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Between sea and city: recent projects for seafront promenades

Originally presented at the First international congress on waterfronts, Las Palmas de Gran Canarias, 17-18. 6. 2004

by Marco Massa


My report proposes some remarks about the recent interest on seafront promenades in urban project and several ideas of public space related to it.
These remarks derive from the projects I made and the researches I'm carrying out at the Town Planning Department of the Florence University.

The seafront promenade as a distinctive public space has accompanied the history of littoral and seaside resorts, from the beginning in the XVIII century, during modernism and the crisis produced by mass tourism.
There is no need (neither time) to evoke the different moments and phases of the diffusion, all over the world, of historic promenades great models: the Mediterranean cities preceding the tourist development (as Villa Chiaia in Naples); Brighton; Nice and the “Côte d’azur”; Ostenda; Atlantic City (the “Mother of all American seafront walkboards”); Rio de Janeiro, Scheweningen and so on.

Three points however may be emphasised:
- it is an historic urban space which, from the invention of the sea holidays, has played a significant role in ordinary life and therefore it is largely mentioned by many cultural sources: for example, Proust placed a key action of his history (the meeting with the “jeunes filles en fleur”) on the pier of “Baalbec”, a fake name for Cabourg, a sea resort founded at the end of the XIX century on the French Atlantic coast; the iconography too is rich (see for example the “Côte d’azur” by Munch, Matisse; or the Trouville promenade, on the Atlantic coast, by Monet; as to the cinema, see the boardwalk of Atlantic City in Louis Malle’s film, or Rimini’s littoral by Fellini, up to the simplest level of representation: the postcards which describe the seaside towns by their promenades; in spite of that, its identity hasn’t been recognised and therefore hasn’t been properly rehabilitated except some rare cases. Usually, during the crisis of the seaside resorts under the pressure of mass tourism, the seafront promenades became the “ultimate icon of the post-industrial consumerism”, according to a Belgian sociologist, Lieven De Cauter. De Cauter described the piers of Brighton and Blackpool (two of the most famous models) as “proof of the decay and banality of the coast”, after their transformation “into funfairs, amusement arcades with their batteries of gambling machines”;

- until today the spatial pattern of the urban promenade was more or less stable in time: an asymmetrical spine, a great scenery with the sea as backdrop; the promenade as stage, a “parade”; the people as actors, and, at the same time, spectators; therefore it is divided into three strips: the bathing establishments on the sea; the space of the promenade as a stroll space (extended into the sea by the pier); the urban façade and the urban equipment (the villa, the kursaal, the hotel, the casino, etc.); this pattern permitted a sort of friendly contradiction between the eclecticism of the architectures and the unity of the whole that was achieved following some simple rules rather than through planning instruments: prevalence of public space and marine environment; alignment with the promenade axis. The spanish architect Louis Trapero underlined the meanings of this pattern for the protection of the littorals (as a public space and as a tool organising town marine fronts: a generator of forms characterising urban identity); this pattern is the most representative, but isn’t the only one existing, as the seafornt promenade can assume also the form of simple path on the coast (as in the croatian or ligurian coasts);

- after a long crisis, a diffused renewal, a sort of “renaissance”(as some critics defined it) started in the last fifteen years and took different forms: some cities rehabilitated this space just by street furniture; in other cases an urban regeneration was based on new programmes to oppose the banality and the decay of mass tourism, or new promenades have been created, sometimes framed into a wider strategy of littorals rehabilitation like national laws and plans. It’s well known that Spain had a leader role in this phase (Barcelona, the Law for the coast, and so on), and that here we can find all the types of interventions.
In this framework sea shore promenade has become a very topical issue for the urban project and the strategic planning. To demonstrate some of the different forms of this “renaissance” I’ll show few emblematic and positive examples and I’ll start showing the projects for the rehabilitation of historic of just existing promenades.

