It Takes One: Ann Breen and Dick Rigby

Stewardship Stories

It Takes One: Ann Breen and Dick Rigby

It Takes One: Ann Breen and Dick Rigby
Washington, DC
United States

We are the co-founders and co-directors of the Waterfront Center, a non-profit educational organization incorporated in 1981, devoted to helping communities make the wisest long-term uses of their waterfront resources. We have written two major books on the subject: Waterfronts: Cities Reclaim Their Edge and The New Waterfront: A Worldwide Urban Success Story and, since 1987, run an Excellence on the Waterfront Awards Program with the goal of highlighting the diversity of waterfront projects – in an effort to highlight the diversity of work– beyond “festival marketplaces” and other commercial makeovers.

How would you define a cultural landscape?

Ideally, a cultural landscape reflects the special nature or character of a place. It is a landscape that has been shaped by the human beings who presumably live in it for better or worse. This could include leaving the landscape completely wild or manipulating it in massive ways.

The aesthetic of the cultural landscape – in this case a waterfront – is very often in the eye of the beholder. Getting back to the working waterfront, Nan Fairbrother in her 1972 book New Lives, New Landscapes had this to say comparing two settings:

“The Seine is a drawing-room river, reliable, beautiful, but limited and sometimes genteelly dull. The Thames has swept away drawing rooms, is often ugly, but often unbelievably beautiful….the fringe of cranes along the docks (the trees of London’s industrial river)…the old and the new all superimposed to make the intense and unconcerned life of a modern working metropolis.”

We wonder how she would react, some thirty years later, to the greatly altered Thames landscape of today. While much of the real industrial work has moved downriver, many of the great, massive industrial buildings have been retained and reused rather than obliterated.

Why did you get involved in the landscape that was threatened in your community?

Thirty-five years ago, the urban waterfront was a sleeping giant. In many people’s minds the territory was considered unsafe, unsavory, ugly, trash ridden, strictly the domain of ports, railroads and highways as well as bars and brothels. Changing port technology left much abandonment along the nation’s shorelines, the de-industrialization of many factories and warehouses resulted in acres and acres of buildings to be vacated. This combined with a general lack of appreciation for the waterfront, set the stage for the renaissance that has since occurred. The urban waterfront has gone from ‘rats to riches,’ a fact which endangers some of its raison d’etre.

In the early 1980s, we produced Caution: Working Waterfront – The Impact of Change on Marine Enterprises in part to point out the importance of the working waterfront to communities and address the growing pressure to dislocate these facilities in favor of “higher and better uses,” more tax revenue, and, perhaps, a prettier waterfront. The Center wanted to raise people’s awareness of the sometimes overlooked contributions marine businesses make to a community -- economically, socially, culturally, and aesthetically. Also, we wanted to discuss access to, in, and around the working waterfront, as well as the opportunities for interpreting a community’s industrial heritage, both past and present.

Many cast a jaundiced look at the aesthetics of the working waterfront. However, beauty being in the eye of the beholder, many are truly awed. The great ports with their massive ships, acres of containers, and gigantic container cranes overwhelm human scale. Or, gazing out over acres of pipelines, huge chimneys belching smoke, power plants looming high in the sky, sewage treatment plants and waterworks, silos, giant conveyor belts -- these and other oversize steel and concrete shapes can be seen as giant sculptures against the horizon. These are industrial landscapes that convey power.

The waterfront revitalization phenomenon began about 1960 and, since then, North America has witnessed diverse and widespread waterfront transformations. As this movement  continues to grow, all too often, the zeal to clean up and beautify a waterfront causes some to edit out the industrial uses as unsightly, and not befitting the new image they want to create, often forgetting these industries’ contributions to the community’s heritage.  

There is another side of the coin as change is often unavoidable. Thirty years ago, New Jersey’s Hoboken waterfront was the gritty location for the classic film, On the Waterfront, which projected indelible images of its piers and warehouses, and its denizens, the longshoremen. Today, one would be hard pressed to find any remnant of Marlon Brando’s day as Hoboken’s waterfront sports beautiful, grass-filled recreational piers and all manner of uses including residential, commercial, and cultural gracing the Hudson River. The truth here, as in countless cities all around the world, is that the technology of containerization overtook the break/bulk method of old and made most of these piers and warehouses obsolete. One can think of the imaginative re-use of scores of these old hulking pier buildings and warehouses that retain an echo of the working waterfront heyday, but breathe new life today. The Walsh Bay and Wooloomooloo projects in Sydney come to mind, Le Vieux Port in Montreal, and the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, and OXO Tower in London.

Adaptive re-use, which is desirable and commendable, sometimes is just not possible for structural or financial reasons. However, good examples of designers paying homage to the industrial past exist and, in that sense, keep with the cultural landscape of the working waterfront. The sensitively designed Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row is a sterling example. The sardine industry bellied up but in its place is a striking tribute to the industrial architecture of that industry. Similarly, the design team for Vancouver’s Granville Island retained the working cement plant and used the island’s industrial vernacular by employing materials like corrugated metal. They incorporated old and new shed structures and other design details to create a low-key, mixed-use environment where theaters, markets, marine sales, an art college, a boutique hotel, cafes, and restaurants and open space thrive. In Charleston, the new South Carolina Aquarium sits near the port facilities and the design takes inspiration from the port landscape. Hence, although the real working waterfront has disappeared, one does not have to erase its memory and traditions.

On a smaller scale, many new waterfront projects retain some of the industrial artifacts by making them a feature of the new waterfront. For instance, Gantry cranes loom in Puerto Madera, Buenos Aires, and in a park in Trenton, New Jersey. Old, well-worn bollards define many shoreline edges throughout the world echoing days gone by.

How did your understanding of this landscape change as a result of your advocacy efforts?

In the course of our research, we came to a greater understanding of the pressures involved with this type of vernacular landscape. Communities want to revitalize their waterfronts by changing the zoning and introducing new uses, while at the same time, many of the working waterfront interests desire to stay put. In a way it is the classic struggle of gentrification. When the price to sell becomes attractive, it is very tempting to take the money and move on. One difficulty here for example, is that if the boat repair yards keep being relocated, then boat owners will have to travel farther and farther from their home ports. We also came to appreciate more than before the character and unique aesthetic that these facilities bring to an area.

Did the understanding of others change as well? If so, how?

The Waterfront Center has tried for over quarter of a century to help communities make the wisest uses of their urban waterfront resources ranging from wetland conservation to container ports and the myriad of uses in between. Our annual international conferences were designed to educate decision makers, community activists, and design professional about the broad spectrum of issues involved in waterfront undertakings. We advocate a holistic approach to planning their waterfront, to be true to each community’s profile, to strive for excellence and provide maximum public access to and along the waterfront.

We have been privileged to work with citizens in scores of communities to help them appreciate what they have, and to help them reach a consensus vision for their waterfronts. With our unique collection of images amassed over a thirty-year period, we have presented hundreds of illustrated presentations to inspire people by showing them the vast array of possibilities.

What is the message that you would like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?

Appreciate your legacy of working waterfronts so that this important part of your city’s heritage is not whitewashed over.