Leading with creativity to reimagine the future of waterfront cities

25th March 2024

From Liverpool to Belfast to Hamburg, waterfront cities have historically been of great value and significance, playing an important role in international trade and considered crucial assets for economic growth and development.

A shot of Liverpool Waterfront skyline taken from the other side of the Wirral. The sun is setting behind the buildings.

In recent years, areas within these cities have been referred to as 180-degree economies, characterised as restrictive and impenetrable locations for communities living close by, with reduced economic opportunities. But this underestimates their potential from an economic, community and place perspective.

Diversifying waterfront economies has been identified as a key driver of economic growth in these cities. In Liverpool, which is home to one of the largest and busiest ports in the country, there are concerted efforts underway, led by private and public sector collaborators, to drive forward placemaking initiatives, introducing new commercial and residential developments without compromising on existing economic activity.

Long-term partnership between the public and private sectors is critical to building momentum and unlocking new opportunities – as is creative thinking. The unique geography of waterfront cities can present certain challenges, but through shared vision and imagination, we can – and should – work as a collective to shape the future of our waterfronts, creating unique places for the benefit of all.

This month, as the world’s property professionals gathered at MIPIM to connect, collaborate and share perspectives on the future of real estate development, Nicola Rigby, principal at Avison Young UK, chaired a panel on the power and potential of European waterfront developments – joined by James Eyre, chief executive of Titanic Quarter; Dr Andreas Kleinau, chief executive of HafenCity Hamburg; and Nuala Gallagher, corporate director of city development at Liverpool City Council.

In this piece, Nicola expands on some of the insights shared during the panel discussion, and considers how Liverpool, and other key European cities, can capitalise on their unique locations and create new and significant opportunities across their waterfronts.

Harnessing heritage assets

Waterfront projects are proving to be catalysts for economic growth, attracting businesses and investors, while contributing to the visitor economy. Harnessing the potential of heritage waterfront assets is critical to driving this growth, creating places for communities to thrive and introducing a blend of uses to drive diverse placemaking opportunities.

Here in Liverpool, the waterfront is a crucial cog in the city’s visitor economy. From large-scale live music events to cultural attractions, the city’s docklands and surrounding waterfront have been elevated to a national and international visitor attraction, all while preserving the rich cultural history of the area and its architecture.

This revitalisation of one of Liverpool’s most treasured assets now serves as the impetus for further regeneration to take place – introducing new uses, including additional homes, to maximise the impact of culture, repurpose forgotten stretches of waterfront, and create new and vibrant communities.

Creating future-facing communities

In Liverpool, Belfast and Hamburg, new waterfront offer is creating connections with existing communities and creating new opportunities for living in high quality environments. Heritage remains at the very core of these efforts, coupled with a strategic vision to develop future-facing communities and create places that present a mix of uses which support vibrancy and vitality.

Earlier this year, City Quays 4, a £275m development on Belfast Harbour, was given the green light, promising to deliver 256 apartments across 23 storeys. In Liverpool and Hamburg, residential development continues at a comparable pace. New schemes in the pipeline across Liverpool’s 7.5-mile-long waterfront include the development of 1,500 homes on brownfield land adjacent to Festival Gardens, expected to go into planning in 2025. In Hamburg, HafenCity, which is Europe’s largest inner-city urban development, is delivering family apartment living set within 157 hectares of former port and industrial land.

This repurposing of spaces to create ambitious mixed-use neighbourhoods has the potential to revitalise huge swathes of waterfront, creating new opportunities for urban

living, while preserving historic and present-day links to industry and enabling the creation of a 360-degree economy.

Driving forward investment in infrastructure

As part of concerted efforts to reimagine our waterfronts as vibrant places to live and work, continued investment in enhancing infrastructure networks will be a fundamental piece of the puzzle in unlocking new waterfront opportunity.

In Bootle, as work prepares to commence on the redevelopment of The Strand and the surrounding areas, enhanced connectivity and new public realm are also being delivered to contribute to the wider placemaking of the north Liverpool town and to create social value for the community. From a commercial perspective, the LCR Freeport, which launched in 2021, is also facilitating significant investments in infrastructure, including a rail freight interchange and considerable road network improvements to support additional freight traffic.

Hamburg’s waterfront, which was formerly a dense and crowded heavy industrial area, has received similar investment to transform it into a place that people want to live, work and spend their time, all while protecting its cultural and historic significance.

Through redesigning sections of the waterfront, investing in new green space and public realm to better connect the area to the wider city, both residents and visitors alike are set to benefit. This is key in locations where communities have often felt so disconnected from the water.

Delivering place-based impact for the benefit of communities

It takes a great deal of creative and strategic thinking, driven by public-private partnership, to reimagine the future of our waterfront cities – creating places, steeped in social value, that establish new communities and appeal to existing ones. But robust strategies are also vital in ensuring that waterfront developments deliver new economic opportunities too.

By preserving heritage assets for the future and bringing variety into new neighbourhoods through the creation of mixed-use developments, employment opportunities will also build – bringing forward a balance of old and new, historic and future-facing.

In Liverpool, Belfast and Hamburg – all of which, to differing degrees, still operate as working ports – preserving this element of the regional economy, and creating opportunity for industrial employment, needs to be maintained. But diversifying our waterfront economies is critical for creating longevity for the community.

From tourism and hospitality to office-based employment, waterfront cities are, through public-private collaboration and focused, strategic efforts, developing ecosystems that enable communities to thrive – leveraging investment, broadening out uses, and generating new opportunities for residents.

Our waterfronts are crucial, strategic locations with great cultural and historic significance, presenting myriad present-day opportunities and creating unique, outwardly facing cities with global outlooks. It is in this space between heritage and modernity that our greatest opportunities lie – and in which the future of our waterfronts can be realised through collaboration and creativity.

Nicola Rigby, Principal at Avison Young

25th March 2024