Waterfront Growth Decline and Redevelopment in the Great Lakes Basin

The urban waterfront, be it on an ocean, lake or river, is often the symbolic "door" of the city, the place of entry for new citizens and the place of exit for goods that are traded through shipping. The relationship between a city and its waterfront or riverfront is shaped by the unique location and history of the city, and in this sense, each urban waterfront has its own idiosyncratic story [3]. Each waterfront is also influenced by broader economic, political, and social forces at the national or global level [4]. The waterfront is a local articulation or response to broader macro-economic trends such as globalization or technological change.

The story of the North American Great Lakes waterfront is a narrative about land use and the relationship of the waterside area to the rest of the city. This relationship can be explained by a set of factors that shape all settlements, no matter their location: proximity to life-sustaining natural resources; the use and exploitation of resources for trade and other economic purposes; changes in production, transportation and communication technology; changes in a variety of connections to the rest of continent and to the globe; and changes in how the people think about natural resources.

The location of early settlements, whether established by the First Americans living on the continent over 500 generations prior to European intrusion [5-8] or as part of European exploration and dominance of the continent [9], was determined in large part by the physical characteristics of the landscape and the water's edge. Settlements were located on safe harbors, among abundant natural resources (including extensive marshes and estuaries rich with animals and vegetation), or at critical junctures of rivers and lakes for enhanced transport. Many settlements were atop coastal dunes, which had for generations been used for pedestrian travel.

European settlements in the Great Lakes basin, which began to flourish during the 18th century, brought a story of water diversion, land creation, and an overall hardening of the edge between the shoreline and the settlement. As settlements grew in population, each needed to grow in territorial size. Typically the first extension of territory to meet expanded port and land needs was to drain and fill marshes and estuaries along the shoreline. Such land reclamation has been an experience typical to cities on the shoreline and allowed urban centers and ports to expand [10]. In the 19th century, settlements associated with shipping agricultural and forest products on the lakes grew dramatically, as a vast network of canals built across the basin connected the lakes to the Mississippi River, the Ohio River, and the eastern seaboard of the United States, and thereby to Europe. These cities, located where the lakes and rivers met canals and railroads, grew as "break of bulk" centers, where raw natural resources and agricultural products were transferred into smaller boats or railroad cars or processed into products for easier shipping (from trees to lumber, from wheat to flour, etc.). The processing and storage facilities drew workers and businesses, creating public and private resources that financed new infrastructure and transportation systems [11,12]. Eventually, railroads followed the canals in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, and the need for additional docking space and railroad yards required further shoreline stabilization, anchorage improvements, and land creation. The spoils of harbor dredging and the garbage of the city were often used for land reclamation [3,10,12,13]. These new transportation facilities and the commercial buildings they required expanded into the settlement, often blocking access to the port area from other parts of the city.

The Great Lakes region became the manufacturing heartland of both Canada and United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. Steel, shipping, automobile, paint, and other industries succeeded in the basin, and the cities that developed these industries grew large. These included Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Milwaukee in the United States, and Hamilton, Windsor, and Toronto in Canada. By the mid-20th century these cities and their metropolitan regions were home to more than 30,000,000 people. The rise of the automobile and trucking industry resulted in expanded access to the waterfront areas by highways. Many cities in the Great Lakes basin built elevated highways along the waterfront to relieve traffic congestion and speed truck transport, further separating the city and the water.

Dominance of these cities lasted well into the mid-20th century, but structural changes in the manufacturing sector, largely a result of globalization of industrial capacity, resulted in dramatic shifts for Great Lakes cities. Two great waves of plant closings occurred in the southern Great Lakes basin between 1969 and 1984, washing away millions of jobs. From 1979 to 1984, a 40% reduction in steel jobs occurred in the United States. Between 1978 and 1982, 300,000 autoworkers lost their jobs. In some areas entire industries disappeared [14].

