On the Waterfront

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One of the particularly gratifying experiences I have living in New York is commuting to work along the Hudson River. My friends that live in Brooklyn describe a palatable sense of relief as they emerge from the subway in Fort Green or cross the Manhattan on their bike. My experience with my commutes is a bit different. It is one of seeing a city while moving along its edge – not as arriving to the city, or walking away – but riding the border between the chaos and the calm. Riding along the path, I experience a tension between motion and stillness that rarely exists in built form – but one that is most likely the best definition of life in New York City.

These morning rides have caused me to think about how we (American Cities) have developed our waterfronts. The first few quick examples that came to my mind were New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Portland and Pittsburgh…but also what is currently in the works with my hometown of Oklahoma City.

From the renderings available on the City’s Website, the water’s edge looks to be developed in a mix of low and medium density and buffered by river coves. For Oklahoma City, this is probably seems to be the best option. One of the biggest benefits of living in Oklahoma is the instant access to the outdoors. The sprawl of the city makes it fairly easy to find spots of raw nature and undeveloped land. But for the downtown of a city that is already spread out, it still looks suburban. The application of low density spread runs counter to what makes a great urban condition.

Urban developments that form a distinctive edge to natural zones create, in my opinion, a good contrasting condition. It creates a definable place, or an urban room of the park, and it allows for a higher value and return on those developed areas along the edge. The dialogue between Riverside Park, the residential buildings along Riverside Drive and the Hudson River are a perfect example of this. But unlike the Hudson River, the Oklahoma River itself isn’t a boundary to Oklahoma City and shouldn’t be treated as one, which is how the planning looks to perceive it.¹

The Oklahoma River can be a wonderful outdoor room for the City, but it needs to be addressed equally on both river banks. Now, two caveats: The limits of my analysis are what I was able to quickly gather from the online material available and I am fully aware that this is a long range plan and much will change as markets and thinking evolves. With that stated, my primary questions revolve around phasing of the project and what is happening on the south bank of the river? Brownfield redevelopment is occurring at the Downtown Airpark,² but as of now, this and Wiley Post Park are the only areas that I believe have been planned for and they both lay outside the reach of the City’s planning vision.

In my eyes, the most important part of the Core to Shore development program is the “Shore.” How do you bring a native Oklahoma population willingly to a more dense, more urban environment while at the same time luring those from out-of state with the benefits of our connection to nature? You place a heavier emphasis on great development and excellent public access along the waters edge.³ If the river is viewed as an asset, which its viewed as one even here in NYC, wouldn’t it make sense to allow as many residents as possible to use it on a daily basis. Possibly even within walking distance? The reason Riverside Park and the Hudson River Parkway have met such great success is that there is a density of local, neighborhood residents that support it, use it, and care for it daily – simply because access is easy.

In my perfect scenario, phase one of the plan would be based around development of both banks of the river and a line of connection back to the existing core areas. Alot of what is planned for phase one of the program is green space and parks, the center piece being the “Central Park.”  Planned green space is wonderful, but I don’t believe a created green space needs to be built first when a natural river is already in place. If the downtown core is providing one unique area of focus, the second area should be a unique urban zone that allows visitors, but more importantly, residents access to the river and trail system along both banks of the river’s edge.

Imagine a string of dense mid-rise residential units and linked green spaces that take advantage of the southern exposure; and on the opposite bank, a well defined waterfront of commercial, residential park areas that capitalize on the views across the river towards the downtown towers. Unless a larger plan is in place that accounts for planned development and use along both sides of the river, I believe that Oklahoma City might be falling short of capitalizing on a wonderful asset. The river’s revival is well chronicled and the primary reason for its success is what has been developed along its edges.

  1. As an aside, could it be simply due to the naming of their plan, ‘Core to Shore?’ A shore is typically referred to as a fringe of land at the edge of a large body of water, such as a lake, sea or ocean. It’s a river bank, or river’s edge, but that doesn’t lend itself to marketable phrasing. Maybe marketing is influencing the perception of the city’s limits?
  2. I love Ferris wheels! For more on the Downtown Airpark “Waterfront”, check out Steve Lackmeyer’s article. Without digging to much into the development, I applaud that the focus of the images is on the street conditions, landscape and general massing. It describes the whole urban condition. See note 3
  3. Alot of talk is happening in OKC relative to walk-ability and in general a more friendly, inviting city (from a built environment standpoint). In my opinion, walkability isn’t a term associated with suburban site planning, and that is what we are still gettting in OKC. The videos for the Core to Shore development have a closer relationship to a Grand Theft Auto game than that of a human perspective of an urban environment. They do create excitement for the project, but what it delivers is too much of an object oriented view rather than one of a cohesive urban experience.  (Do we really need flashing LED overpasses? Let Vegas and Dubai keep those.)


  1. It seems to me that one of the defining points of opportunity for redevelopment is precisely how these sites were developed in the first place. Especially in the Northeast, until the not-so-distant past our port cities were anchors to our economic development. These coastal cities were not ringed with parks and esplanades, but with industry and for many cities the empty shells of this era still remain.

    While NYC may be a willing supporter of riverside recreation, I think it is well ahead of the curve. Cities like Hartford, Newark, Bridgeport, Philadelphia, Providence, New Haven (the list is endless) all built themselves around the connectivity of ocean transport but despite the decline of industry in the US, these scars of business still cover the coastlines. I have to believe that this remains one of the single greatest possibilities for urban revival and New York’s waterfront really is a testament to success.

  2. Pingback: imagiNATIVEamerica » Focus on the real MAPS 3 issue: a downtown streetcar system!

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