With the rise of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we have begun to hear Cleveland's waterfront described as an "international visitor destination." But is that the appropriate way to think about our waterfront?
Maybe we should worry less about turning our waterfront into attractions to be consumed by tourists and more about creating a waterfront that will be an everyday joy for the people of Cleveland. If we can succeed in the latter, then we will also create a waterfront that will be a joy for tourists.
How can we do this? Here are four principles for waterfront development:
Create a public waterfront. "Public" means free and open-a place that feels open, a democratic space in which all kinds of people feel welcome. There are no gates, fences, guardhouses, admission fees other obstructions. You can walk to it from where you live. The lake belongs to all of us, and access to it should be free and open.
Economic development should not be the priority. The waterfront should not be regarded simply as an opportunity for economic development. The reason why Chicago has the best lakefront in the world is because far-sighted citizens fought the impulse to give up the lakefront to economic development. In 1836, when the founders of Chicago were mapping out the early city, they reserved the lakefront as "Public ground-a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings or other obstructions whatever."
"With those words," writes Lois Wille in the book, Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago's Lakefront, "they made a promise to the people of Chicago. It was a promise that this city, hustler from its infancy, born and nurtured for shipping, trading, and making money, would do what no other city in the world had done. It would give its most priceless land, its infinitely valuable shoreline, to its people. The lakefront would be dedicated to pleasure and beauty, not to commerce and industry. Whenever Chicagoans gazed on their spectacular shoreline, they would be rich as the barons of the Riviera."
Connect to nature. Restore natural habitat along the lakefront and along the urban streams which link the lake to city neighborhoods. The lake should be our link to nature. Not everyone likes rock and roll, but everyone responds to natural beauty. Our shoreline can be one of the richest habitats in the region.
Don't build things. Use scarce public resources to buy more land. We are estranged from the lake because we can't get to it-it's walled off, developed, privatized. Our goal should be a greatly enlarged, public lakefront. That will mean buying up a lot of land. It will mean redesigning existing facilities, such as the port and sewage treatment plants, so that people can get access around them. The one, best thing Cleveland could do to dramatically improve the lakefront would be to get rid of Burke Lakefront Airport. Plant trees on the runways. Turn it into a park. That airport is an insult to the civic life of the city.
In sum, we need to remember that whatever "attractions" we build today will fade in popularity in a few years. But the lake is eternal. Our relationship should be with the lake itself, not tourist attractions.
Our relationship should be with the lake itself, not tourist attractions.