On the Waterfront: Paris, Madrid, San Francisco, Portland


Paris, the city whose motto is “tossed by the waves, but does not sink,” is set to open up the streets along the Seine River to pedestrians and cyclists. Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, in coordination with the national government, is making inroads to convert the “urban expressways” along the Seine River into biking and walking paths. Paris’ recent record of adding urban bikeways and bus routes complements the summertime transformation of the Seine into Paris Plages (Paris Beaches), with sandy beaches, deck chairs, food vendors and music concerts.

Madrid Río converted highway roads into a waterfront park. Photo by Ricardo Ricote Rodríguez.


Reinventing waterfronts with more pedestrian and bicyclist-friendly urban spaces is not without precedent globally. Just over the border from France in Spain, the Parque Madrid Río, a 6-mile, 300-acre, $5 billion greenway, converted Madrid’s waterfront from a six- to eight-lane freeway into 27 miles of new tunnels. It also boasts 25,000 trees and direct pedestrian access to the Manzanares River.

The current public plaza outside the Ferry Building, where a two-lane freeway once stood. Photo by Thomas Hawk.


San Francisco, a city surrounded on three sides by water, has heavily prioritized the reclamation of its waterfronts for pedestrians and cyclists.Following the 1989 Lomo Prieta earthquake, San Francisco demolished the earthquake-damaged, double-decker Embarcadero Freeway, turning the urban eyesore into a multi-modal roadway. The iconic San Francisco Ferry Building, formerly ensnared by the concrete “skyway,” has now become a thriving marketplace and ferry hub. More recently, the road to the Golden Gate Bridge on Doyle Drive  is set to be covered and topped  with a rolling glade, connecting the city’s Crissy Green and Marina to the storied Park Presidio for the first time in half a century.

The Gibbs Street Pedestrian Bridge. Photo by Steve Morgan.


Just up the Pacific Coast, Portland, Ore. is bringing the concept of transit-oriented development to its formerly industrial South Waterfront. Though the city has not buried its freeways on the water, it has installed a pedestrian bridge spanning Interstate 5, connecting an area that will play host to a medical campus and waterfront walkway, served by Portland’s streetcar.

Reclaiming urban space from the bleakness of industrial waste and roaring personal autos seems here to stay, from the Pacific Northwest to the Rive Gauche.

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