Seattle Waterfront at Twilight / Jason Hoover /

Future Waterfronts

In interview with Martin Joseph Barry on new public spaces by the water by Anna Maikova

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An interview with Martin Joseph Barry

An interview by Anna Maikova

At the 2013 Moscow Urban Forum, I met Martin Joseph Barry, a landscape architect specialising in urban waterfronts and an Associate at W Architecture and Landscape Architecture in New York City. He is also a Fulbright Scholar and a founder of reSITE, a major urban conference in Central Europe based in Prague for urban professionals and city dwellers.

I interviewed M.J.Barry as a specialist in global waterfront projects about his view on the future of waterfronts.
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In the summer of 2013, the Moscow city government announced its plan for reconstructing waterfronts and embankments beginning in 2014. The Deputy Mayor of Moscow, Mr. Khusnullin, claimed that “Through the project «Moscow River» we hope to change the fact that both the public and investment potential of the waterfronts in the capital is not used. In fact, city dwellers are cut off from the water because roads run along the river”. You are a specialist in reconstructing waterfronts all over the world; could you please tell us how urban reconstruction of waterfronts is important for the future of megalopolises such as Moscow? Apart from “investment potential”, what are the reasons that make water actually valuable to people, businesses, and cites?

The announcement from Mr. Khusnullin comes on the heels of similar announcements in other major cities around the world (such as Paris, New York, Calgary, Vancouver, Nice and Prague). Undoubtedly, it is a positive announcement. However, the city of Moscow will need to go further than simply announce that the Moscow River project will bring investment and public opportunities to the waterfront. They must rethink and rezone the waterfront in order to gain the most of this “investment potential,” while making sure not to overdevelop such a beautiful resource. In other cities such as New York, we have worked on a balanced strategy to reconnect urban denizens to their waterfronts. What I mean by that is that Mayor Bloomberg tasked the City Planning Department to rezone vast areas of underutilised waterfront, opening up hundreds of miles of post-​industrial underutilised land to private development. To be clear, New York City has over 500 miles of underutilised waterfront landscape. I use the term “landscape” because if we simply categorise this land as “property” we immediately need to find ways to increase value and investment opportunities for that land. However, the task should really be about finding a balanced approach to increase land value and the tax base while providing a modern, equitable landscape for public use.

Cities that have water have a great gift. Water allows people to escape.

The importance is really two-​fold. Cities that have water have a great gift. Water allows people to escape. Think about it. When you go to the waterfront in a city, or in a rural landscape for that matter, most of us like to look at the water; we watch it flow; we free our minds of everyday worries, we escape. On a very basic and primitive level having an accessible waterfront provides landscapes of escape from the everyday pressures of the city. A place to run, a place to walk the dog, a place to steal kisses from our partner or mistress after work. Waterfronts bring out the inner child in all of us. On a more complex level, redeveloping land along the river provides a means of investment and protection. Investment, because rezoning efforts are often geared at revaluing the land. Protection, because climate change is dramatically affecting the way we need to plan and design cities. Waterfronts in other cities are seen as an opportunity to make the city more resilient to flooding. In tidal cities, like New York or Hamburg, the waterfront has provided an unprecedented opportunity to “soak up” floods during major storm events or high tides. After Superstorm Sandy in New York City, our firm has been rethinking the waterfronts in New York Harbor to become a means of protection for the entire city. The “protection” zone must always be occupiable though, because using flood prevention devices alone does not make a city nicer, just safer. The goal of such measures should be to provide a safe and accessible and cool city.

Waterfront shopping in Copenhagen / Kenneth Sørensen /

Waterfront shopping in Copenhagen /​Kenneth Sørensen /​flickr​.com

What do you mean by ‘cool’ city’? What is the definition of it?

I say “cool” city, because a city must be cool in order to be competitive. To be cool, it must have high quality public landscapes and places for people to recreate, equitable and sustainable waterfronts, bike lanes for safe alternative transport and most importantly it must have walkable neighbourhoods. If a city is provided with these great bones, it can be incredibly livable and an incredibly cool place to be.

Mr. Khusnullin does not indicate whom the waterfront will be opened for. The City needs to decide if this will be a citizen’s waterfront, a tourist waterfront or a business waterfront. Or, ideally, if it will be a combination of those things. The waterfront needs to be looked at as an investment in the city and its citizens. This is not always easy economics, though. The payoff will be long term. It will be long term because a balanced public and pedestrian waterfront will
not immediately reduce traffic, congestion and investment in other parts of the city. However, over the long term the city will become a more resilient, livable and competitive place. A cool city will attract top business talent from around the world, allowing the economy to increase the number of innovative people, and drive up demand for residential housing, which will require the city to develop in other underutilised places. Today, when young couples think about moving from the city to a suburban community, they must think twice because of the vast amount of high quality public landscapes in the city, which makes raising a family much easier. In New York City, it has been Mayor Bloomberg’s goal to provide a high quality park or green space within a 10-​minute walk of everyone’s home. This makes it very hard for people to want to move from these places with such a high quality lifestyle. Furthermore, waterfront parks act to increase land values of adjacent real estate, especially if well managed and maintained.

