Developments such as the High Line in NYC and Discovery Green in Houston have ramped up the standards for cities, leveraging existing architecture as a strong tool for urban development while creating awareness of the potential value of these well-designed public spaces.

Developments like these are a far cry from the single use, unprogrammed areas that were pushed in the last century by design and architectural influencers like Olmsted, Burnham, and Cleveland. The urban parks of today are now up against expectations to be both aesthetically pleasing and offer functional, valuable features to their community.  For the first time ever, the majority of the global population now lives in urban areas. Considering the average footprint for an apartment in a city is substantially smaller than that in suburbia, urban public spaces represent an extension of one’s apartment. These spaces essentially transform parts of a city into one shared yard and demonstrate the benefits of mixed use properties.

As public spaces in cities are regarded with great pride the expectation on service providers of these spaces rise. These spaces are not just responsible for providing positive visual aesthetic to the area but also to improve public space and implement active programming. However, many city agencies are already maintaining great public spaces despite limited resources and funding.

The majority of cities across the U.S have invested significantly in public realm improvements, and many have plans in place for future advancements. For example, there is a plan to convert 418 acres of Sayreville’s Riverfront in New Jersey into a $2.5 billion mixed use development. A notable movement in public space revitalization amongst some of the country’s largest cities involves their riverfront areas. Three of these cities are Chicago, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. In a lot of midwestern and “rust belt” cities of the U.S., the pressure to attract and keep talent and create an improved quality of life, combined with the declining use of water facilities for industrial use has resulted in riverfront revitalization becoming a common strategy.

The three case studies outlined below provide unique insights and effective approaches to both the funding of urban enhancements and the long-term return on investment associated with riverfront projects. They also represent benchmarks and success stories for other cities to potentially model themselves off of.


Chicago Riverwalk – Leveraging the Generation Potential

The vision to have a continuous Riverwalk run along the main area of the Chicago River has been a decade-long planning and design regime. In the 1990’s Chicago’s Department of Transportation first created plans for a continuous walkway – one that would require a 25-foot extension of new land into the river and a series of “under-bridge” connections. The city then implemented initial sections in phases from the lakefront to east of Michigan Ave, then continuing to State Street.

The final phases have actualized the vision of a continuous pedestrian connection along the Main Branches system, now 2km long ending at Lake Street.

Chicago’s Riverwalk is a vibrant space utilized and enjoyed by local residents, tourists and visitors alike. It represents a space for recreational, entertainment, food and beverage and retail facilities. Each new block offers a varied programmatic experience – truly leveraging mixed-use property opportunities. For example, the Marina Plaza combines a dining terrace, custom seating, and boating infrastructure. The Cove provides a space for boats to launch or dock and for its frequenters to grab an ice cream cone or take a leisurely break. The Jetty offers places to fish, and the Water Plaza offers a space to engage in water activities.

Navy Pier, Chicago

Aside from unique design, building the riverwalk in phases provided a financing model for the construction of complex public spaces. The phases were financed through the Transportation Infrastructure Financing Initiative Act (TIFIA). A loan of $100 million was allocated to the project along with a successful recommendation from architect Sasaki based on financial sustainability. All revenue generated from the Riverwalk concessions are directed towards the repayment of the TIFIA loan over the next 35 years. 

With just over two seasons since its completion, the Riverwalk exceeded expectations in terms of revenue generation. In the first year, annual profits quadrupled from an average of $1.2 million a year (2011- 2014) to $4.6 million in 2015. The second year revenues more than doubled, with $9.4 million in gross revenues. Almost $950,000 was generated in taxes on space that had been previously dormant and now thrives with new business that offers employment opportunities – directly and indirectly to the city.


Pittsburgh Waterfront – Showcasing the value of investment

The city of Pittsburgh has undergone massive transformation in the last few years, centralized around its waterfront area at the convergence of three rivers. The transformation also includes a few other developments in the past ten years, such as the Rivers Casino, the Convention Center and Point State Park Renovations referred to as “the Strip District.” Sasaki, alongside non-profit Riverlife and its public and private partners, created a master plan for riverfront improvements along a 20 block stretch, starting at David L. Lawrence Convention Center on 11th St to the 31st Street Bridge.

An economic impact analysis was created and focused on previous improvements – to underscore Pittsburgh’s many waterfront successes but also to act as a benchmark for showcasing the benefits of future investments.


