The Trouble With Waterways: We Have To Cross Them

Historically, cities and waterways made for a productive pair. Canals, rivers, lakes and oceans allowed for shipment and receipt of goods, an important component for urban industrial proliferation.

As our cities have transitioned from factories to offices, the need for waterways has decreased significantly.  Across the country, our urban cores are changing the way citizens connect to their waterfronts, turning our rivers and canals from material transport conduits to aesthetic and recreational destinations.From Buffalo to Albany, Upstate New York has scrambled to “repurpose” our seldom used waterways (from the Buffalo River to the Erie Canal, The Mohawk and the Hudson) as lifestyle amenities rather than industrial staples.  From kayak rental at Buffalo’s new Canalside, to their “Cycle Boat” and more, to Rochester’s recent announcement featuring plans that will transform the city’s access to the Genesee River… and how about Syracuse’s Onondaga River Trail?  Or Rome’s re-connection to the Erie Canal and Mohawk River confluence at Bellamy Harbor Park?Finally, I recently visited Amsterdam, New York to explore their new Riverlink Park and pedestrian bridge that doubles as a sort of “outdoor museum” honoring that city’s past.

But with all these wonderful new connections to our urban waterways, there’s still one very simple but fundamental issue that they all present when trying to revitalize our downtowns: How to cross them effectively and efficiently without damaging neighborhoods on both sides.

Take Utica, for example.  The north side of the city’s main street, Genesee, is interrupted by the need to bridge the gap across the Erie Canal, the Mohawk River AND a railyard.  One of the historical remnants of the industrial revolution is the existence of infrastructure (rail, road and power) that “follows” the natural path of many waterways, for obvious geographical reasons.  Because Utica’s downtown is directly adjacent to these waterways and railroad tracks, the Genesee Street bridge that spans these barriers creates an imposing, almost nonsensical traffic pattern at its “landing point” downtown.IMG_9450.jpgFurthermore, it largely shadows the Bagg’s Square neighborhood, flying over this historic district instead of complimenting it.

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Bagg’s Square remains mostly silent in the shadows of the Genesee Street bridge that rises above the adjacent railroad tracks

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Rochester’s Genesee river has long been a silent socioeconomic and racial divider, roughly cutting downtown in two.  This is very clearly witnessed in the city’s revitalization efforts, most of which continue to permeate the wealthier east side.DSC01171.jpgDSC09124.jpg

My recent visit to Amsterdam revealed a heavy-traffic bridge spanning the Mohawk River with an abrupt, almost “clunky” entrance into the city’s core.  This entrance creates an unnatural barrier to an adjacent row of nearly empty shops and storefronts on Main Street, an area that has all the makings of a future downtown hotspot.

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This odd intersection introduces traffic from a bridge spanning the Mohawk River, as well as two outlets from Route 5.

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The intersection shown above is directly adjacent to this beautiful host of downtown storefronts.  Fast traffic from multiple sources will always negate environments like these that can only exist if they are highly walkable.

IMG_7025Furthermore, the new park and footbridge along the river mentioned earlier are accessible only by crossing busy railroad tracks and Route 5, a multi-lane road built for speed.IMG_7001.jpg

Speaking of speed, bridges over major waterways are often built to handle large volumes of traffic at higher speeds.  The reason for this is simple… bridges like these are expensive to build and maintain, and because of this, they are relatively few and far between.  With so few options for drivers to traverse these waterways and the infrastructure that follows them, bridges are typically built to handle the “funnel” of traffic that occurs as a result. That means a wide, multi-lane highway-type structures built to quickly move automobiles. Furthermore, the roads on either side that connect to the bridge must also be made to handle a large volume of cars, distributing traffic to a broad host of locations.  These factors all play into heavy traffic environments that are unfriendly to neighborhood, residential and business revitalization efforts.

Examples of these effects abound across our state and our country.  While many of our cities are doing wonderful things to reconnect us to our urban waterways, the fact remains that these waterways can divide our cities and cause us to construct roads and bridges that clash with the ability to create walkable, navigable neighborhoods on either shore.  Cities need to start thinking creatively about how to counter these negative effects.  While our waterways are becoming gorgeous sources of recreation and entertainment, we need to address the practical issues that inherently come with connecting our shores.