Kansas City is nestled at the intersection of the Missouri River and the Kansas River. Although these waterways played a critical role in the city's history, recent development has failed to fully engage the rivers. Last week, the AIA Kansas City Pillars, comprised of emerging local design leaders, spent the day exploring the rivers through a variety of lenses, including a physical tour of their muddy banks, an overview of the rivers' development from historian Monroe Dodd, a series of case studies from other cities that have revitalized their rivers, and a discussion on the economic development potentials of riverfront revitalization.
The group invited Sasaki principals Mark Dawson and Gina Ford to discuss Sasaki's extensive work on Midwest rivers, including the Cedar Rapids Riverfront along the Cedar River, River's Edge Park along the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Water Works Park along the Raccoon River in Des Moines, the Chicago Riverwalk along the Chicago River, and the Smale Riverfront Park along the Ohio River in Cincinnati. The discussion also included Scott Cahill, assistant vice president of corporate real estate at Principal Financial, which has been a major force in the revitalization of the Des Moines Riverwalk.
Following the presentations, member of the Pillars group posed questions that incited a robust conversation about the challenges and opportunities that citizens and civic leadership face when contemplating riverfront revitalization. Here we recount highlights from the exchange:
Pillars: Who are the key players in catalyzing change on the river?
Sasaki: The five projects we discussed all have different configurations of players and catalysts. What we are seeing now, across the country, is that riverfront revitalization takes various forms of partnership. Some of these partnerships are quite traditional, like the public-private partnerships that continue to move Cincinnati's riverfront forward. The catalyst for the Water Works project was fairly unusual. The competition came about through a partnership between an institution (Iowa State University) and a private utility (Water Works)—although as the project progresses it will include both public and private entities. We also often see partnerships between citizen-based advocacy groups and civic leadership—like the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Friends of the River in Chicago or the City of Council Bluffs and the Back to the River advocates in Council Bluffs. In each case, however, the city itself needs to have a place at the table and be committed to the long road of planning to implementation.
Smale Riverfront Park
Pillars: What are the barriers to revitalization? What makes riverfront development fail?
Sasaki: As many cities have discovered, and as evidenced by organizations like the Mayor's Institute for City Design, design really matters. Quality design can make the difference between a great waterfront and a mediocre waterfront—or worse, a bad one. We see some of the biggest missed opportunities when infrastructural and engineering systems dominate over place-making and thoughtful design. To overcome this, designers must lead an inclusive, collaborative process with entities like the Army Corps of Engineers, local engineering agencies, and transportation planners. If everyone does not participate and support the visioning process and its outcomes, it is nearly impossible to create a high quality place.
The other essential (and often overlooked) factor is the importance of integrating the working dynamic of waterfronts. Often viewed as a barrier, the economic life of the water's edge is something we find inspiring and beautiful—from barges to fishing vessels to ferries. The Detroit Riverfront, for instance, had incredibly limited space for improvements. The final design embraced working uses through docking facilities and flexible infrastructure, like segments of removable guard rails, that enable interaction and overlap between recreation and working uses.
Pillars: What are the current trends in riverfront development?
Sasaki: It's critical to think about who will be using the river. The younger generations are less interested in traditional recreation, like basketball courts and golf courses, and more interested in nature-based adventure and outdoor living. At Water Works Park, for instance, we have proposed a park program that includes urban camping, zip-lining, fishing, horseback riding and standing paddle-boarding. As landscape architects interested in sustainability, this trend of linking human health with ecological preservation and restoration is very exciting to us.
Also, after flooding disasters like New Orleans, Cedar Rapids, and, most recently, along the East Coast, waterfront resilience is becoming a significant concern. Resilience, to us, means designing systems to absorb unexpected shocks. To do this, design must move away from singular, hierarchical ideas to network-based, diverse, and even redundant systems. In thinking about the potential of flood, for instance, our approach is moving away from the single, massive floodwall. We advocate multiple layers of environmental protection (rain gardens, wetlands, floodwalls, and flood-proofing), infrastructure (road networks, utilities, and emergency management), and social systems (neighborhood planning, governance models, and capacity-building).
Water Works Park
Following the talk, Melissa Brown, Pillars member and architect with Gastinger Walker Harden + BeeTriplett Buck, reflected on the critical, creative role designers in unlocking potentials on the riverfront. "Designers have to be particularly savvy and creative to help move the common thinking from 'that's not possible' to 'I can't imagine life without it,'" she said.
Rivers are not only dynamic—environmentally, socially, and physically—but also diverse. Each river has its own characteristics and qualities that should be embraced in a revitalization process. This presents exciting opportunities for Kansas City to consider in regards to both the mighty and muddy Missouri River and the free-flowing Kansas River.
Thank you to Pillars for including us in their day of river exploration!