To understand the importance of visionary planning by city governments — and the changing nature in which cities are utilizing waterfronts — one need look no further than Portland.
Oregon's largest city, blessed with a major river running through its heart, has Interstate 5 hugging the east bank of the Willamette River. As planning and vision go, that is the urban equivalent of a scorched-earth policy. Portland, decades ago, took one of its greatest assets and paved it with a ribbon of blacktop. The effects of such a decision can be seen through comparison with the opposite bank of the Willamette, where Portland spent the 1970s removing a freeway and replacing it with Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
Urban planning might typically be rife with infighting and pie-in-the-sky dreams, but the end results can define the culture of a city. Such is the case with Washougal, where leaders are undertaking a project that can help alter the nature of the area for decades to come. Sure, Washougal is no Portland, but whether in a metropolis or a small city, effective planning can make all the difference.
Washougal's dilemma involves plans for a waterfront project at the site of the former Hambleton sawmill. The hope is to develop recreational amenities along with residential, commercial and office buildings, and the vision — along with plans in Vancouver to develop the former Boise Cascade site along the Columbia River — reflects changes over the past couple decades in how cities view their waterfronts. What once were primarily conduits for commerce and heavy industry now are viewed as recreational outlets designed to draw people rather than smokestacks to the water. As Gene Desfor and Jennefer Laidley wrote in "Transforming Urban Waterfronts": "In port cities around the world, waterfront development projects have been hailed both as spaces of promise and as crucial territorial wedges in 21st century competitive growth strategies."
Washougal's space, for now, is one of promise but also risk. Officials from the city and the Port of Camas-Washougal have teamed with students from Portland State University's Master of Urban and Regional Planning program to devise a waterfront proposal that enhances the city's growing downtown rather than detracting from it. Seeking public input and working with stakeholders, organizers are exploring ways to connect the waterfront site with the downtown area about 1.5 miles away. As Aaron Corvin of The Columbian reported, at one meeting: "Area residents said they didn't want big-box stores at the waterfront site. They also said they wanted to see the property become a destination point woven into the existing downtowns, streetscapes and trails of Washougal and Camas."
Any development is a long way off. Construction of a park and a hiking trail could be underway by the summer of 2015, but plans beyond that remain in the embryonic stage. Vancouver's much-larger waterfront proposal, a mixed-use development with a $1.3 billion price tag, is much closer to reality. The projects are varied in their scope and their purpose and their vision, but they both could go a long way toward defining their cities for years to come.
Waterfronts have become a popular centerpiece for urban development and a key attraction for building a tourism-based 21st century economy. They can't replace manufacturing — any successful economy requires a broad foundation — but they can play a large role in presenting a city's face to the world. That's a lesson that could have been beneficial decades earlier.