Viareggio and Rimini: an idea of contemporary public space

Amongst many cases, Viareggio (on the Tuscan coast) and Rimini (on the Adriatic coast) are less known, emblematic promenades of the two sides of Italy; two true icons, seemingly similar in the fact that they are large specialised tourist cities on a sand shore, but actually very different.
I worked in these towns with different roles: for Viareggio I designed in 1994 the Master Plan which established the main rules for the rehabilitation of the sea front. Afterwards an urban project, a sort of guidelines has been developed by Richard Rogers.
Viareggio is the first Italian seafront promenade in the XIX century. Being one of the two important generators of the urban grid, the other one being the canal, it is a complex and congested structure that has undergone a functional decay.
Here, as in Rimini, the core problems are related to the urban image and to the functions of the sea fronts
The seafront image is a key factor for a tourist city like Viareggio. Nevertheless it has to be implemented on the basis of correct functions to avoid fatuous “maquillage” and the risk of a disconnection between a prestigious marine façade for “tourists” and an hinterland left to “inhabitants”. Therefore the selection of functions assumes a central role in order to integrate the sea promenade into the town and to guarantee the wright emphasis on its character of common property available to all, tourists and residents.
In Viareggio, the goals are to rehabilitate an historic, congested, urban space, to rule and to limit the banal commercial functions, to develop mixed activities and qualify some new “centres of attraction” connected to the entertainment business of the Carnival, the most important in Italy. The reduction of traffic lanes made possible the transformation of the central strip (at the moment lacking of a proper function) in a service space for seaside equipment.

While Rogers was working on Viareggio, I was involved in the detail plan for Rimini’s promenade.
Rimini is a different case. From the beginning of the tourist era, the historic town shows the back to the sea. The hotels on the sea for example face the interior streets rather than the promenade. Therefore, although in the heart of the “district of the pleasure” (as the sociologist call the Emilian riviera because of the quantity of leisure equipment), the promenade here is a simple street, with few and poor equipment: just a traffic-congested space from which to join the sea. Therefore, on the opposite of Viareggio, in Rimini the goal was creating an urban space on a void with a prevailing character of an open public space and a view of the marine environment. So we worked on the three strips of the promenade, here without a form neither a proper relation with themselves:
- a new urban facade was proposed by the insertion of new equipment on the back of the hotels;
- a new pedestrian space was designed as a recognizable public space;
- the restructuration was proposed for the bathing establishments.
Federico Fellini was born here, and it’s understandable of course a special consideration to his memory. A central square has been dedicated to an open air theatre. Moreover, the introduction of a small scale market or a number of restaurants and bars can bring life into public space, giving it direction and character without transforming the promenade into a huge recreational and commercial complex. Restructuring the strip of the bathing establishments is a very crucial issue, as you know that in Italy the beach is rented to privates and therefore it is a sort of large private service.
Both projects work on the contemporary idea of public space for citizens as a driving force able to trigger an upgrading process and to improve institutional prestige. That process includes private commercial activities raising to the level of authentic collective spaces.

St Jean de Monts (French Atlantic coast): a public space for the regeneration of the built environment

The potential of tourist city renewal is more clearly demonstrated by those projects for tourist resorts which decayed because of density excess, as for this case in Saint Jean de Monts.
St Jean de Monts is a small tourist resort on the French Atlantic coast near Nantes, ruined by an heavy transformation during the seventies: a sort of “grand ensemble” for tourism on the ocean. Instead of a promenade a huge parking lot and a six lanes road isolate the buildings from the sea.

This pattern has fast become obsolete; in the framework of the consequent crisis and of a new national policy of periphery and tourist fringes rehabilitation, the city launched an international competition in 1994 with the aim to renew the littoral. With Philippe Panerai we presented a project which has been awarded.
The project applies the repertory of ideas for seafront promenades rehabilitation: the strengthening of the connections with the hinterland resources; the implementation of traffic flow withdrawal (a simpler solution than the underground reorganisation); a new promenade form with two arcades; new recognisable public spaces with a mix of commercial, cultural and leisure activities.
The idea derives from the arcade existing in the old district of Foz Velha in Oporto, Portugal.
Here the public space is the main tool for the upgrading of the “slabs”.
The most interesting thing is that the competition asked for solutions of rehabilitation and development of private buildings. This goal gave the hint to propose the tourist flats transformations and to increment density with new houses for new inhabitants in order to create a real urban environment and justify the urban equipment programme proposed for.