If Moscow wants to be a cool, competitive, resilient and livable city it must take the opportunity to redevelop the Moskva river very seriously.

If Moscow wants to be a cool, competitive, resilient and livable city it must take the opportunity to redevelop the Moskva very seriously. The City needs to put capital programmes behind the effort and hire an international and local consultant team who understand how to implement projects with bottom-​up /​top-​down support. The capital and political investment will pay off major dividends, as it has in other cities around the world. It will take a bold vision, and commitment from city officials like Mr. Khusnullin to see the effort through and be able to withstand criticism from the car lobby, and all others who do not understand the value of these kinds of changes in their city. These things are not easy – so I repeat that it needs commitment, capital and leaders who are willing to push back and work with competing interests.

Most of the embankments in Moscow are the main traffic arteries of the city. If we transform them into pedestrian zones in the future, would it increase traffic jams in the city? Could you tell us how other cities where you’ve worked cope with this problem? How have completed projects affected the traffic situation in those cities?

Will turning traffic lanes to pedestrian spaces cause other traffic problems in the city? – yes. But, only in the short term. Over the long term, however, the traffic will improve if the City reallocates transportation budgets to mass transit and alternative transit. And, the City will need an innovative marketing campaign to reinforce the fact that cars aren’t cool in advanced cities. As Enrique Peñalosa (former Mayor of Bogota) says, “An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation.”

We have learned from Copenhagen, Oslo, New York, Mexico City, Bogota to San Francisco – the more space you give cars, the worse your car problem will become. By slowly reducing the amount of driving lanes and parking, the better the traffic condition gets because people take alternate means of transportation; bus, walking, metro, street cars, bikes. First of all, the changes are not expensive. Second, the pay-​off is far greater than continued spending on car transport, which has relatively few investment benefits.

NYC Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-​Khan tells us “you can make these changes quickly and inexpensively,” adding that “the success we’ve had here (in NYC) can be tailored and replicated in other places.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sadik-​Khan have transformed New York City in a matter of 4 years, adding over 300 miles of bike lanes and turning vast areas of roadway into public plazas and bike lanes with projects such as the redevelopment of Times Square, Broadway Boulevard and dozens of other smaller “sustainable streets” initiatives. They have made major changes by doing projects very quickly, reallocating transportation budgets to quickly and cheaply make pedestrian spaces around the city. The project, initially criticised heavily by the public and media, has become an enormous success – mostly because they were able to change people’s expectations of what roads were for in New York.

In New York, Bloomberg and Sadik-​Khan redefined a traditional, 80-​year old mindset where the streets were for cars only. They put real estate and social value back into the streets. The streets, they argued, needed to be safer and they needed to have more pedestrians. After all, pedestrians spend up to 67% more money in cities than those who travel in cars. By using hard data to track the transformation of these spaces, the arguments for making more pedestrian space became apolitical – you can’t argue very well with sound data. Retail spaces along Broadway Boulevard, for example, have increased their revenue by over 171% in the first two years alone. Rent values doubled in these locations. While increased rents are not always ideal, one cannot argue that stagnant, or worse, declining rents are more desirable for cities.

Edmonds Ferry at Sunset / Michael Matti /

Edmonds Ferry at Sunset /​Michael Matti /​flickr​.com

How have completed projects affected the traffic situation in those cities?

The benefit of changing from a vehicular city to a human-​scaled city (or waterfront) is overwhelmingly positive from almost every perspective. Though, you have to keep track of the data so that the benefits and wins are easy to understand. For example, in New York, in the first year after Sadik-Khan’s sustainable streets programme was implemented, traffic fatalities decreased by 35%. Ridership and travel speeds on city buses were up 20%. Cycling ridership increased by 200% since bike lanes were introduced and traffic injury rates are lower than they have been in 100 years. On top of these stats, retail sales have increased on pedestrianised streets by over 170% while rental income has doubled. The same can be said for similar programmes in Copenhagen and London.

