UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

Life at the water’s edge: an analysis of human behaviour and urban design of public open space at the water’s edge Letourneur, Christopher C.


Over the past decade, North America's urban waterfronts have experienced a renaissance. Urban waterfronts, which once provided the heart and lifeline of many North American cities by acting as a gateway connecting the American interior and the rest of the World, have undergone vast changes and are now the staging areas for numerous uses, to be enjoyed by all of the public, in many different ways. Throughout history, a relationship between man and the water's edge has always existed. The water's edge is where life is most diverse and unique. The water's edge has traditionally been viewed as part of the public realm. A strong commitment to maintaining public access to the shore and waterways of the world has consistently been upheld, starting with the Justinian Law of ancient Rome and continuing through English Common Law as reflected in maritime ordinances. Urban waterfronts have historically been the hub of transportation, trade and commerce. Along many waterfronts, port cities symbolize the history and maritime activities of these traditionally working waterfronts. As many of these waterfront cities first emerged, the waterfront was intimately linked with the city. However, in North America, with the rapid growth of commercial activity, warehouses, railway yards and expressways at the water's edge, cities became disconnected from their waterfronts. Over the past decade, many North American urban waterfronts have undergone yet another transformation. The waterfront has become a valuable amenity, to be shared by all. Urban waterfronts, which were once stigmatized as a worthless industrial wasteland are now respected as a valuable asset for their views, large tracts of underdeveloped land, history, maritime industry and activity, environmental characteristics and their opportunities for recreation opportunities both on land and water. In addition, watercourses have been cleansed due to stricter environmental regulations, and a "back to the city movement" of people seeking places to Uve in the inner cities, have resulted in the redevelopment of many of North America's waterfronts. As waterfronts undergo this transformation, an opportunity is afforded by the public to regain access to the water's edge. At the current time, municipal and provincial (or state) policies are in place which allow the public to require that a portion of land parallel to the water's edge be dedicated for public use, as waterfront lands are redeveloped. These lands are usually used as public open space, in one form or another. In the case of many urban waterfronts, the space is developed with a seawall and a bicycle/pedestrian path. However, all too often little or no attention is paid to including proper lighting, the types of surface materials and landscaping used, seating opportunities, relationship of the space to the street and other nearby spaces, the history and/or maritime character of the area, or public access points to the open space. As a result, the space is not used. To address these concerns, this thesis challenges the popular way of planning and designing waterfront open space by focusing on the specific issue of how urban waterfront open space is designed and how it is used. To accomplish this task, the thesis presents an exploratory study which firstly documents the complexities involved in the process of urban waterfront change from industrial uses to a mix of uses including public open space. It then reviews the literature regarding the design of urban plazas, which share many of the same characteristics as urban waterfront open space, in order to define a list of design elements which could be applied when designing waterfront open space. To test the similarities between the design elements of urban plazas and of urban waterfront open space, case studies examine two waterfront locations in the Vancouver Lower Mainland: Westminster Quay in New Westminster, and; Steveston Landing in Richmond. In these case studies, field observations are used to identify how these waterfront open spaces are designed and how they are used. This information is augmented by survey data collected on site through interviews with the users of the spaces to determine how far and by what means users arrive at the spaces and for what purposes and how frequently do they use the spaces. In addition, interviews held with the designers, planners and managers of the two waterfront open spaces establish what the guiding policies, design approaches and anticipated outcomes were prior-to the construction of the spaces.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


For non-commercial purposes only, such as research, private study and education. Additional conditions apply, see Terms of Use https://open.library.ubc.ca/terms_of_use.