How Bad Planning Can Ruin The Joy of Water

People just love water in cities. Ask people about Amsterdam, and they will praise the beautiful canals. Mention Rio de Janeiro, and they will talk about the amazing Copacabana. Budapest? of course, the lovely Danube river. And let’s not forget Hamburg’s port, Stockholm’s lakes and Tel Aviv’s beaches. It’s not a surprise then that many urban plans nowadays are focusing on water elements: from residential projects by the water, thought renewal of water ports, and on to children playgrounds incorporate water elements. About 71 percent of the Earth's surface is covered with water - why not use it for our pleasure in cities?

I’ve just finished writing my dissertation dealing with walking experiences in different neighborhoods in Groningen, the Netherlands. When I talked with the locals about the pleasure of walking, many of them mentioned a nearby canal or lake . That wasn’t a surprise, because water is a frequent element in the dutch land/cityscape and a well known attraction for pedestrians and cyclists. However, I was surprised to see how different streets interact with the nearby water elements. Having a canal running by a street is priceless, but bad planning can ruin even the pleasure of the finest canal.

Take for instance two streets in Groningen: Hoornsediep (upper picture) and Noorderbinnensingel (lower picture). The former is a local shopping street located by a wide canal right outside the city center, and the later is quite residential street bordering a smaller canal and a park. While the two streets posses quite different architectural styles and functions, one thing is clear: allowing cars to park by the water can ruin the entire experience of the street. See the two pictures below: in Hoornsediep pedestrians almost can’t see the water. They need to squeeze between cars just to get a glimpse of  the beautiful canal that lies behind. On the other hand, in Noorderbinnensingel, people can easily see the canal.

Hoornsediep (top) and Noorderbinnensingel, Groningen, the Netherlands. The location of cars makes a big difference.

The best thing is that improving the situation in Hoornsediep is not expensive nor politically difficult! Without even eliminating parking spots, pedestrians and cyclists can actually enjoy the water. This is only one design element that can entirely change a street experience. As you can see, having the cars parked along the sidewalk is a good start, but Noorderbinnensingel is still not perfect. People might not feel safe enough to walk in the street itself, let alone allowing their children doing so. Other safety measurements, such as speed bumps, can be applied there, allowing people better access to the water. In any case, just by placing cars far from the water, we can create public spaces that are more enjoyable and attractive.

Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter and .