Spearheading development along an urban waterfront is a complicated effort that needs to involve traffic planners, landscape architects, hydrologists, sociologists, market investment and capital specialists, urban planners, ecologists and occasionally architects and other allied design professions. First and foremost, this effort needs to be an equal mix of municipal and business top-​down leadership combined with bottom-​up effort. In New York, we call this a Jane Jacobs/​Robert Moses planning process. The process needs to include citizen efforts to repopulate public space because without citizen input, the project could be a massive failure. The project will need significant public “buy-​in.” Generally, this “buy-​in” can be done with a catalytic project, like Zaryadye Park or similar. If the catalytic project gets “legs” and the public accepts it, it
becomes much easier to make larger changes elsewhere. Part of this “buy in” is about changing mindsets of the public so that the larger project can be completed and the public will accept it.

In the materials for the book “Now Urbanism”, to be published in 2014, you mentioned “by 2030 half of the world population will live in cities, with 2.7 billion more people living in the world”. In your opinion, how will the usage of waterfronts transform, given the increase of urban population in the future?

Clearly, it depends on what cities we are talking about. In small cities in the United States, like Austin, Texas, the city has used the riverfront for investment and social spaces. The riverfront in Austin is filled with shops, restaurants and parks – a respite from the conventional car-​centric cities and towns in the rest of Texas. In Mumbai, the waterfront is still largely a dilapidated and polluted section of the city. In London, New York and Paris it has taken decades for the city to (re)-realise the social, ecological and economic potential of the waterfront and changes are still being made in those cities. Historically, the economic benefits were clear. Now, it takes a little more work and commitment to realise the value.

So, as we move toward a more urban world, the usage of waterfronts will depend largely on the size of cities and their ability to be agile, shifting focus on these valuable resources. There will be more pressure than ever to develop housing and business districts on the water. While I generally do not have a problem with real estate development on ecologically sound portions of waterfront, high quality public space needs to be incorporated into the plans. Equal access needs to be granted to these public waterways and the spaces need to be equitable and ecologically sustainable.

You have worked in Prague where you founded reSITE, an urban event where government officials, professionals, and city dwellers meet to debate issues of the contemporary city. Also in the book “Now Urbanism” you mentioned several times that Prague, being in a post-​socialist mindset, does have peculiarities connected to its socialist past. When you reconstruct the waterfronts in different cities, do you take into account political conditions in the particular country?

Yes, I founded reSITE in 2011 to be an international, collaborative platform to exchange ideas about more livable, resilient and competitive cities. Specifically, we are focusing on a more and more open planning process that focuses on quality design for waterfronts, public space and sustainable mobility.

While we focus on an international group of experts to talk about processes and solutions, we are catalysing local citizens and business leaders. In the end, we are interested in social innovation for local people in cities – we want to inspire people with good ideas from within and from abroad and make the information available to everyone.

We are keenly aware that the politics and business environment of Central and Eastern Europe is far different from other cities in the West, or even the East. But, it is important to note that cities of all sizes and different political situations share similar problems. I was happy to be able to meet Sir Richard Rogers last year at the Urban Age conference in London where he said, “People come to cities to make their lives better. “They want to eat, meet and make love so we should focus on the places where those connections happen – in streets and squares.” Rogers was basically saying that humans all have similar needs, and I would argue that cities do as well. We need to provide safe & healthy environments where people can find affordable housing, good schools and a mix of job opportunities. Additionally, we need to provide places for people to recreate and congregate because public space is the public theatre – it is where democracy and innovation are able to proliferate.

Are the rules of re-​thinking city waterfronts as the place where urban citizens spend their free time and socialise universal nowadays, or not?

Now, the uses of particular urban dwellers in Moscow might differ from those in Singapore or New York. So, as global designers, we need to be really sensitive to cultural differences. For example, the waterfront in Dubai offers a much more restrictive opportunity to design public space, however the need for waterfront space is still in demand.

Now that we have your definition of the modern waterfront, let’s discuss the urban waterfront of the Future. In your opinion, will the urban waterfront of the future be fundamentally different than the waterfront of today, or will it be essentially the same?

The waterfront of the future should look a lot like the waterfront of the past. It should be used for recreational purposes, transport and industry. Industry must be utilized wisely, but the point is that the waterfront shouldn’t only be for residential real estate development and recreation. A working, balanced waterfront is typically the best solution.

At the risk of sounding like a traditionalist, in some ways, the waterfront of the future should look a lot like the waterfront of the past. It should be used for recreational purposes, transport and industry. Industry must be utilised wisely, but the point is that the waterfront shouldn’t only be for residential real estate development and recreation. A working, balanced waterfront is typically the best solution. Hamburg has done a good job with this mix.