The study revealed that approximately $130 million invested in Three Rivers Park over 15 years manifested into nearly $2.6 billion in riverfront development activity, along with almost $4.1 billion in total riverfront and adjacent development. Simply analyzing the $2.6 billion riverfront yielded results in a ratio between park investment and riverfront of 20:1. That means that $20 of private riverfront investment followed every dollar spent by the public on riverfront open space enhancements. These figures speak for themselves in terms of Pittsburgh’s riverfront revitalization success and also flies the flag for similar projects in other cities.

The emerging pattern from Pittsburgh and other cities across the country is obvious – properties in close proximity to high-quality public space infrastructure accumulate value more than properties which are not. Analyzing historical changes in property value since 2001, data shows a 60% property value increase in the vicinity riverfront developments versus a 32% property value increase outside the riverfront zone of influence (ZOI).

The trend of property values climbing when near revitalized waterfronts stands strong when examining individual sites aswell – they perform twice aswell as the city average with regards long-term leases. For instance, the analysis demonstrated property values have increased by 117% since 2001, in the South Side – a historically underdeveloped area close to the waterfront. A rate of growth that far outpaces the average across the city.  

Leveraging this data, the team were able to analyze three different scenarios relating to the potential tax revenue that could be created via a proposed $50 million investment in water-front public realm enhancements in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. These tax value predictions ranged from $6.8 million to $15.6 million annually. Based on those figures, the estimated revenue achieved, would offset the estimated annual debt payment of $3.3 million. This conclusion again proving the case for waterfront investment – helping pave the way for future investments.


Cincinnati’s Smale Riverfront Park – Transforming the Private Dollar for Public Good

The transformation of Cincinnati’s riverfront is by no means less dramatic than either Chicago’s or Pittsburgh’s and its planning and design times have amounted to equally long time periods. The downtown point of the Ohio River was dotted with expansive parking lots liable to frequent flooding and remnant infrastructure. A highway also separated Cincinnati’s downtown hub from the city’s former backbone – the Ohio River.

Opportunities were brought to life by several key investments – first the $455 million Cincinnati Bengals stadium, and followed by the reconstruction of Fort Washington Way. These developments kickstarted further developments of the riverfront – opening arms to the new Great American Ballpark and a mixed use development called the Banks. Housing these new jewels, Cincinnati Smale Riverfont Park serves as a lively, connective public hub. It stitches the new riverfront district together and combines it with both the city’s downtown core and the river.


In the design world, the park provides a range of public facilities and programming in its current 20 acres size (which will soon expand to 32 acres when the final phase is complete). Typical park events vary from small picnic like activities to larger events such as concerts, pre and postgame celebrations for the Bengals and Reds and renowned events like Paddlefest – the largest paddle celebration in the Midwest. Other amenities which positively contribute to the city include bench swings, a performance stage, water features, and a riverfront 2,100 foot long promenade. Further plans include public landings and seasonal docking facilities which will support the river’s boat traffic. Sustainable strategies boosting this include an integrated bicycle center, locker rooms and a restaurant pavilion supported by a geothermal heating and cooling system.

A deeper dive into the project’s funding sources reveals a mixed bag of investors, reflecting diverse programming and visitorship. Substantial contributions were provided by every level of government – federal, state, county and city. Cincinnati’s Park Board was also able to inspire private and philanthropic funding. Donors for this public space development were numerous, generating $44 million in total on top of the $56 million in public funds.  Private donor contributions also add to the diversified funding. Most notably is John G. Smale’s donation of $20.7 million which helped speed up the final phase to completion and as a result gave the park its name.

While the economic impact of the park is only really coming to the surface, the park’s vision created an abundance of support. The large contribution of private donations truly demonstrates that when private companies and non-profit organizations’ visions align they can be a crucial partner in city revitalization.

The above success stories  – the Chicago Riverwalk, the Pittsburgh Waterfront and the Smale Riverfront Park act as impactful testimonials to the value of well mapped out public park spaces. Another lesson to be taken from them is the innovative ways for the increasingly difficult task of fundraising. Waterside redevelopment has emerged as one of the 21st century’s most significant city-building tools. These projects represent strong models for cities and architects seeking to leverage the value that the redevelopment of unused land can create.

Tools like Reonomy which assist property developers and other individuals to source vacant land opportunities are paramount for influencing the continuation of land revitalization projects. With over 47 million commercial properties and almost 27 million vacant land parcels listed, Reonomy is a key tool in public space redevelopment.

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