Waterfront development by definition means a part of a town or city which is next to a waterbody such as a river or a sea. Waterfront is the interaction between urban development and water. Waterfronts provide an ideal space to rejuvenate after a long day as they provide a good public space while connecting different city centres. Settlements appear to be formed around waterfronts due to their relationships with different communities. The waterfront development is also responsible for shaping environmental, social and economical factors. These provide an ideal setting for trade, transport, entertainment and tourist activities which brings along opportunities for the development of housing, hotels, recreational areas, sports facilities and sources of employment. They thus have space for housing, recreation and mixed-use development

An overview of what is waterfront development - Sheet1
Urban brownfield and waterfront regeneration ©Z. Jiayu

Waterfront Redevelopment

As waterfront cities began to develop post-industrial urban development strategies became integral for urban renewal and regeneration throughout the world. Under the post-industrial policies, waterside development schemes like waterside offices, and residential and leisure spaces became the forefront of urban redevelopment. Case Study: Circular Quay, Sydney

Popularly known as the ‘heart of Sydney’, Circular Quay is one successful example of waterfront development. Connecting the Sydney Opera house on one end to Sydney’s ‘original village’ The Rocks on the other end, Circular Quay plays an essential role in the daily life of the city. It is well connected to almost all types of public transit systems like ferries, subways, trains and buses, making it an accessible space for the citizens. Apart from catering for the local citizens, it also provides a pedestrian connection to several tourist attractions.

The city of Sydney grew around its waterfront, making the waterfront a national focal point. Circular Quay was built at the side of Sydney Cove. Circular Quay was the focal point of maritime activity in the Sydney harbour with ships unloading their cargoes. 

Presently maritime activity is now centred around pleasure craft and ferries, trains and buses taking residents and tourists to different locations around the city. One of the major reasons for Circular Quay being popular among its citizens is the ease it provides as a transit hub. A majority of the commuters live across Sydney Bay and use ferries to travel for work. Quay functions as an effective transition space between the docks and the downtown.  The Quay provides aesthetic, efficient, comfortable and well-maintained space for the citizens and tourists. Small cafes, restaurants, benches and walls along the Quay play a critical role in contributing a space to rejuvenate. Circular Quay is the ‘hard edge’ along the water, a successful public space connecting transit, pedestrian and civic elements, acting as a perennial site for civic celebrations. 

Aerial view of Circular Quay ©Bloomimages

Evolution: Beginning of Waterfront Development

Since the beginning, waterfronts have played a critical role in determining the character and growth of places and their people. The development of waterfronts began with water transit. 

Waterfront development was also developed for military and strategic reasons. Port cities were centres of economic and political power and thus required protection. Although the origin of waterfront development was imperial trade and military expansion, it was the industrial development that led to the substantial growth of these waterfronts. As international trade grew, waterfront cities witnessed significant growth as mercantile activities encouraged economic growth. With the increase in industrialisation, the need for raw materials and exports grew resulting in the need of expanding the available port facilities. As the processes of globalisation and industrialisation grew, supporting infrastructure like docklands, railway terminals, and warehouses also began to be developed. With the growth of port facilities, waterfront urban areas required large labour forces. As a result, the residential settlement grew in areas adjacent to these ports. 

For example, the ports of Mumbai. In the early seventeenth century when the maritime trade was negligible, the natural advantages and strategic location of the port played an important role in the growth and prosperity of Mumbai. The expansion in trade led to a development in infrastructure like the construction of roads, the building of warehouses, transit sheds and other support infrastructure. Similarly, many more settlements had been established along beneficial waterfront areas such as Falmouth (UK), and Bahia (Brazil).

An overview of what is waterfront development - Sheet2
Sassoon Docks one of the oldest docks of Mumbai ©Author.jpg

Declining of Waterfront Development

As industrialization in major nations began to decline in the 20th century, many of waterfront developments became dilapidated and obsolete. Many of the ports became unprofitable as the shipping industries began to use containers to transport goods. Economic decline and abandonment of city ports forced the communities relying on dock related activities into severe distress.  The communities that were left behind faced unemployment, economic stagnation and other social issues. As the industries and communities abandoned these waterfronts, the land fell into dereliction and eventually left to be contaminated. 


Any great design is vital for a great waterfront. A holistic and strategic vision is important for urban water revitalization for long-term success. The planning of waterfront development is a complex work involving a variety of stakeholders. An ideal waterfront development is one which is sustainable, accessible and resilient while linking the traditional city and urban functions with innovation and change. 










Prachi is an architect by profession,an avid reader and a potential ‘keen observer’. She juggles with words in order to make the best out of them to recite her simplest stories with minute details. She now intends to expand her scope of knowledge and understanding of architecture through her adventures and experiences.