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The Third Wave of Urban Waterfront Development

District Winery, one of DC’s latest waterfront amenities. Image © Prakash Patel

Not long ago, urban waterfronts were mostly populated with ships and cranes and metal containers that held troves of goods ranging from the everyday to the exotic. Ancillary industries were located nearby, in plain buildings that did not bear the obvious signifiers of design. And men labored in unglamorous but necessary work that allowed the mechanics of trade to operate smoothly. Waterfronts have long been central to the economies of many cities. Yet they were also tinged with danger: their porosity enabled people and goods perceived as threats to the established social order to enter the city. This tension between sanctioned and unsanctioned activities infused waterfronts with a sense of drama and illicit goings-on. The idea that such places could be cultural hotspots or focused on livability seemed far-fetched, to say the least.

Yet many waterfronts (particularly in the “developed world”) have become such places, and their transformations often unfold in startling ways. For example, along Washington, DC’s Anacostia riverfront, which was once home to the U.S. Navy’s largest shipyard and later home to its primary ordnance facility, you can now sip dry rosé at a winery, lounge on the roof deck of any number of sleek apartment buildings, or learn circus tricks at a trapeze school.

The nature of waterfront redevelopment has been evolutionary, in the truest sense of the word: gradual and given to unexpected changes in direction. Across the globe and over the last few decades, we can trace a winding path of transformation that has taken waterfronts from industrial zones, to realms imbued with the weight of cultural and civic symbolism, to places designed for aspirational livability.

DC’s Anacostia riverfront in 1918

The first of those shifts—from industrial to symbolic—began in earnest in the 1970s and continues through today. The move toward a post-industrial order initially led cities to rethink not just how their economies functioned but what the possibilities were for reconstructing their identities. Waterfronts proved to be ideal places for experiments with identity to play out. Because waterfronts are places of arrival and departure, economic centrality and contact with nature, they hold rich symbolic power. Each waterfront, though it is a mere fragment of the city, is often burdened with representing the entire city. Armed with that understanding, municipalities have been keen to anchor new waterfront developments with architecture that gestures toward the ambitious. See, for example, Baltimore’s National Aquarium. See Marseille’s Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization (Mucem) or its Villa Méditerranée. See the tumbling geometries of Bilbao’s Guggenheim or Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. Architecture, particularly when it is manifested as an exploration of form, becomes a signifier of new modes of thinking; architecture becomes a way for cities to announce themselves as aligned with the prevailing intellectual zeitgeist.

That approach to development remains prevalent and continues to deliver wondrous new works of design. Yet we are seeing the beginnings of a shift, one that is driven by what Harvard economist Edward Glaeser calls the rise of the consumer city. Such cities not only facilitate a wide range of consumption but also offer a tremendous array of amenities that attract new residents, particularly educated workers who command high salaries. In essence, high-amenity cities grow faster than their low-amenity brethren. Thus, the need for amenity-filled ecosystems supersedes the need for symbols at the water’s edge.

Another way of looking at the consumer city model is through the lens of livability. Admittedly, livability is something of a slippery notion. In one sense, it encompasses a range of prosaic criteria that includes everything from housing to connectivity to economic opportunities. In another sense, livability is an experiential phenomenon that speaks to more poetic criteria—such as wonder, beauty, whimsy, discovery and novelty, to name just few elements.

District Winery, designed to engage with DC’s Anacostia River. Image © Prakash Patel

Executing on both the prosaic and poetic fronts is, of course, the challenge. But if we look again to DC and its Anacostia riverfront, we see such an execution taking place. At the center of the Anacostia effort is a mixed-use project dubbed The Yards, which is a reference to the Navy Yard Annex that once occupied the site. The new neighborhood features residences, office space, restaurants, and retail, which is exactly what one would expect in a mixed-use development. However, The Yards goes further, with its verdant waterfront park, its playful fountains and water wall and, of course, its trapeze school. The Yards’ aforementioned winery—District Winery—is also part of the neighborhood’s aspirations beyond the prosaic. To that end, Gensler designed District Winery’s base building to interact with the site via expansive views toward the river, an outdoor dining area, and an event space that leads to a wraparound terrace overlooking the Anacostia. The goal for these elements is the enabling of connections with the riverfront and, hopefully, a sense of the poetic.

By facilitating such connections, we can make our waterfronts places that speak not just to our contemporary need for high-amenity urbanism but also to our age-old desire for the lyrical and the inspirational.

Brenden Jackson is a Senior Writer in Gensler’s Washington, DC, office. With a background in creative writing, journalism, and marketing, he oversees storytelling for the firm’s southeast region. Contact him at Brenden_Jackson@gensler.com.