Baltimore is not alone. Pretty much every city on the water has grappled with how to best use the land near the lakes, rivers and harbors that were often the original reason for their creation.

The stakes are particularly high in postindustrial cities like Baltimore that have realized the immense value of turning former sites of industry into public space for everyone, said Mac McComas, the senior program manager of the 21st Century Cities initiative at Johns Hopkins University. His office researches solutions to help urban communities thrive.

The best attempts at this kind of transformation, McComas said, are the ones that plan for the long term — those that won’t feel dated in 10 or 20 years, take climate change into account — and create public spaces for everyone.

As Baltimore embarks on a yearslong journey to redevelop Harborplace, the city could learn from others that have transformed their waterfronts. Here are five of them.

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The Wharf in Washington, D.C.

An aerial view of The Wharf on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. (Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images)

A huge music venue in a ‘bougie’ development

In Southwest Washington, D.C., the Wharf has undergone a massive redevelopment that some have estimated to be among the most ambitious and expensive in the country. Once an underutilized stretch of the Potomac River and home to the historic Maine Avenue fish market, the mile-long waterfront now has 3.5 million square feet of retail, residential and entertainment space. It includes The Anthem, a 6,000-seat music venue and auditorium that opened in 2017 and has become a popular stop on the regional touring circuit.

The Wharf project cost more than $3 billion, with tens of millions of dollars from the D.C. Council and free leased land from the city. It opened in phases and was completed in 2022. Developers said it drew 7 million people in 2021, and D.C. officials have said they expect that number to grow.

The project has received backlash for its “bougie” dining, retail and residential options that have threatened to price residents out of the area; only about 14% of the more than 1,490 new housing units have been designated at rates below the median family income, according to an online fact sheet, and it’s a little too easy to find restaurants serving $50 dinner entrees.

Developers have tried to make some elements of the project available to everyone, though, including free public Wi-Fi, swings, splash pads, a fire pit and free public events. They also have kept the fish market largely intact.

Millennium Park in Chicago

Visitors look over the Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The power of public art

When Chicago decided to build a “green roof” on top of rail lines near the Lake Michigan shoreline, the centerpiece of Millennium Park was a piece of public art: A large, shiny metal bean-like object.

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Technically, its name is Cloud Gate, but everyone immediately started calling it “The Bean” — and seemingly everyone wanted to see it. The Chicago Tribune wrote that an estimated 300,000 people came to Millenium Park on its opening weekend in July 2004.

People strolled through the park, looking at their distorted reflection in The Bean while children darted through the fountains. Almost instantly the park demonstrated the magnetic power of public art — and the effect has not worn off.

A year later, The Tribune’s architecture critic said the “dazzling avant-garde” park was “attracting tourists by the planeload and turning a forgotten industrial outpost into a world cultural mecca.” A decade later, another reporter called The Bean the “city’s most recognizable piece of public art, a must-see for any tourist and a selfie spot that even the most hardened city dweller can’t resist.”

According to the Millennium Park Foundation, the city-owned park has about 20 million visitors annually. It cost about $490 million to build, with $220 million coming from private donations. Millennium Park does not contain residential buildings or any large, permanent commercial space.

McComas said Millennium Park has had positive spillover effects for the nearby area, including increased property values and new businesses that popped up to serve visitors.

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Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City

Brooklyn, New York City skyline from Brooklyn Bridge  Park.
Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. (Raimund Koch/Getty Images)

An expensive problem with a practical solution

Here was the good news: After years of deliberate environmental work, New York City’s East River got much cleaner. The bad news? The return of small marine animals that were eating the wooden pilings beneath the former industrial piers along Brooklyn’s waterfront. Rebuilding those pilings and redeveloping the industrial wasteland atop it was an incredibly expensive proposition for the government, so an innovative solution was found: The Brooklyn Bridge Park. The park opened in multiple phases, starting in 2010.

Eric Landau, president of the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, said he oversees a unique entity. About 90% of the space is public park land, he said, but 10% was allowed to be privately developed. The private development helped finance the redevelopment of the park and the property taxes go toward its continued maintenance. There are several residential buildings, including an apartment complex with 80% of its units set aside as affordable housing. The park also features sports courts, boat launches, nature areas, playgrounds and a rock-climbing area.

The park hosts 5 million visitors during its annual busy season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Landau said.

When it comes to public spaces like a park or waterfront development, Landau said there are generally two types: Passive spaces — the grassy lawns or open spaces where people bring books or a picnic blanket — and active spaces, like sports fields or amphitheaters. Figuring out how to use these spaces is just as important as building them, he said.

“I don’t think any park is complete without robust public programming,” he said.

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The Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston

An aerial view of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston. (jenysarwar/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Connecting downtown with green space

For decades, the Fitzgerald Expressway cut a long, curved swath through Boston, separating neighborhoods and cutting downtown off from its waterfront. Residents hated its bumper-to-bumper traffic. After years of planning, the government embarked in 1991 on a 15-year, multibillion-dollar highway project called “The Big Dig,” routing the highway underground and creating a ribbon of empty space through the city.

Rather than commercialize the new property, the land became the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a 1.5-mile stretch of green space that traces the path of the expressway. It’s not right on the waterfront, but makes the mouth of the harbor more accessible by foot.

The greenway — made up of numerous parks — includes paths for pedestrians and cyclists and connects popular destinations, such as the city’s festival marketplace Faneuil Hall to and its waterfront promenade, Harborwalk.

The greenway was expected to rival the National Mall in Washington, D.C., according to The Boston Globe, but when it opened in 2008, the response was tepid. The newspaper said the greenway “looks at times more like a fancy median strip.”

Over time, more festivals and events were held at the greenway, which today includes beer gardens, food trucks, public art, fountains, gardens and a carousel. The conservancy that manages the greenway reports that millions of people visit annually.

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McComas grew up in Greater Boston, and the Big Dig spanned almost the entirety of his childhood. What was once a seemingly endless construction project is a now a public park that features a variety of active spaces.

“I go back to the city now and am always amazed at how beautiful that area is,” he said.

Coal Harbour in Vancouver, Canada

An aerial view of Coal Harbour in Vancouver, Canada. (edb3_16/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Luxury housing in a former shipyard

Over the past two decades, a former industrial shipyard and railroad terminus in Vancouver, Canada, has become one of the city’s swankiest residential neighborhoods.

The city of Vancouver owned portions of the land, and three decades ago created a framework to turn the area into a mixed-use neighborhood along the Seawall, a 17-mile waterfront promenade. (Baltimore’s promenade is 7 miles).

The area includes a hotel tower and numerous residential buildings with views of the Cascade Mountains across the water. The city built its convention center in Coal Harbour in the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Condos there routinely sell for millions of dollars, according to The Vancouver Sun.

The city’s first phase of development finished in 2000. A long-stalled plan to build affordable housing and a school in the Coal Harbour neighborhood was greenlit a few years ago, but faced pushback from residents who feared it would cause crime and other issues, according to The Province. That second phase of development is still under construction, according to the government of Vancouver.

Correction: A previous version of this story undercounted the square footage and new housing units at the Wharf. It has 3.5 million square feet of retail, residential and entertainment space and 1,490 housing units.

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