Photograph by Cyrus Engineer.

Waterfront land has an important relationship with the world’s largest cities. Travel, trade and industry depended on it so much that few truly international cities have successfully developed without a navigable body of water (although Jo’burg, Atlanta and Mexico City come to mind as notable exceptions). London could never have become a global city without its location on the Thames, while New York City grew to its current magnitude because some 12 million immigrants arrived in its harbour.

Despite serving as the lifeblood of our cities, the world’s urban waterways were largely neglected throughout the 19th and 20th century, leaving the scars of the industrial revolution to be weathered by contemporary city dwellers. Our rivers are polluted; our harbour fronts littered with buildings that no longer serve a purpose; and the International Panel on Climate Change predict that by the end of the 21st century our seas could be as much as 59 centimetres higher.

In recent decades, and for the first time in history, city planners, architects and developers have begun stepping up to the task of reinvigorating these important parts of our cities as places of leisure. Rather than develop playgrounds for the wealthy, the best of these projects are restoring the democracy that should define what is ultimately the world’s vastest public space; our waterways.

For our latest Field Notes we take a look at three key projects around the world that have approached waterfront precincts in unique and sensitive ways.

Brisbane Cultural Precinct

After decades of trying to make sense of its place in the world, Brisbane has defined a confident and casual ‘Brisbaneness’ that’s reflected in many places across the city. The city’s proudest asset – the Brisbane River – strings together many of these places into an impressive cultural ribbon that would rival many international cities.

The city’s cultural precinct played the long game – it was first brought to life in the 1970s by Robin Gibson, Brisbane’s most celebrated modernist architect, who helped set a successful trajectory for Brisbane by turning the city’s eyes toward the river.

“We have divorced the river from the people, both as a means of moving people and as an area of enjoyment. It is long overdue for us to assess its potential and recreate the quality and continuity of the visual experience which it so fittingly deserves”, Gibson said during a 1980 lecture.

Today the precinct is the focal point of Queensland’s arts folio, representing the biggest co-location of cultural institutions on a single-site in Australia. It brings together the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Queensland Museum and Science Centre, State Library of Queensland, while strategic interfaces with Brisbane’s Convention and Exhibition Centre, Southbank Parklands and iconic educational institutions like the Queensland Conservatory are hotspots for the next generation of innovation and culture along the water’s edge.

It’s a site that, with the benefit of hindsight, reveals architecture that thirty years later celebrates the renaissance that began during World Expo 88. Aesthetically, functionally and philosophically, this is a place that not only helped shape Brisbane’s façade and projection to the world, but provided a democratic dreamsphere for locals to come together, grow and have the confidence to flourish into the future.

Photograph by Cyrus Engineer.
Photograph by Cyrus Engineer.
Photograph by Cyrus Engineer.
Photograph courtesy of Suppose Design Office.

Onomichi U2, Hiroshima

With nearly 30,000 kilometres of coastline, Japan knows a thing or two about waterfront precincts. The city now known as Onomichi, in Hiroshima prefecture, began its life as a port city nearly a millennia ago and for the next five centuries it was one of the most important rice shipment centres in the country. Perched upon Japan’s inland sea, its harbourfront warehouses and docks are as key to its identity as the rolling hills that rise behind it, scattered with traditional houses and tranquil walking and cycling paths. Today the city is a major drawcard for tourists.

When Suppose Design Office was tasked with designing a waterfront hub that could serve as a base for cycle tourism in the region it was Onomichi’s local heritage that it embraced.

“It’s about what we use, what we leave behind, and eternal return.”

The result is a 5,000 sqm mixed-use precinct that feels timeless and full of purpose. It harmoniously blends the practical with the cerebral, embracing the materiality, culture and history that for centuries defined the region, while offering a bike repair centre, a restaurant, a bar (suitably named; Kog) and a 28-room hotel that visitors can check in without stepping off their bike.

The bicycle is a symbol of democratic transport across the world; it allows affordable movement for the most disadvantaged citizens and empowers remote communities. Travel to the most remote corners of the globe and it’s likely that a bicycle has beaten you there. In our largest metropolises the bike is still arguably the best mode of transport, when local government gets behind the cause.

An initiative of the city government, U2 is both the starting point for one of Japan’s most breathtaking cycle routes and a space for Onomichi’s citizens. The transformed seaside warehouse doesn’t elevate or separate tourists from locals, but instead  brings them together in shared spaces, including a sprawling boardwalk that lines the sea.

Photograph courtesy of Suppose Design Office.
Photograph courtesy of Suppose Design Office.
Photograph courtesy of Suppose Design Office.

Feyenoord City, Rotterdam

OMA are no strangers to waterfront precincts having worked on ambitious littoral projects in Dubai, Copenhagen and Miami, but their latest one is personal. Their home city, Rotterdam, is split by the confluence of three of Western Europe’s major rivers (the Rhine, the Masse and the Scheldt) and the waterway marks a divide that is simultaneously physical, economic and social. Rotterdam South is traditionally working class, but has become increasingly disconnected as the north experienced a renaissance.

Unsurprisingly, the two biggest football teams in Rotterdam reflect this divide. The north is the territory of Sparta Rotterdam, the oldest Dutch football club and one that for decades only accepted notable figures as members. Across the river, Feyenoord Rotterdam was forged by friends in the early 20th century as a direct response to the elitism associated with Sparta. On the gates to its historic (but dated and ill-equipped) stadium, De Kuip, are the words Club of everyone, for everyone.

It’s a motif that OMA have embraced in their masterplan for Feyenoord City, the third attempt by the city to respond to the need for a new stadium. “They failed because it was an object driven assignment – it was purely about building a new stadium or rebuilding the old one”, David Gianotten said in a 2016 Sports Management interview. Gianotten spoke passionately about the project at his Living Cities Forum appearance in Melbourne last year, outlining the need to improve connections to Rotterdam’s centre, to create a promenade the brings life to the south around the clock (not just for 90 minutes on the weekend) and to build new homes and businesses around the stadium. “Sport is not an object related thing; it’s part of society”.

For OMA, the need for a new stadium is the catalyst for a city building project that will revitalise the south, respect an important landmark for the city and inject activity into the waterfront area, part of the city that has been ignored for decades.

Image courtesy OMA.
Image courtesy OMA.
Image courtesy OMA.


Brisbane, Australia; Onomichi, Japan; Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Robin Gibson; Suppose Design Office; OMA


Samuel Davison is Editor at Right Angle Studio. He has written extensively on cities for a range of international publications. He also publishes This is the Same Ocean, an annual journal of photography. His photographic work has been shown around the world and he was the 2016 winner of the Independent Photography Festival’s Grand Jury Prize.

Shenaz Engineer is a Researcher & Strategist at Right Angle Studio. A Brisbane local, her innate curiosity and fascination for cities has seen her live across Amsterdam, Shanghai, New York, Paris and now Sydney. With a background in both business and design, she continues to collaborate with curious minds from different industries across the world, and has received both national and international awards for her work. Fascinated by the intersection of culture, architecture, health and technology, she is passionate about creating inclusive cities and crafting places for people.