Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Taking Back our Waterfronts

Many American cities were built around industrial centers along waterfronts. But as America’s transportation and industrial profile changed, manufacturing plants closed and were abandoned leaving behind deteriorating, unsightly and underutilized waterfronts.


Fortunately, things are changing – for the better. More and more industrial waterfronts are being rediscovered. Areas that were once eyesores are being transformed into welcoming community parks and greenways that are reconnecting people to their rivers and waterways.

And, not only are these revitalized waterfronts serving as new destinations in communities, they are also contributing to a community’s economic development, residential health, environmental resilience and urban infrastructure demands.  They are helping to enhance the tax base, encourage private investment, and anchor their communities.

Across the United States, more and more cities are implementing riverfront redevelopment projects that are not only revitalizing abandoned waterfronts but also the adjacent communities.

In Washington, DC, for example, two recent projects along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers has transformed the Southwest and Southeast quadrants into new walkable communities.

A gritty and mostly unused section of the Anacostia River was transformed into a scenic, vibrant waterfront destination called Yards Park. It is now part of a new neighborhood called the Capitol Riverfront which comprises 500-acres and includes open spaces and parks, walkable streets, year-round activity, residential properties, hotels, restaurants, workspaces, offices and shops.


Soon to follow was the development of The Wharf which is now helping residents re-embrace, or in some cases get introduced, to the Potomac River.  Southwest Washington was the principal commercial waterfront district in D.C. in the 1820s and 1830s. The Southwest Waterfront shoreline sat, for the most part, unused for decades, despite its proximity to the National Mall. Monty Hoffman, the project’s developer, said “On the water, here, where we developed, was really large, flat, plain parking lots and clubs that were left here. That was sort of a tired, old-school use for the water…the Potomac River is our greatest natural resource, and I think when people see it and they get on it and they’re part of it, aware of it, then the conscious level of cleaning it up and doing other things in our environment goes way up,” he said.


The Wharf, which dubs itself as “Where D.C. Meets its Water,” includes more than 14 acres of park and public spaces, an ice rink in the winter, and a Recreation Pier which offers kayak and paddle board rentals plus water taxi service to Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria and National Harbor.

Another river that is being rediscovered is the Chicago River which has been transformed from an industrial corridor in Chicago into an urban amenity. The project includes the Riverwalk; the boathouses; the North Branch Trail extension; the planned Paseo in Pilsen; and even a seemingly wild idea for a 6.5 mile floating bike path from Chinatown to Ravenswood Manor. The Riverwalk offers a variety of opportunities to find the beauty and spirit of the Chicago River. “The riverfront investments we’re making throughout the City are increasing river access, increasing recreational opportunities and promoting economic growth “said Mayor Rahm Emanuel.


Pittsburgh, which is historically most famous for two things: the three rivers that bisect it— the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio—and its legendary steel industry, is also seeing an inspirational transformation. After the steel industry declined along the river areas in the 1980s, it left behind brownfields, elevated highways, retaining walls, and soil and water contamination that created a less-than-idyllic setting.  In the early 2000s, the city’s Riverlife Task Force helped draft a master plan to create the Three Rivers Park , encompassing 13 connected miles of parks, trails and riverside amenities. Since then more than 80 percent of the area has been redeveloped and improved for public use. The next major step is a 20-block riverfront park in the city’s Strip District. (Named not for strip clubs, but after the strip of produce wholesale warehouses along the Allegheny River.)


On the West Coast, the Los Angeles River, once the fount of life for generations of people and wildlife, had been turned into a 51-mile cement flood control gulch splashed with reclaimed wastewater, storm drain puddles of lawn fertilizer, soapsuds and plastic bags. Plans are now underway to improve the health of the ecosystem and the value of the river as a regional public amenity. 51 Miles from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific at Long Beach, the revitalization of the Los Angeles River seeks to connect residents of this megalopolis to its indigenous roots.


And let us not forget about the mighty Mississippi. The Mississippi riverfront in downtown Minneapolis was once a timber, railroad, and flour milling powerhouse fueled by water-generated power from the river’s only natural waterfall, St. Anthony Falls.  As these industries declined in the early 20th century, so did the river. The Above the Falls riverfront is an area in flux. Characterized by low banks interspersed with parks and heavy industrial use, much of this oft-neglected prairie river stretch awaits improved public access as well as restoration. However, many parks and trail improvements are in the works as part of the award-winning Minneapolis Above the Falls Master Plan, created by the Above the Falls Citizen Advisory Committee.


These projects are not only taking place in cities but also in smaller towns and rural areas.  Several counties in Pennsylvania inherited the issue of abandoned mine drainage (AMD). Caused by coal-mining activities centuries ago, it is the most widespread water pollution challenge in Pennsylvania, and its damage extends to the Lehigh River, which inspired a song a local band called Free Range Folk. Abandoned mines exist within the Lehigh River watershed, leaking acid, heavy metals and other pollution into nearby creeks that discharge into the Lehigh River. The problem is so big that more than 4,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams are effectively dead — uninhabited by fish or insects — because of this pollution.

In 1973, Wildlands Conservancy formally organized and has worked to not only reverse the inadvertent missteps of the river's industrial past but has also been able to bring people back to the river.  Today, the Lehigh River Water Trail is 72 miles long and is a state-designated Scenic River that is a beautiful, natural resource offering opportunities for recreation and respite.


And, there are many other projects completed or underway:

  • San Antonio Riverwalk – San Antonio, TX
  • Brush Creek Cultural Corridor – Kansas City, MO
  • Memphis Riverfront Master Plan – Memphis, TN
  • Charles River Master Plan – Boston, MA
  • Tennessee River – Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • Greening of the Platte River – Denver, CO
  • River Park and Balboa park Redevelopment – San Diego, CA
  • Rio Salado Ecosystem Restoration Project – Phoenix & Tempe, AZ
  • North Delaware Riverfront – Philadelphia, PA
  • Allegheny Riverfront – Pittsburgh, PA
  • Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis - an archeological site of excavated historic mill foundations and waterpower features.

Does you city have an abandoned waterfront that is a potential asset for the community?  It may be time to follow what so many other cities have done and transform these sites into community destinations.


Community Outreach Programs

Housing Opportunity Grant
Housing Opportunity Grants support state and local REALTOR® Associations’ affordable housing activities. The goal of the program is to position REALTORS® as leaders in improving their communities by creating affordable housing

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Smart growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement. The Smart Growth Program offers state and local REALTOR® Associations to way to engage with government officials, community partners and the general public in planning and designing community’s future.

Planned diversity initiatives makes good business sense. REALTOR® Associations with well-planned diversity programs create a stronger sense of community, particularly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreign-born and minority residents who are moving up the socioeconomic ladder and are buying homes.

NAR Placemaking Resources

Placemaking Guide: A Guide to Transform a Public Space into a Community Place
REALTORS® and state and local association staff can learn the details of Placemaking, the kinds of projects placemaking entails, how to organize them, and where to go for assistance and resources.

Placemaking Webinar Series
Our Placemaking Webinar Series will provide more in depth information on the various types of Placemaking and how REALTORS® were involved in Placemaking activities in their communities.

Placemaking Grant
The Placemaking Grant funds the creation of new public spaces, like pocket parks, trails & gardens, in a community. The grant focuses on “lighter, cheaper, quicker” placemaking projects, which can be built under a year and cost less  than $200,000.

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