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Urban Waterfronts: a challenge to redevelop, an opportunity for greatness. Part 1: Frankfurt’s riverfront: its genius lies in its simplicity

By Brian Doucet
July 13, 2011

Frankfurt, Germany is a city which I have come to know and admire over the last few years. It is one of the world’s wealthiest cities, a major financial hub, home to one of Europe’s busiest airports and a magnet for migrants. It consistently scores highly on quality of life rankings.

At first glance, Frankfurt appears a cold and business-like city. As a tourist, it does not have the charm of a place like Heidelberg, nor does it have the exuberant night life or cool demeanour of Berlin. Its skyline is one of the most dramatic in Europe, leading to it being called ‘Mainhattan,’ after the river Main, which flows through the city. And it is this feature of Frankfurt which I would like to discuss with you now.

Most cities in the world, especially very old ones, are situated on some sort of body of water. Frankfurt is located along the River Main, with the city centre, and much of the population and industry situated on the north bank, and a handful of neighbourhoods and the city’s vast forest situated on the south bank. Like all rivers, it serves as a natural barrier in the city, although there are many bridges which span the Main, carrying pedestrians, cyclists, buses, trams, cars and trains.

Cities which are situated on bodies of water face the challenge of what to do with that space. Historically, waterfronts were working spaces, the places where goods were loaded and unloaded, factories which needed those goods were situated and transport networks were located in order to give good access to all that industry. In a post-industrial city, all of those uses have disappeared. (In Frankfurt, there is still a lot of industry along the waterfront, but it is situated on the periphery, not in the city centre)

Many cities have redeveloped their waterfront with grand public buildings, apartment towers, stadiums or other commercial uses. Many waterfronts, such as that in my home town of Toronto, have been cut off from the rest of the city due to overdevelopment and poor planning.

In the city centre, Frankfurt has rejected that commercial development (at least in the centre) and opted for a far more simplistic, some might say minimalistic approach. For along the riverfront there is simply a park. It is not a park with lots of grandiose fountains, monuments or public art; it is a park in its most basic form. There is grass, there are benches and there is a wide path running beside the river. There is space amongst the grass for festivals, which the city has plenty of, and there are numerous beer tents and bratwurst stands to give hungry Frankfurters a place to fill up, or relax while they are out along the waterfront.

And that is exactly what locals do: they use their waterfront. On a sunny day, it is filled with people walking, cycling or rollerblading. There are people sitting on the grass or along the quayside. When there is a festival on, it seems like the entire city has come out to the river.

While some cities spend millions on their waterfronts and public spaces, Frankfurt’s riverfront is proof that good quality space does not have to be complex. It also shows that it does not need to be built to become a destination; a simple park, with good paths, nice views and a pleasant atmosphere will become a destination simply because people enjoy visiting it. Many waterfronts of the world appear to be ‘overbuilt’ with too much emphasis on landscaping, design and creating unique spaces. They can also get ‘cut off’ from the rest of the city due to too much development, or being over overbuilt as public spaces, with too few connections to the surrounding areas and rest of the city. Lost in all that building is the fact that people enjoy simple things like grass, being beside the water and spending time outside on a nice day. Frankfurt’s waterfront can give them all of that, while at the same time feeling like a space which blends seamlessly into the neighbourhoods which surround it.

The city’s waterfront also contributes something much more valuable to the city. Post-industrial cities are constantly competing with each other to make themselves attractive places to live and work. Many cities opt for grand museums and other spectacles in order to gain an edge in this regard. Frankfurt plays this game too, but the riverfront plays another important role in the equation: it contributes positively to the quality of life of its residents by providing much needed open, public space in a densely crowded city.

This quality of life contribution helps the city in both economic and social ways. Economically it helps because it makes Frankfurt a more attractive city in which to live. Many affluent households are footloose and will live in places they feel offer many amenities and a good quality of life. A welcoming riverfront park definitely makes a contribution to this regard. Socially, it brings a positive contribution because it truly is a public space, open to everyone. On any given day, you will see not only bankers eating their lunches, joggers or mothers pushing strollers, but also young people playing music, or the city’s less affluent drinking beer along the water, or under a shady spot beneath a bridge. It is the type of public space where virtually all activities are accepted and practised.

Its genius lies in its simplicity. It is not overbuilt. It is not overplanned. It is simply a park along the waterfront. Its success as a public space and its contribution to the city’s quality of life can offer valuable lessons for other cities. The first lesson is that people like grass. With some public space, even places which are meant to be parks, you get the notion that their designers forgot about that important fact! The second is that simple places can often work the best. Frankfurt’s waterfront is a success not because it is a grand design, but because the people, through their use of the space, and the festivals which take place there, have made it a truly special place. And third, the waterfront should be part of the urban fabric, not cut off from the rest of the city. Frankfurt’s riverfront has seamless connections with the rest of the city; even a freight railway line which runs along the north bank does not serve as a barrier (fortunately, there are few trains left). In this regard going to the river is less of an ordeal or event for Frankfurters, and more a part of their daily life and routine. In this sense, this simplistic combination has created a space which belongs to the citizens of Frankfurt. And for a city to truly be great, this is what public space must be about.