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  • Urban Waterways and Waterfront Spaces:Social Construction ofa Common Good
  • Anne Taufen Wessells (bio) and Raul P. Lejano (bio)


Urban waterways have become important policy targets in cities around the world. Relying on significant public investment and support, city waterfronts are redeveloped from abandoned, under-utilized, and formerly industrial sites into spaces that support new commercial, recreational, and cultural uses (Desfor et al., 2012). As with any beneficiary of public policy, there are assumptions and understandings that frame the urban waterfront's suitability for investment (Schneider and Ingram, 1993, 1997, 2005). Its social construction as a policy target deserving of particular kinds of support and protection affects the scope and character of redevelopment (Schneider and Ingram, 1993, 1997, 2005). In this article, we examine the social construction of the waterway as a narrative process of urban identity-making that engages and activates specific aspects of available public policy in each of two sites, to amplify certain kinds of deservedness over others (economic, environmental, social). We will see how narratives shape urban waterway policy design.

The two sites—Denver, Colorado's South Platte River corridor; Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona's Rio Salado/Town Lake projects—were pursued as urban redevelopment projects over the course of years and decades, with a period of pronounced construction activity and spatial transformation in the late 1990s. This burst of waterfront planning was part of a wider trend of similar projects taking place in various cities at [End Page 106] the time (Breen and Rigby, 1996; Kibel, 2007)—indeed, waterfront redevelopment has been held up as an exemplar of "policy mobility," where a spatial fix or social intervention gains rapid diffusion and ascendance on inter-urban circuits of knowledge and implementation (McCann and Ward, 2011; Ward, 2011), sometimes with limited appreciation for the different constraints and contexts between sites.

The South Platte and Rio Salado initiatives serve as a purposive, comparative sample (Yin, 1994) of this phenomenon, where two semiarid, flood-prone western U.S. cities implemented downtown waterway park projects during the same era, yet differed substantially in their rationales, physical character, and sources of public support. The analysis that follows examines the local network of narratives surrounding each site, to show how social, political, economic, and environmental claims on and aspirations for each urban river led to a hierarchy of deservedness among different ways of knowing the site, and notably different forms of policy investment. The comparison illuminates the power of narrative in networks (Lejano et al., 2013) to account for variability in the construction of social-ecological targets in policy design (Schneider and Ingram, 1997).

Ways of Knowing the Urban Waterway: Construction of a Shared Commons

Urban waterway redevelopment is a worldwide phenomenon of notable policy significance. It occurs at the intersection of a number of related trends (Desfor et al., 2012; Hein, 2011).

First, cities are magnets of growth and development, and many orient themselves around a waterfront. Urbanization continues to intensify, globally and nationally, with more than half of the world's population and over three-quarters of the U.S. population living in cities and urban areas (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2014). These regions are centered on or adjacent to major inland and coastal waterways, due to the agricultural and trade imperatives historically underlying the location and growth of cities (Mumford, 1961).

Second, while urban waterfronts were dedicated to industry, warehousing, and trade for much of the modern era, changes in transportation technology and regional economics have shifted such uses away from downtown waterfronts to peripheral sites, where land costs [End Page 107] are lower, movement of goods can be accommodated by freeways and container shipping complexes, and labor and capital are more flexible (Hall, 2003; Hoyle, 2000).

Third, the quest for urban sustainability and quality of life has become a socially contested and highly valuable locational attribute (Agyeman, 2013; Mazmanian and Kraft, 1999; While et al., 2004), with urban waterfront redevelopment playing a leading role in many cities' efforts to better meet the triple goal of improved environmental protection, economic prosperity, and social equity (Bunce, 2009; Campbell, 1996).

In many cities, formerly industrial waterfront sites have...


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