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Healthier Natural Waterfronts Reflect Community Well-Being

Proposed wetland restoration for Middletown, CT. Rendering courtesy of Cooper Robertson.

Waterfront ecosystems serve many essential environmental functions and benefit people and communities. For example, wetlands can help filter pollution from stormwater runoff, improve water quality, reduce erosion, and provide habitat and food for diverse species. As climate change makes some regions wetter and warmer, wetlands can also help mitigate tidal and rain-based flooding. Many studies show that increasing public access to water bodies and healthy waterfront ecosystems can provide mental and physical health benefits, such as reduced stress and improved concentration and memory. However, there are many societal barriers limiting equitable access to healthy waterfronts, such as zoning, structural racism, and misconceptions about designing for flood risk mitigation. Here are a few ways urban planners can help drive more equitable access and protect and restore healthy waterfront ecosystems.

Waterfront Access for Community Well-Being

Public waterfront access directly correlates to public health and well-being, especially in urban areas, including decreasing climate risks. Recent case studies in Amsterdam and Barcelona revealed that climate resilience and promoting social equity were the most valued aspects of public water spaces (by those attending the public workshops hosted for the study). These benefits depend on public awareness of waterfront access and increase as more people utilize them. Similarly, as more people access the waterfront and recognize its value, there is potential for public programming aimed at ecological remediation and education efforts.

Waterfront Alliance's WEDG Standard for Resilient, Sustainable, and Accessible Waterfront Development

The Waterfront Alliance’s Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines (WEDG) certification provide guidance for equitable and environmentally friendly design along waterfronts, including public waterfront access and a unique category for natural resources. The goal for WEDG is to help reduce citywide flood and environmental risks, as well as drive economic value. It grants credit to redevelopment projects that plan to minimize impacts and improve biodiversity, with an emphasis on avoiding impacts to existing natural resources (i.e. preservation), as well as habitat restoration.

Community-Driven Solutions

Green engineering along the waterfront and public waterfront access are examples of mechanisms that foster the positive correlation between ecological health and communal well-being. This relationship is self-sustaining in that as an ecosystem grows and becomes more vibrant, it attracts engineering mechanisms and public efforts that will help it grow more so, thus attracting even more buy-in.

Especially in urban areas, waterfront access has not always been available to historically marginalized communities. Environmental racism negatively impacted community health and hampered preservation. Increased access to waterfronts is especially beneficial to marginalized communities through mitigating urban heat effects and flooding from extreme rainfall. It's important to make every effort to restore waterfront habitat, no matter how polluted the surrounding area is, because realistically, most urban waterfronts are highly contaminated.

Both the mechanisms of public waterfront access and green engineering should serve the natural and built ecosystems surrounding a site so ecological and human communities can flourish alongside each other. To this end, incorporating green engineering in waterfront designs should also lean on equitable community engagement. This approach is meant to ensure stakeholder input into a project’s vision, design, and implementation to create a welcoming and equitable waterfront for all.

Register for the Waterfront Conference on May 8 in New York City to learn more about equitable access at our waterfronts and creating a healthier environment.


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