Riverfront Development | Background, Use & Example

The population surge means that there is simply not enough land to accommodate everyone. Whereas once activity along riverfronts was discouraged owing to the dangers of flooding, riverfront development is today a growing trend. But what exactly is it, and how will it impact the environment?

Riverfront development explained

In developed countries, there is a tendency to avoid building residences right on the riverfront, owing to the changes being wrought by climate change. There are greater incidences of rivers bursting their banks after excessive rainfall, despite the government’s’ best efforts to put in place flood defences to prevent it. Riverfront development is used as an additional buffer, creating a non-residential zone between the river and homes in the area around it. Planners create public spaces to let residents enjoy the riverfront and its surrounds. These include parks, walkways, and spaces to host festivals, firework displays, and concerts.

In developing countries with emerging economies, people have, for centuries, resided alongside the river. It is often their only source of freshwater as the government has yet to complete clean water supply infrastructure. Overcrowding also forces residents to settle right by the riverbanks for lack of any alternatives. An example would be the residents of the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg, South Africa, who live in informal housing near the banks of the Jukskei River. More than once, their homes have been flooded, and there have been multiple deaths after the river burst its banks.

Events such as these across the world have led governments to review urban management in developing countries and look toward more sustainable riverfront development models, which protect the river and its environment as well as the people who live near to it. Decades, if not centuries, of neglect, have made many rivers unsanitary and their water unsafe for human consumption. The riverfront properties in many such areas consist of abandoned factories and commercial buildings that have become a haven for criminals.

Related: Waterfront development | Background, Need & Example

The riverfront then and now

Long ago, transporting goods by boat was the most expedient way of trading commodities. Traveling overland using horses and carts on tracks was the norm before the advent of the combustion engine and the materials used to construct permanent roads. As a result, the riverfront was monopolized by warehouses where goods were stored awaiting riparian transportation. Some factories also set up their operations near to the river, so that they could pump waste directly into the water. Harmful chemicals were introduced to the waterways as a consequence. Large bodies of water were polluted this way and contributed largely to the pollution menace in cities.

As road construction intensified, the need for boats to transport goods declined rapidly. Factories and warehouses began moving to central hubs along the highways, allowing them to get their products on the road quickly. The old buildings fell into disuse and disrepair, and little was done over subsequent years to utilize the commercial space entities had left behind.

A new era

Modern urban developers recognized the disused riverfront properties for what they had, which was potential. They realized that repurposing this land could lead to a series of benefits for cities, including:

  • Increased revenue from tourism due to job creation
  • Enhanced community culture and quality of life
  • Creation of green belts in the city
  • Reduction in crime along the riverfront
  • Creation of jobs for infrastructural development and maintenance
  • Environmental conservation
  • Increase in housing options beyond the riparian buffer

To this end, riverfront rehabilitation and rejuvenation began in several cities around the world, with urban planners aiming to restore the rivers as a vital part of each city.

Setting up the riparian buffer zone

The buffer zone is meant to protect homeowners from facing flooding due to the proximity of the river. However, the way it is used is designed to add value to the city and the quality of life of its residents. Urban planners say that research recommends a buffer zone of at least 75 feet, although determining the width of the area depends on the river and its history. Rivers that have overflowed more than 75 feet in the past should have a wider river buffer zone.

The concept of riverfront development is meant to connect residents and visitors with the river, so this should be at the forefront of the planner’s mind when laying out the buffer zone. Naturally, there are also safety considerations to take into account.

Unfettered access to the riverfront can have devastating consequences as it allows people to get right into the water. Many cannot swim and are unaware of the harmful effects of the water due to the presence of chemicals. Weighing up safety while sticking to the precepts of riverfront development is a tightrope that the urban planner needs to walk carefully.

The compromise is perpendicular connections featured along the walkways that run parallel with the river. They control where people can access the river, making it safer for them. On either side of the walkways, urban planners can choose how the land is used, according to the needs of the residents and the nature of the river. Between the walkway and the river, the area is cultivated as a natural habitat for indigenous species of fauna and flora. Using the services of conservationists and landscapers, sustainable planning allows the planner to create an ecological zone, cultivated to support the environment and the climate.

On the other side of the walkway, the planner can include additional green belt planning, featuring areas such as parks. Alternatively, a set of stores will draw more visitors to the rivers. These can include cafes, craft shops, galleries, and restaurants. By paying rent and taxes, such businesses can boost economic growth in the city.

Case studies

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US

The riverfronts of the three rivers of Pittsburgh, the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers, had suffered an economic decline and the railway lines, warehouses, and factories stood abandoned. Gaining access to the river was dangerous, and its residents and tourists could not enjoy seeing them. The water was polluted by industrial waste and invasive weeds.

The city’s renaissance as the millennium approached shifted the focus around the rivers away from commercial use and toward their recreational potential. By embracing the river system, the city was able to rehabilitate the water and the riverfront, which today is a tourist attraction and a popular destination for Pittsburghers.

Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

For centuries, the Sabarmati River had played an important role in the lives of the residents of Ahmedabad. It was where they sourced their drinking water, washed their clothes, gathered for important events, and the location of the trading market. It was also home to indigent residents who had built hutments along the river’s edge.

Riverfront Development

Undertaking a riverfront development in this area would require a great deal of cultural sensitivity, as the idea was to create a sustainable riverfront without terminating years of tradition.

The developers’ priorities included the rehabilitation of the slums, thereby eliminating the unsanitary living conditions of residents. Apartment complexes now house those that lived there. The next step was the rehabilitation of the Dhobis, offering them modernized facilities for washing.

The bazaar has a new lease on life, with upgraded infrastructure. The entire area is not accessible to the public, and citizens of Ahmedabad can now enjoy its natural splendour.

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A river runs through it…

By undertaking these long-term riverfront development projects, urban planners and local governments are taking back control of their riverfronts. Their efforts have resulted in the economic and social upliftment of the community and emphasized the need for sustainable development and environmental preservation.

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