These changes were often felt most dramatically in the ports and on the waterfronts. As industry declined, the need for port facilities did as well. Jobs left for warmer climates and cheaper wages, leaving large tracts of land abandoned or vacant [15]. Solvents, heavy metals, and other chemicals used for manufacturing and shipping contaminated much of this land. Adjacent neighborhoods, once vibrant centers for port and riverfront workers and their families suffered a loss of population, investment and activity.

During the 1980s, cities began urban redevelopment efforts. Eventually these efforts turned to reinvigorating waterfronts and riverfronts, which came to be seen as opportunities to provide quality of life benefits and new economic opportunities for cities in a post-industrial economy. Several trends can explain the renewed interest in waterfront redevelopment, illustrating the tensions that inhere in land use and function in waterfront areas. Movement of industry to suburban areas resulted in vacant land along the waterfront [16] as port and industrial activities declined, raising the opportunity for redevelopment. "Just in time" delivery and containerization required less land for warehousing [3,17]. More strict environmental regulations for dredging and fill slowed or restricted creation of new land for port activities [3]. Cleaner water, a result of environmental regulations and an advanced cooperative effort between Canada and the United States to restore the Great Lakes, created opportunities for alternative types of activities along the shoreline, including recreation, housing, boating, and "ecological" tourism. The historic preservation movement has spurred the adaptive reuse of existing buildings as locations of cultural tourism [16]. Renewed interest in the private sector for water-oriented, high-end development has spurred construction of new mixed-use complexes [3,18]. People's attitudes toward coastal areas (they want them protected) and urban waterfronts (they want access to them) have changed as well [17]. Increased citizen activism seeking public spaces such as parks and boardwalks has also fueled competition for land. The urban center, and therefore the waterfront, is increasingly seen as a regional asset, a key part of regional economic success [19-21]. All these trends have increased the competition for waterside land between traditional port and trade functions and urban or ecological tourism, which bid up the demand on land, making it more profitable for redevelopment by urban entrepreneurs [3,22].

In light of all these trends, many city governments have recognized the need for plans to guide the transformation of the urban waterfront. While waterfronts have typically been a product of intelligent transformative work [23], waterfronts have not historically been carefully or coherently planned. Growth and change has been disjointed and incremental [3], shaped by the interests and actions of local entrepreneurs who form coalitions with other actors and government agencies through planning processes as part of the urban "growth machine" [22]. This coalition is central to urban waterfront redevelopment today and typically focuses on promoting land development to attract regional, national, and international tourism and business [3]. Its goals often directly conflict with the interests of urban residents, who typically envision a waterfront with public open space, free access to the water, moderately priced housing, and authentic places to be used by urban residents.

Urban development in North America, perhaps more than any other continent, has been influenced by port activities, and was in many ways the birthplace of contemporary waterfront revitalization [24]. The largest and most well known efforts have been in San Francisco, Baltimore, Boston, Vancouver, and New York over several "generations" of waterfront redevelopment [25]. With each succeeding "generation," waterfront redevelopment has moved toward a more human scale, preserving existing building assets when possible, and responding to tighter financial markets [18,25].

The land-water interface in the Great Lakes basin differs from waterfronts on the oceans in several important aspects. Ecologically, there are no lunar tides, so weather is a more important determinant of water flow. The water is fresh, although wetlands play the same role as in a marine environment, to protect the shoreline form harsh weather. While most Great Lakes waterfronts grew as a result of a combination of shipping and transport, they have been more influenced by industry than marine waterfronts. Waterfronts in the basin did not experience the dramatic changes resulting from containerization and intermodal transport of the 1970s and 1980s, because the large ships that pushed this change could not pass into the Great Lakes system through locks on the St. Lawrence River, which were built in the 1950s. As a consequence most waterfronts in the basin, even in the largest cities, are smaller than marine waterfronts and the separation from the city as time goes forward has been more a consequence of automobiles and highways than changes in water transport technologies.

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