Author: Petra Hurtado
Today is World Water Day, an annual event officially designated by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993 in order to raise awareness about the importance of water as a vital but scarce resource. I want to take a deeper dive today and see what role water has been playing for cities, why cities used to cut their own arteries, and how global knowledge sharing among city governments is crucial to learn from the past.
The majority of cities were built at the water; that is, along rivers, at lakes, and by the sea. Water used to be one of the main means of transportation for trading goods. Water made it possible for trading points to become cities and for cities to become metropolises. Water has been vital for cities to grow and become what they are today. However, water has never been treated like a vital resource, neither by the traders whose businesses were depending on it, nor by the people who needed water simply to survive. Quite the opposite, we literally used to confuse our rivers, lakes, and oceans with garbage dumps throwing our waste, industrial residue, and sewage into the waters surrounding us; unfortunately, many places still do so today. Even in the “so-called” western world, many cities still don’t have a solution for combined sewer overflow events during heavy rains and therefore have to flush their sewage into rivers, lakes, or oceans in order to avoid flooding.
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In the 1930s, the water quality of Milan’s canals got so bad that the City decided to bury what was once the artery of the city and build roads on top of it. Traffic was on the increase and burying its canals solved two problems at once: getting rid of the stinky, disgusting water and making room for cars.
Starting in the 1960s, the modernization of manufacturing processes and health concerns combined with zoning regulations resulted in heavy industries moving out of the cities. What was left, in those cities that had not buried their waters, were contaminated brownfield sites alongside polluted waters. In addition, cities such as London and Bilbao were suffering a tremendous increase in unemployment. During that time, city governments realized their waters had much more to offer than transporting goods and swallowing garbage; that is, they could serve as assets for recreation reconnecting their citizens and offering new revenue streams through urban redevelopment.
The best-known example is probably London and the London Docks. In the 1980s, the City tried to spur the development along the River Thames with tax incentives for developers and the construction of transportation infrastructure to connect the area with the city center. Today, Canary Wharf is London’s Central Business District outside the city center and a thriving place to work, live, and play.
Another well-known example, also called the Guggenheim effect, was the revitalization of the waterfront of Bilbao and the construction of the Guggenheim museum that draws millions of visitors to this once heavily industrialized city in the North of Spain. Furthermore, Barcelona took advantage of the 1992 Olympics, redeveloping its waterfront from an industrial zone into an entertainment area, called Maremagnum, with beaches, a movie theater, and a shopping mall.
Nevertheless, many cities haven’t started those processes yet and are currently struggling with highly polluted water bodies in once striving areas.
Last week on March 13, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs hosted an event on “Urban Waterways in the Global City”. The mayors of Chicago, Milan, Montreal, and Cape Town talked about their approaches when it comes to urban waterfront redevelopments, sustainable water use and the challenges they are facing.
Cape Town’s Mayor Patricia de Lille emphasized that the first thing you need when revitalizing an urban waterfront is a vision. She speaks from experience; Cape Town’s vision for its waterfront revitalization was to reconnect its citizens with the sea while creating new jobs and protecting the environment, a vision obviously aimed at achieving the triple bottom line seeking social, economic, and ecological benefits. Today, more than 100,000 people visit Cape Town’s waterfront per day, enjoying the many restaurants and businesses that have been established since.
Thanks to Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, Chicago has a beautiful lakefront with endless miles of beaches that are open to the public. However, Chicago is also in charge of the Chicago River. For years and decades, the Chicago River had served as a garbage dump and at the end of the 19th century, the river was so polluted that the city decided to reverse its flow, as the pollution threatened the city’s water supply coming from Lake Michigan. In 2011, for the first time, the water quality improved from “toxic” to “polluted”; not necessarily something the city should be proud of.
The City of Chicago also understood that a vision is needed in order to save its river. Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel explained at the Council event that the Chicago River shall become a new city park bringing people from different neighborhoods, different ethnicities, and different income levels together sharing one big public space. Therefore, in 2015, the City together with organizations such as Friends of the Chicago River and the Metropolitan Planning Council launched the Great Rivers Chicago program, the first-ever vision for the Chicago River as well as the Calumet and the Des Plaines rivers and their surrounding shores.
The city of Milan wants to re-open its canals and create public spaces for recreation and entertainment. The city is currently experiencing a shift from driving to walking and riding bikes. For the younger generations, green public space is more important than streets.
However, a huge problem cities are facing with redevelopment projects in general is the big question of how to finance them. Not every city can have the Olympics or a Guggenheim museum as drivers for redevelopment.
One way to solve this issue, and all four mayors agreed on this during last week’s discussion, are public-private-partnerships, a financing solution that is becoming more and more common in the urban infrastructure sector. From an investor’s perspective, they may make sense when it comes to building a toll way and making revenue from the tolls you charge for driving on it. However, are they attractive when it comes to the revitalization of a waterfront? How does the investor know that their development project won’t remain the only one on the shore?
Milan’s Mayor Giuseppe Sala explained that in order to get private funding on board, a city has to build trust and credibility. This brings us back to Mayor Patricia de Lille’s statement regarding the need for a vision. Once you have a vision that outlines not just single projects but that connects everything into one holistic vision, a final product you can show to the investor, then you can build the trust and credibility the investor needs to understand the value of the investment.
Another factor that is crucial and already recognized by many city governments around the globe is the importance of knowledge sharing and collaboration between cities and municipalities. What can we learn from other cities? What went well and what didn’t work out and why? As Mayor Denis Coderre from Montreal put it: “People believe in mayors.” It is the City Hall where most of the work happens. Federal or national governments are moving much too slowly as they could make a big impact on the local level, especially when the national government doesn’t support initiatives that are important on a local level. Therefore, mayors have to work together. They have to think globally but act locally.
Nevertheless, in the end, it is not just the investors and the mayors; everyone has to contribute to the revitalization of urban waterfronts and the improvement of the water quality of our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Behavior change is probably one of the most important challenges cities have to deal with by simultaneously offering the means to make it happen. Mayor Giuseppe Sala emphasized the importance of working together with the people in order to modify their sensitivity while proving the City’s ability to adapt by … (again) … creating trust and credibility.
For a successful revitalization of urban waterfronts, cities need to build trust and credibility towards investors but also towards their citizens, while learning from other cities around the globe. As Mayor Patricia de Lille said, when it comes to dealing with water, we cannot play trial and error, there is no second chance. Therefore, we have to be smart about how to use our water.