The key to successful waterfront development?

Apparently, one out of five people choose to live in a city that is located beside water. Perhaps it’s because it provides a sense of nature, or because it connects us to the surrounding world. Whatever the reason, there has always been a link between economic activity and the openness that waterfronts can provide to cities. Yet many cities around the world do not capitalise on this to spark revitalisation.

So how can cities make the most of our attraction to water? For me, the key to successful waterfront redevelopment is a perfect balance of uses that will bring a mix of people into the area.

Successful waterfront redevelopment in cities such as London and Baltimore contain an element of public space that attracts people to spend time by the water. If you mix this with high-end residential and commercial property you can ensure the economic sustainability of the project. And if you add in cultural activities and retail, you get the perfect mix to ensure a healthy development.

This is something we’re trying to do in in Santos, Brazil. Around 50km from Sao Paulo, Santos is the biggest port in Latin America and could be the blueprint model for waterside redevelopment in the region. By proposing the use of reclaimed land and better access for pedestrians, Arup studies have opened the door for the redevelopment of a 1.5km stretch of industrial harbour into a new core for the city and its visitors.

Santos makes the most of the site for commercial development while leaving vistas open and enabling people to stroll freely down to the waterfront. To be sustainable, it – like other waterfront redevelopments – has to address climate change, doing its part to mitigate the effects. And to ensure its success, the development must also ensure a good social mix of people.

Crucially, waterfront developments like Santos must be allowed to evolve. At Santos, we’ve worked to ensure land use is flexible and brought new technology into the waterfront with fibre optics and smart lighting. And we’ve proposed using systems to measure the emissions of the whole development to make sure it operates sustainably. It is not a surprise to me that in a country like Brazil, which is experiencing rapid urban development, waterfront cities are transforming their old industrial areas. Waterfront sites provide land that’s suitable for redevelopment, close to city centres, well connected and, in some cases, that has existing buildings that can be reused.

Authorities and investors can see the economic benefit in bringing new activities closer to their waterfronts. For Brazilians, this could define a trend that happened in Europe in the early nineties: recover their city and their waterfront. I expect other cities in other countries will follow. Their challenge will be getting it right.