a tourist magnet, but San Antonians come here in droves, too. Most impressive is that people choose to come all year round, even in the oppressive heat and mugginess of a Texas summer. Surrounding the beautiful setting and fascinating crowds are shops, bars, and restaurants that connect to nearby theaters, museums, and other attractions. An annual parade features floats that literally float.

The Scioto Mile, Columbus, Ohio - population: 769,360

This incredible waterfront development was combined with a downtown revitalization, and with huge fundraising between the public and private sectors, the $40+ million vision became realized, complete with seven parks (each with physical accommodations for regular events), a dining cafe, a promenade, art, fountains, chess/card tables, and wi-fi.

Yuma, AZ - population: 90,041

In 2004, Yuma raised about $3 million to expand a park and restore a wetland along the Colorado River. There’s a beach, picnic ramadas, a history walk with interpretive displays, trails, and a tower. About $80 million in private investment later, they now have a walkway with conference centers, a courthouse, boutique hotel, retail, offices, and high-end residential living spaces.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan - population: 224,300

This continued redevelopment project has already created a riverfront promenade, a new boating dock, an outdoor children’s waterpark, amphitheaters, an arts center, an artwork plaza, and a multi-purpose building for offices, condos, hotel, and retail. Now their efforts turn to a farmers market, village square, housing, and retail buildings.

Helsinki, Finland - population: 588,195

Like many great riverfronts, this one acts as the body of an octopus, reaching out from there toward all kinds of side streets, mini-attractions, signage, and other amenities. And each “tentacle” is a journey of anticipation, progressively heightening your senses on the way to the markets, squares, and parks. The riverfront is thus connected to nearby attractions and vice versa.

Wheeling, WV - population: 28,803

A three-acre waterfront park along the Ohio River is now the center of this community. Near the boat docks and pier is a small amphitheater space whose frequent variety of events (movies, music, fireworks, etc.) puts Phoenix Park usage to shame, and draws visitors (many enjoying from their boat) from all over. A trail system is incorporated, along with commercial businesses and monuments.

Laguna Beach, CA - population: 23,727

This city offers an inspiring example of how to link a downtown to the water, even when a highway stands in the way. Its Main Beach Park is easily accessible on foot because the highway traffic has been “calmed” with landscaped medians. The park itself draws thousands every day, with an art-packed boardwalk that seamlessly weaves together basketball and volleyball courts, play structures, a recreation center with lawn bowling, and several open grassy areas for games and picnicking.

Granville Island, Vancouver - population: 578,041

A 37-acre island that once hosted factories was rediscovered by its community and re- built from scratch via a DIY ethic. No design awards will come its way (most things were built cheaply), but the ideas and amenities draw huge crowds. There are little shops, restaurants, an art school, a public market, a kids zone (waterpark, duck pond, playground), and infamous buskers.

Pittsburgh's Three Riverfronts - population: 305,704

This is as ambitious a project as they come, with a 13-mile continuous loop of riverfront parks, trails, and commercial destinations in an area where three rivers (Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio) dissect the city. There’s a plaza, a casino, landings, fountains, and an entertainment/nightlife/retail spot fashioned from an old railroad station.

Elgin, IL - population: 103,188

With help from an $8 million grant, a long-anticipated project to create a riverfront plaza and promenade connected to a park is now a reality. It connects to an existing commercial corridor where mixed-use initiatives are popping up because of it.

Brighton, UK - population: 480,000

One of the UK’s most popular seaside towns, Brighton’s seafront is lined with a mix of shops, cafés, pubs, galleries, and entertainment venues. Even on a blustery day, the promenade is alive with people strolling and taking in the views and the sea air. A major destination is Brighton Pier, a Victorian-era structure with such modern entertainment as amusement park rides and arcade games.


Oslo, Norway - population: 600,000

Formerly a shipbuilding area, Aker Brygge is now a vibrant and densely-packed public promenade. The promenade is an area for strolling that has become the focal point of the harbor and the entire city, where tourists and locals alike enjoy the cafés, playgrounds, sittable steps, engaging public art, floating restaurants, and small fishing boats that sell their catch at the dock.

Porto, Portugal - population: 221,800

Set in a historic district, but redesigned to be of contemporary use, there’s a flexible platform for activities to support a range of gathering options. Children play, tourists drink port in cafes, and elderly friends talk and stroll.

Chattanooga, TN - population: 167,674

A 20-year revitalization project totaling $180 million in investments (parks, attractions, etc.) along the Tennessee River includes a new aquarium, two museums, two parks, public art, a marina, trails, mixed-use buildings, and more.


Other Fun Riverfront Amenities

Qinhuangdao City, China
Qinhuangdao City, China

In Qinhuangdao City, China (population: 600,000), they took an old garbage dump and made it into an amazing red ribbon riverwalk.

In the already-heavily developed waterfront of Jersey City, New Jersey (population: 242,503), they ingeniously connected lots of little park spaces with an infinity bridge and promenade with fountains to make it feel like one large place.

Many major market waterfronts look most impressive at night, and in Windsor, Ontario (population: 216,473) they heighten that with branded light beacons along their entire riverwalk.

Toronto "wavedeck" boardwalks

A boardwalk is only a boardwalk if you restrict it to boards. In Toronto (population: 2.5 million), they have “wavedeck” boardwalks that create an extra-awesome experience for skaters/pedalers and also a dock that they filled with sand for an instant beach!

Indianapolis, Indiana

In Indianapolis (population: 807,584), a canal runs through their downtown and they liked it so much … they made it go further. They’ve redirected some of the canal and added water features to make “blue” spaces instead of green ones, and created art and walkways around them.