Architecture, Economic Development, and Real Estate

Can the Grand River create 'magic' in Grand Rapids?

August 6, 2013
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Can the Grand River carry 'magic' into Grand Rapids?
Downtown Grand Rapids and the Grand River. Photo via

A well-managed riverfront could be pure magic for Grand Rapids.

That was the heart of a presentation given recently at Kendall College of Art and Design by Alex Krieger, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a principal at NBBJ, a global architecture and planning firm.

Krieger, author of “Remaking the Urban Waterfront” and a global expert on riverfront planning, was asked to speak as part of the Downtown Speaker Series by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

Re-position Grand Rapids

Although Krieger refrained from giving Grand Rapids specific direction to take in riverfront planning, he did offer positive examples in other cities as “teases” of what might be possible.

“I assure you from much of my experience — and I’ve had the privilege of working with many, many American cities over the decades and a number of international cities as well — I will tell you that around the world riverfronts — sometimes coastlines, sometimes lakefronts — are used in a very substantial way to re-position a city, to give it a competitive edge against its neighbors,” he said.

American cities are currently in a state of revival, Krieger said, and are enhanced by their waterfronts.

Waterfronts at one point in time were considered the “backyard” of a city, because they served as production yards for the labor industry or were polluted.

Now, they’re becoming a “front yard,” he said, and a standard by how city residents measure the quality of life in the city.

The key first step is to get a city thinking about making a river a front yard, not a production yard.

“If you believe in these things, then we get back to this image that riverfronts, waterfronts become an important component in the ways that cities compete and achieve a higher level of living,” he said.

To showcase how waterfronts do this, Krieger took the audience through challenges of waterfront planning, citing build out and preservation examples in Pittsburgh, Dallas, Chicago, Cincinnati, Shanghai and Montreal.

Riverfronts provide an antidote to the homogenization of generic urban development, Krieger said, and the transformation of a waterfront is a reoccurring aspect in the life of a city.

More than “blank walls”

To make a riverfront come alive, a city must turn it into a desirable place of dwelling and use, not just to a spot to visit.

The geometric and geographic planning of waterways in a city also help maintain linear public connections, he said.

“We’ve talked about perpendiculars, but it’s also important to achieve the continuity, which you all have done (in Grand Rapids) more or less,” Krieger said. “You have your infused walkway. It’s just that nothing happens next to your walkway very often. I think that’s the next challenge. Open a few things up toward your walkway as opposed to walking next to blank walls.”

Krieger stressed that taking advantage of the dynamic quality of water flows can lead to design inspiration and create a special city aura along the waterfront.

His favorite example of this is in the Cheonggyecheon River development in Seoul, South Korea. The waterway, once a highway, was transformed into a garden-like river that now has become a beloved national destination.

With determination, patience and imagination, such a beautiful scene could be found in Grand Rapids, he said.

“Magic can be found along your river,” he said. “Continue to move toward achieving that magic.”

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