New promenades on the Douro and the Atlantic coast: the ground as park

Around Oporto, Matosinhos and Vila Nova de Gaia in Portugal a great programme of new seafront promenades is being realised.
Along both sides of the Douro and on the Ocean coasts, a layout of public spaces connected by pedestrian promenades has taken the form of a large “T”. The network is based on the public transport system.
A promenade about 3 kilometers long runs along the “marginal”, the new coastal road partially built on the river, that connects the centre of Oporto with the Atlantic ocean on the north side; a narrow wooden promenade runs at the south of the river as well, up to the sea (in front of the town of Villa Nova de Gaia).

On the northern part of the Atlantic coast, the project by Manuel Solà Morales emended a previous plan that proposed a built façade between the “Parque da cidade” and the sea, lined up along a new road. The project abolishes the buildings, transforms the road in a sort of “parkway”, connects the simple seafront promenade to the “Parque” letting it flow underneath the road on the rocky coast. The key of the project is the road: it is a solution tested in urban context (Barcellona for example) and adapted to a different situation of natural settings.
The principle to be underlined is the great respect and the subordination to the natural environment. This is achieved through the application of an another public space idea derived from the Modern Movement that recalls some designs by LC: the whole ground as a continuos park, a luxury idea but relevant to this site, and, in general, to the littorals..
The project demonstrates too that today the promenade is much more than a façade, or a nostalgic reference: it’s in fact a landscape project rather than an urban project.
Next to Solà Morales project, where the maritime outskirts of Oporto merge with Matosinhos, we find another emblematic new promenade. It’s been designed by Souto de Moura in front of the new housing settlement following a plan by A. Siza.

The project, in these slides under construction, raises a common problem in the restructuring existing urban promenades: the relation between pedestrians space, accessibility, parking and cars flow. The solution here has been classic, which is to place underground the parking in order to realise a great “esplanade” (belvedere terrace) and leave the entire surface to pedestrians and to public transports. It’s an expensive solution, but its cost can’t be measured only according to the benefit on the mobility and on public space: it is necessary to considerate the improving effects on the town image and on the urban marketing generated by the new spaces created which can be used for commercial activities After the construction, the idea has proved succesful and today the promenade has become a meeting and strolling space. Other solutions to the same problem can be found for example in Nice, Le Havre, Viareggio, where it was experienced a new balance between cars and pedestrians on the surface, remodelling the cross section and reducing the width/number of lanes.

New public space from the re-use of abandoned railway lines: the case of Liguria

In many italian regions an important railway runs along the coast (sometimes on the shore) thus creating a barrier between the cities and the sea.
Many plans and projects are now trying to establish proper connections: there are two main solutions to this problem:
- the first one is to place the railway undeground (for example, in Reggio Calabria a new urban promenade has been built on the surface);
- the second one is to shift the railway towards inland.
Less studied are the forms tryng to reuse the existing installation.
Probably the most important project of the second category is in Liguria, a region squeezed on the sea by the Appennnini mountains, where the whole littoral (known as “La Riviera”) from Nice to Genoa, is a long scenic route of historic importance bordered by the railway. So you find a great number of historic promenades (for example Sanremo, or the famous “sentiero dell’amore, love path” in the Cinque Terre area). Considering the difficulties of access to the sea, because of the rocky coast, the railway is, at the same time, barrier and main access to some beaches.
The railway shift towards the inland and the doubling of its capacity, today in progress, will free the areas currently occupied by the railroad.

