Taking back the waterfront
This weekend in Seattle marked the demolition of its elevated waterfront freeway, the Alaskan Way Viaduct. While some are rejoicing in a future of unobstructed access to the city’s waterfront, others fear traffic snarls and have dubbed it viadoom.
Rat City Rollergirls take advantage of public access on the Alaskan Way Viaduct before its demolition this weekend (AP Photo/seattlepi.com/Joshua Trujillo)
Increasingly, cities are reclaiming their waterfront from freeways and industry. Although Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct is now slated for demolition; rather than simply remove the viaducts, the city voted to build a multi-billion dollar tunnel underground - money that could be better spent in a city that is in dire need of more public transit.
Cities have been built near water since civilization began. This was originally for practical reasons -rivers and oceans provided commercial transportation until the invention of trains, cars and planes.
These days, city waterfronts are still home to vehicle transportation and industry, but more cities are realizing that public access to water - for the simple pleasures of walking, cycling, beaches, boating, etc. - is a necessary asset for any city that calls itself livable.
I remember being in Seattle last year and feeling a mixture of disappointment and confusion when I stopped at a park crowded with people taking photos of the waterfront, only to discover that this park was far removed from the water, and only slightly higher than the Alaskan Way Viaduct, that obstructed the view and was so noisy you couldn’t even sit and have a conversation. It was easy to feel like a smug Vancouverite, when I compared it to my city’s 22km of uninterrupted seawall and beaches, which wrap around the entire downtown and extend well beyond.
Seattle’s waterfront: cut off by the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Seattle is no different from most North American cities that took advantage of large government infrastructure funds during the 1960s and 1970s to build highways and elevated viaducts along their waterfronts. Luckily Vancouver was late in the game and by the time a similar proposal reached our shores, there was public outcry and the project was stopped (only a tiny portion of this freeway project was built and the current city council is floating the idea of removing it).
Vancouver’s waterfront, hugged by a pedestrian-oriented seawall on all sides (photo credit: Createdfromthought)
Portland, Oregon faced a similar dilemma in 1974, when it tore down a portion of the Route 99W freeway to reclaim the waterfront for a pedestrian/cycling seawall and park. While a segment of the road still exists today, the majority of the route was demolished to make way for Tom McCall Waterfront Park. In doing so, the city of Portland became the first major city in the United States to actually remove an existing freeway.
They did not bore an underground tunnel to replace this precious road real estate for drivers. The sky did not fall. People got out of their cars, took a street car, or even rode their bikes. They now have a access to their waterfront and are billions of dollars richer than if they had made the same decision as Seattle. San Francisco tore down the Embarcadero Freeway in 1991 for a similar park and seawall project along the city’s waterfront.
Portland’s waterfront before and after the removal of Highway 99.
The movement to take back city waterfront continues to gain momentum. In Brooklyn, NYC, they are converting 6 industrial piers into spectacular park space. Brooklyn Bridge Park is an 85-acre post-industrial site under construction on the waterfront in the vicinity of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. As of March 22, 2010 the first section of the park, Pier 1, has been open to the public.
Renderings of Brooklyn Bridge Park
According to a recent study on freeway removal, it has a “catalytic effect”. Once the freeway is gone, waterfront land is redeveloped or converted into civic amenities. And the impact goes beyond the immediate area of removal. Surrounding property values increase, neighborhoods become more attractive to investors and visitors, and crime can be reduced through increased foot traffic and the elimination of shadowy hiding places
We’ve come a long way from thinking our city shores are simply a launch pad for shipping goods and building freeways. Public access to water is a necessity of life and the same goes for the life of cities.
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