It will be fundamentally different, because urban waterfronts that were developed in the last century since the industrial revolution were developed mono-​functionally. Poly-​functional waterfronts will make better, more livable cities. Last, I think that efforts to clean urban waterways in the United States and other countries are highly valuable initiatives. Projects like my friend Kate Orff’s “Oystertecture” are meant to improve water quality via natural methods. +Pool is other valuable initiative, but using more technology versus oysters to clean water. Eventually, we envision a future where the waters around New York and other cities are clean enough to swim

Today, even in post-​industrial cities, rivers are extremely polluted. In countries that are still industrialising, and where people use rivers for daily needs and rituals, the condition can be enormously difficult to change. How will the health of rivers be affected over time?

We have to transfer knowledge across cultures and borders. I am a firm believer that much of what I learned personally has come from friends and colleagues in other places. This may seem silly to some, who are used to operating on a global field, but we really need to be diligent about knowledge transfer. China can’t continue to pollute the Pearl River Delta if they want to have a healthy and growing population. Eventually, they will need to implement more sustainable business practices. The tough part is that developing countries want to have their chance to grow incredibly fast, as the West did after the industrial revolution. However, the game has changed. Climate change is no longer a question, it is a significant factor in how cities and cultures will survive and compete. Resiliency will be key and it starts with sustainable development and leads all the way to resilient and ecologically smart design. I often hesitate to use the word “sustainable” because sometimes it is used as complete bullshit, but in this context, I trust you understand what I mean and that I’m not green-​washing the answer…

Golden Bird Dance / Jason Hoover /

Golden Bird Dance /​Jason Hoover /​flickr​.com

What technologies might affect the Future Waterfront?

As mentioned earlier, some technologies like “oystertecture” and “+Pool” will be influential on the urban waterfront. Both utilise different means to clean water. Groups like Terreform One and the MIT Senseable Cities Lab are also experimenting with amazing technology to respond to users in public space. However, we need to be careful about tech innovations in public space (and on waterfronts). Adam Greenfield, among others such as myself and tech writers like Greg Lindsay, are cautious about using technology to mine user data for private interest. I am very concerned about advertising in public spaces that utilises digital recognition software to target consumers in more efficient ways. There are now vending machines in Tokyo that use facial and sex recognition software to decide what types of drinks to offer to approaching consumers. This is nuts! So, the poor overweight Japanese guy is inevitably getting offered sugar-​laden Coca-​Cola and calorie-​heavy drinks while the skinny teen model will get offered water or health drink. While some see this as smart advertising, nothing more, I see it as an invasion of one’s freedom and privacy.

In other advertisements in Paris, photo-​recognition software spots consumers approaching and changes the advertisement accordingly. This is a dramatic change in how we perceive our choices. Chance encounters are becoming less-​and-​less likely in the city, and this is concerning. While there is an advantage to “engineer serendipity” as Greg Lindsay says, we need to be careful we are still using public space as the original social network. No offense, facebook.

Technology could improve public transport on the river. We need apps and data programs to make waterborne transport more efficient and cost-​effective. I think that the water in cities needs to be fully utilized to get people around.

In more pragmatic situations, I think that technology could improve public transport on the river. We need apps and data programs to make waterborne transport more efficient and cost-​effective. I think that the water in cities needs to be fully utilised to get people around. In cities like Prague, the water is used ONLY as a means for tourist boats to shuttle drunk passengers up-​and-​down the river to take photos of Prague Castle and other landmarks. In most cases, a kind of Mafia controls the wharf, so the rents that are paid are extremely low. Therefore, it is basically a waste of taxpayer resources to continue to subsidise a tourist boat industry that doesn’t benefit residents at all. The water should be utilised for more effective urban transport, not just tourist boats for disorderly, drunk tourists from Manchester, or elsewhere.

We should be using the waterfront for all forms of city engagement. Poly-​use waterfronts will be best. Cities like Austin and Ljubljana, which offer fairly mono-​functional waterfronts, will have tough times if our economic alignments with capitalism ever change.

What challenges do cities face as they attempt to improve their waterfronts?

Public engagement. Cities, even modern cities with a history of public engagement, always struggle with truly engaging their citizens in the planning and design process. This is the biggest challenge that cities will face when looking to transform. The car situation will solve itself once proper investments are made in alternative transport and citizens understand that truly modern cities are not ones where the affluent drive cars to work but rather where they take public and alternative transport with everyone else. This isn’t socialism – even if some will deride it as such – it is simply smart city planning and transportation policy that will make everyone wealthier and the city more livable.

And the last question, where would you like to work most in the future?

I want to work in cities that need help, where there are true changes to be made like in Moscow, Prague and other cities that haven’t yet figured out how to solve their transportation challenges. One of my favourite places in the world is Mexico City (D.F.) – I would love to work more in D.F. to help improve public spaces and engagement in the city.