Waterfront Design and the East River Esplanade

Foundational Concepts

As part of the greater Hunter East Harlem Studio, we are looking at what principles of waterfront design can address the long standing financial and ecological disinvestment along the Harlem River. Alongside ideas for updating a neglected riverfront, this project acknowledges that our changing climate and significant weather events require ever more vigilant recognition, and for waterfront cities this begins by taking a more holistic approach, by thinking of the water’s edge instead as something more graduated and alive.

There are three components that are important elements of a sensible redesign for the EH waterfront: The shoreline, the public pathway and the ability for the community and public at large to be able to access the space.

The Shoreline

One of the major challenges to the redevelopment of urban shorefronts is addressing vestiges of industrial city era design. Seawalls and bulkheads allowed for the ease of shipping and trade, but wreaked havoc on both the ecosystem and on the public’s ability to genuinely access the waterfront. Compounding the environmental loss caused by “hard” bulkhead edges, wear and tear on waterfront infrastructure requires frequent maintenance and replacement of bulkheads, seawalls, and stabilized shorelines.

A solution promoted today is to “soften” these hard industrial waterfront edges.   “Soft edges,” or graduated edges [created where possible], combined with staggered or curvilinear shorelines, reduce the speed and force of tidal action and waves, limiting erosion, damage and long-term maintenance costs. Replacing straight shorelines, particularly in places where inlets and coves can be reestablished, can create conditions more similar to natural shorelines and encourages bioremediation.  This is often accomplished with terraced shores, which can absorb wake energy and reduce scouring and erosion. Similarly, segments of unadorned shorelines, in the form of earthen banks, do not exacerbate wave action, and with their layers of plants, roots, soil and rock, can clean polluted runoff.

Varied surfaces encourage the return of strong and diverse habitats and encourage algae and filter feeders to attach. Additionally, living water filtration systems, which filter water pollutants and excess unwanted organisms, can either be grown naturally through the colonization of bivalves (oysters and mussels), or can be introduced as a more visible man-made design element, such as gabions – wire baskets filled with oyster shells and rocks that encourage filter feeding shellfish and grasses to attach.

The Public Pathway

An esplanade’s pathway is the critical bit of usable infrastructure for most visitors. Allowing for harmonious cooperative use of the passage by runners, walkers, bicyclists, and those passively enjoying the space requires design that acknowledges both the intended uses of the esplanade and the site’s space limitations. The pathway should promote safety, allow for mobility of all users, be contextual (a meeting of the neighborhood and the water), be visually coherent, reasonable in cost, and promote sustainability in materials and function.

The division of pathway space on the esplanade should accommodate amenities that promote both the passive and active uses in ways reflective of community needs and activity patterns. Pathway design and use of surface materials can help delineate spaces along the recreational thoroughfare where necessary (for safety) as well as integrating space into the broader landscape created for overall enjoyment. Where possible, the paths can bifurcate, typically keeping the bicycle path closer to the adjacent roadway, and allowing the separated pedestrian path to meander closer to the shore. In instances nearer to the water [non-seawall sections], the pedestrian path can be purposefully “broken,” so that it integrates with the shoreline more harmoniously and encourages interaction with the water.

Site Specific Practices

Fishing is a favorite pastime among many esplanade users, and should be supported by learning what sort of on-site amenities can be used by the fishermen – such as cleaning tables, rod holders, and even restrooms.

Many people choose to bicycle along the East River Esplanade, and while the majority pass through in transit, there are noted examples of bicyclists using lampposts or other available surfaces to lock their bikes while exercising nearby. Bicycle racks should be located near all entrances and places of interest along the esplanade [such as the pier] to encourage multi-modal enjoyment of the space and improve it as a destination for those beyond a short walk away.

A variety of seating should be staggered at regular intervals along the waterfront for both groups and individuals. Because the waterfront is inherently a destination, both in purpose and in practicality [particularly in the study area], these passive recreation spaces should be plentiful. Seating areas and types include chess tables and seats; benches along the waterfront; benches along the path [street-side]; picnic tables and other small seating areas that encourage interaction; stone and concrete ledges and blocks; stairs to nowhere [mini stadium areas]; and staggered getdowns at the water’s edge.

In the context of design, purposeful greening should complement these spaces for passive and active recreation. This can entail a variety of shrubs and groundcover for aesthetic, ecological, and functional benefit. Deliberate selections and placement of flora can give visual cues to trails, exits and entrances, act as a sound barrier against traffic, and imbue visitors with a sense of calm.

Community Access

Access refers to both the ways of approaching the site as well as the ability for all to enjoy opportunities to get to the water’s edge. This is enabled by obvious and usable upland connections and clearly illustrated open spaces and their entrances. One of the most efficient tools to promote wayfinding is through well oriented signage. Best practice calls for uniform design elements including matching fonts, size, coloring, and universal recreational symbols, all easily read and provided in multiple languages. Signage may also warn of safety hazards, identify plant species, or highlight the sponsorship or patronage of an individual, group, or agency to promote ownership of the space.


A discussion on safety along the esplanade must highlight the very real highway obstacle standing between the shore and the upland neighborhood. Clear, unobstructed, pedestrian-friendly connections to the waterfront through red light crossings along the FDR at several points would provide a common sense way of improving pedestrian safety and improving access – and getting people to the edges comfortably.

Public Art

Art installations can be used to promote both wayfinding and destination building. Public art can find unity at the meeting point of function and form, positively defining a site by improving association with an avenue of entry. Because the goal of revitalizing a waterfront is to encourage new and greater interaction with that space of interchange, art can be used to educate and direct the public through [for example] signage that is produced not only to help wayfinding but to reflect a sense of the community, or creative application of necessary markings [bicycle lane indications, wayfinding arrows] that enliven space while simultaneously informing and instructing.

Moving Forward 

The waterfront esplanade offers many opportunities for a dramatic makeover. Looking at the present openings, areas where the seawall and pilings are crumbling beneath the esplanade offer opportunity in that they require very immediate attention and physical work to be done. By undoing the seawall in these areas and beginning the inevitably piecemeal process of reconstructing the esplanade, one could learn from each step what can and should be done, one crumbling section at a time.

Practically, this studio should begin by identifying the ways that the Esplanade does not conform to proposed design guidelines and standards. A redevelopment of the Esplanade may not grossly change the totality of space from 103rd Street to 125th Street. However, it should, in every stretch, address the widths and surfaces of walkways, how remaining hard edges should look and feel, and how to smartly use the space’s finite width and deal with the noise and traffic directly to the west – how to insulate the area, where should planted areas be, and what sight lines to preserve or create.

Additionally, we can look at how TreesNY might temporarily or permanently fill these gaps, how to advocate for their resolution, and how to engage the community in the process. To gauge how realistic these efforts could be, we must identify where the jurisdictional overlaps are, what agency standards are chief, and how to fit the various requirements into our design plan.


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