Everybody In

A Waterfront Alliance report wades into how waterfront access is a crucible for public health and a measure of inequality.

By Zach Mortice

Hunter’s Point South in Queens, New York. Copyright Jonnu Singleton, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi.

Despite alighting across the two rivers and an ocean, only 37 percent of New York and New Jersey’s waterfronts are open to the public, and only 9 percent of waterfronts in the poorest areas are accessible. The Waterfront Alliance’s new report “Waterfront Access for All: Breaking Down Social and Physical Barriers to the Waterfront” shines a light on this pervasive inequality. The report (available here) covers both policy and design interventions that can address this chasm. Those are now more urgent as the nation grapples with the twin crises of COVID-19, which has made outdoor landscapes vital places for safe refuge, and racial inequality, which is easily read through access to public waterfronts. The report focuses on New York and New Jersey and includes input from more than 60 organizations. The Alliance partnered with the New York –New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program to convene the task force that assembled the report. Intended to influence the public and city agencies, the report aims to inform the New York City Department of City Planning’s Comprehensive Waterfront Plan, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s rule making process.

“We’re trying to help the public, designers, and government agencies to reimagine what connections to the water can look like,” says Sarah Dougherty, the program manager at the Waterfront Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group that a works toward creating healthy, resilient, and equitably accessible waterfronts.

The report is structured around three fundamental access questions, positing policy-based answers. “Why can’t we touch the water?” addresses barriers to physical access; “Why can’t we pay to create access where it’s needed most?” deals with funding and stewardship challenges; and “Why aren’t our ideas for access being heard?” addresses barriers to diversity and engagement in the development process.  Each section is punctuated by brief case studies. For the design of public waterfronts, the report encourages direct access to the water and programming-friendly features like floating docks, fencing that allows for water access, seating, potable water and electricity, and restrooms. The report also advocates for living shorelines, an approach that includes wetlands and living breakwaters, suggesting additional height allowances for building developments that include them.

One barrier to living shorelines is the complicated permitting they require, especially in New York. “Because it’s a complex set of regulatory hurdles to navigate at the federal, state, and city levels, you often end up with a bulkhead with a railing,” says Pippa Brashear, ASLA, the planning principal at SCAPE, who contributed to the report. Living shorelines absorb wave energy and mitigate coastal flooding, which is ever more critical as climate change causes sea levels to rise, and 9 percent of public housing nationwide sit on floodplains, according to the Furman Center. 

The challenge, Brashear says, is making sure these factors are properly valued when stacked up next to developers’ expectations for rentable square feet. Today, “the bottom line for developers usually leads to no direct access to the water,” says the report.

One of the Alliance’s ongoing initiatives is the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG), a rating system modeled on LEED that evaluates the resilience, accessibility, and sustainability of waterfronts. Dougherty says that she hopes that WEDG will provide a framework to collect data on the ecological, health, and economic benefits of waterfronts.

“These are no less [valuable] but harder to quantify, so they typically lose out to more traditional economic values,” Brashear says. “It’s a constant role for us as landscape architects to advocate for those values through design, but [also] through advocacy efforts.”

The shoreline at Hunter’s Point South allows easy and direct access to the water. Copyright Bill Tatham, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi.

The Waterfront Alliance report advocates for specific policy proposals for waterfront development processes that leave communities of less means behind. “People of color, people of lower incomes just have less access to shade, to open space, to nature, to the water, to various things in our urban environment that can improve physical and mental health,” Brashear says.

Because waterfronts are largely funded by private developers or public–private partnerships, they mostly appear in wealthy neighborhoods. “We’re calling on the public sector to invest and create incentives for the private sector to fill in,” Dougherty says.

The report advocates for a number of local and state legislative efforts, including a New York State bond measure for wetland restoration and nature-based flood risk mitigation, and also increased funding for the New York State Environmental Protection Fund and Hudson River Estuary Program.

The final section of the report focuses on building coalitions and tearing down barriers to public engagement and input from diverse audiences. In New Jersey, public input isn’t required for most waterfront access decisions. In New York, this process is governed by the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure(ULURP), a process that favors people with time to donate. The report recommends demographic analysis of the communities to understand baseline needs and “to make sure that representation at community meetings is not limited to white, affluent attendees or those who often dominate every meeting.” To make public engagement more democratic and representative of people of color and poor people, Brashear says more resources have to be provided and “even compensation” for time.

The Waterfront Alliance urges that every public input process offer multiple in-person and remote opportunities, and with pandemic restrictions in place, gathering remote public input is even more important. It’s “virtual engagement we should be doing now, but we should always be doing,” Dougherty says. “Lots of working-class people can’t show up to a four-hour charrette at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday.”

But it can’t all be done virtually. Carter Strickland, the state director of the Trust for Public Land’s New York and New Jersey office (who contributed to the report), says his organization is using downloadable surveys that are distributed and collected by local organizations, like faith-based communities. “In theory, you could do it all online,” he says, “but we’re very much aware that there’s a big digital divide.”

Hunter’s Point South is a WEDG-verified waterfront landscape. Copyright Bill Tatham, courtesy SWA/Balsley and Weiss/Manfredi.

Now that COVID-19 has tightened the connection between public landscapes and health, providing enough space to visit waterfronts with safe social distancing “[is] really critical now and over the summer,” Brashear says. Pandemic or not, for people without air conditioning or access to much open space, “being able to get cool by going to the beach or getting in the water is a health issue,” Dougherty says.

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