What makes a waterfront world class?

Today, across the world, waterfronts are as fundamental to cities as water is to life. How we design, manage and enjoy these is central to the design of liveable and resilient cities.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Since the industrial revolution, urban waterways were primarily developed for trade and manufacturing, with considerably less planning for amenity and long term impact.

Twenty-one of the world’s 31 megacities hug a coastline.

Source: ScienceNews

Now, with 21 of the world’s megacities hugging a coastline and waterfront cities facing pressing challenges like sea level rise, congested transport systems and lack of public amenity, it’s time to rethink waterfront design.


Waterfronts are public assets – central to a city’s identity and to the amenity of its people. They’re also crucial to urban ecology and natural systems.

But what makes a waterfront world class? What common elements in planning, design and execution create sustainable, city-shaping waterfronts? And how can designers mitigate the dangers of a changing climate for the world’s waterfront communities?

Hassell has studios in some of the world’s great waterfront cities – from Sydney to Hong Kong to San Francisco.

And we’ve been part of major initiatives to revive and strengthen waterfront areas in cities around the world.

Across all waterfront projects – whatever their scale – resilience and connectivity are success factors that come up time and again.

Some of our standout waterfront projects



  • One of Sydney’s most significant urban renewal initiatives
  • Reinvigorated parklands, integrated landscapes and open space, and incorporated water features, public art, plazas and event spaces
  • Created opportunities for an array of events, like open-air concerts, market stalls and busking
  • Winner Australian Institute of Architects National Awards Walter Burley Griffin Award for Urban Design 2018

The precinct feels vital, engaging and safe [with] a clarity that previously evaded it. This is a true urban project of city scale, which will have an important impact on the future of the inner city.”

Jury citation, Australian Institute of Architects National Awards 2018

View project
Image: Simon Wood



  • Transformed a disused industrial port, considered to be a wasteland between the city and the ocean, and reconnected the city centre to the coastline
  • A mixed-use precinct with residential, commercial and hospitality buildings, a convention centre, and leisure and entertainment facilities – all connected and easily accessible from the city centre
  • Designed the waterfront’s first public domain – a collection of sprawling parklands, promenades, picnic areas, cultural facilities, public art, a beach and a brand-new convention centre

Every year, locals and tourists are drawn to the precinct for its vibrant events, great mix of quality restaurants and eateries, excellent shops and salons, the popular wave lagoon and free saltwater swimming lagoon and the manicured parks and promenades.”

Darwin Waterfront Annual Report 2012-13

View project
Image: Brett Boardman



  • Revitalised over a kilometre of previously underused landscape into a precinct integrating a beachside plaza, playspace and reclaimed historic headland with pavilions and landscape walks
  • A new highly-engineered seawall and intensive planting protects the fragile shoreline from erosion
  • Significant investment in locally sourced materials, including Esperance pink granite, 63,000 endemic plants, and 40 artworks
  • Through a community engagement program, we worked with historians, local artists and graphic designers to interpret local stories

We are really proud of our new waterfront, which has truly enhanced the vibrancy of our town … On any given day you can see people strolling along it, walking their dogs or simply enjoying the view.”

Malcolm Heasman, Shire of Esperance President

Image: Peter Bennetts



  • 65 acres of new waterfront parks
  • 16 miles of continuous waterfront access via public a promenade and pier aprons
  • 9 miles of new accessible waterfront
  • A proposal that repairs and preserves the culture of the historic district, while also preparing for the future’s inevitable sea level rise
  • Unlocks the corridor’s public use potential through the creation of sports hubs, museums, mixed-use development, retail and parks and wildlife sanctuaries
  • Designed for equitable access to the waterfront, with activities and attractions for people of all ages and cultural and economic backgrounds

In an ideal world, as Hassell has proposed in its ambitious submission, the port would … couple the desire to upgrade historic piers with the need to prepare the waterfront corridor and its eclectic structures for sea level rise.” 

John King, San Francisco Chronicle


  • Designed to engage visitors and locals – and help the city embrace the sea once more
  • Ties together old and new buildings with new covered walks or open arcades running along the walls of the buildings – as well as new public rooftops created as spaces for people to gather
  • The cloisters’ helped define the three main functions of the site, with its cruise ship and ro-ro’ (cargo) terminals plus a new gateway’ area fronting Via Francesco Crispi

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