A special regional plan has been designed to connect different small villages by public spaces, pedestrian walks and 25 kilometres long bicycle lanes. For some inter city areas, the re-use provides an efficient small public transport system or it becomes part of the traffic and road network redevelopment.
Aniway, the idea of a continuous public transport system (as a small tramway) has been probably too little explored and implemented.
Moreover, the re-use of railway roadbeds is conceived as an axis of a territorial transformation which comprises both public and private interventions. This perspective is wholly innovative, as the transformation concerns urban centres as well. In the urban areas crossed by the layout the back of the houses once turned to the tracks will be opened to the new public spaces and will become façades. A first phase of this big plan is in progress. This system could be joined to a similar path existing along the French coast, thus restoring the historic promenade from Nice to Genoa.
In France, a law is dedicated to the “sentier du littoral” to provide a public access to the coast.

Tuscany: the promenades as a regional system of parks

Therefore, another point of view to introduce a new idea of public space is that of the great scale, regional (as in Liguria) or territorial. for example, the Tuscan coast is the field for a research I‘m carrying out with the aim to show how a strategic promenades planning scheme can give a contribution to a coherent integration of the different plans for the littoral. The regional and provincial governments are very attentive to the coast problems but until today this attention has been generic or partial.
The 320 kilometres long Tuscan coast offers a wide repertory of different seaside promenades and maritime façades.
The map shows the division in three different parts: at north, the most urbanized area; in the centre, scattered urban area; the south is almost natural.
The research carried out a census and a classification of existing promenades and their relations with other public spaces.

The goal is to associate into a strategic scheme four kinds of resources: the preserved natural environment; the various promenades (with the proposal of rehabilitation and integration of public spaces in the territorial system); the urban fringes to be upgraded (like for example the seaside holiday homes built during the thirties as an Italian example of modernist city now deteriorated); the historic buildings corresponding mainly to a complex system of ancient defensive works and the path connecting them (like the “sentier des douaniers” in France or the “camiños de ronda” in Spain).

Of course, in addition to the parallel coastal system, the axis leading to the sea from the inland are of fundamental importance. The research indicates the strategic junctions and the driving forces of the network.
The main quality of this system is therefore that it can put in network a wide range of resources.
We can think of this system as a special public space, at the regional scale, a “necklace” of linear parks and strategic junctions balancing the tourist pressure through the promenades connection with the inland public spaces and resources.
This will be achieved by enhancing differences and organising them as a sequence, rather than by a mechanic omologation.

Landscape project and public space on a small scale: the Garda waterfront

A little digression on the theme of the promenade shows a project I made on the Garda lake (in the Northern Italy, at the feet of the Alps). The digression may be justified by the analogy with the congested and decayed seafronts.
Here a camp site (on a public property area) occupies a spectacular point of the lakeshore caracterised by a continuos wind favoring sailing boats competitions.
The project shifts the camp site, transformed into a more qualified holliday village with public equipments (a garden village), towards inland, on another public area.
On the lake, a public park is proposed as a “panorama”, that is a “belvedere” offering a 360° view.
This shift shows a possible solution for the rehabilitation of the waterfronts spoiled by bad urbanisation. It’s a solution followed in other regions of Italy.

Port-Bou and Rio de Janeiro: the public space as artwork

The last remark is just a reference to the artist work on the promenades:“Passages” by Dani Karavan, dedicated to the memory of Walter Benjamin, near Port-Bou, at the French-Spanish border, and the floor design by Roberto Burle Marx at Rio de Janeiro. Just to say that this space can be created , not simply furnished, by artists.

In conclusion, all these “positive” ideas of promenade (collective spaces mixed with private uses; starting point for rehabilitate and regenerate built environments; landscape project; support for a regional system of parks and other public spaces; links with the inland; artwork and other ones we can imagine) show how to contrast the commercialisation of the tourist space and to stimulate a different, more sustainable and cultivated tourism. We can resume the three reasons why the promenades have become a topical issue for the urban project and the strategic planning:
- it is a space connecting the natural environment and the urban space thus urging the urban project and the strategic planning to assume environmental topics as a source and a cue instead of a constraint;
- as public open space it leads an important role in the rehabilitation of over-crowded tourist cities and to establish the public use of littorals;
- it is an important marketing factor for the economic redevelopment of the tourist city and territory as a whole.