Gotham Gazette

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Along the Shore, A Turning Point

Nearly 400 years ago Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor. In the centuries that followed, the harbor and waterways of New York and New Jersey were the front door through which settlers and millions thereafter came and created our metropolitan area. Over time, however, the waterfront became our back door. Filled with commerce and industry, the water's edge was where we relegated our most noxious and undesirable land uses. Now, however, with changes in industry and a rediscovery of the commercial and recreational potential of our waterfront, the New York and New Jersey Harbor has become our front door one again.

There are over 700 miles of waterfront in the harbor estuary. Much of that waterfront is now "in play" and over the next generation will be transformed. This is a matter of land use, development and planning for the City of New York and for the towns and cities on the Jersey side. But more than that it is also a matter of equity for the 20 million citizens who live on the series of islands and peninsulas that comprise the New York metropolitan region. As reflected in the $1,200 per square foot waterfront condos and in the hundreds of millions of dollars that the city and state governments on both sides of the Hudson are investing in new parks, our waterfront has become a very valuable and precious resource.

Development decisions made today will affect how generations of New Yorkers and New Jersey residents relate and enjoy the water around them. We are living at a time when we will decide whether we to exchange highways, abandoned factories and fences for a sterile wall of condominiums that will effectively once again lock our waterfront away from the people or whether we will create an accessible waterfront.

A luxury condominium, 15 feet of walkway, a wrought iron fence and a bulkhead do not make for an inviting waterfront. Instead, a variety of uses and destinations will make a waterfront that New Yorkers will flock to. We can create town docks in waterfront neighborhoods such as those found on the North Shore of Long Island. We can build museums, theaters and restaurants like those that have revitalized the south side of the Thames in London. We can enjoy and connect our harbor and riverside parks as they have done in San Francisco with Golden Gate Park and the Presidio.

The creative and entrepreneurial spirit that is so central to the character of New York and New Jersey should be reflected on our waterfront. Our waterfront can be as diverse and the vital as the neighborhoods that borders it. The sterile "Esplanadia" that has been built on too much of our waterfront is the least we can do. The best way we can commemorate Hudson's arrival to these shores 400 years ago is to creatively imagine and implement much more.

The Waterfront Alliance has convened thinkers, practitioners and activists working in and around the waterfront to come up with an action agenda for change for our harbor and waterways. In the coming months Gotham Gazette will feature a series of articles from the alliance that will outline critical waterfront issues. Topics discussed will include creating swimmable and fishable waters, harbor education, waterfront recreation, water mass transit, strengthening the waterfront labor force and AquaTecture, waterfront and water design.

Stay tuned to Gotham Gazette in the months ahead for more in this series.

Roland Lewis is president and CEO of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance. 

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