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New Work: Riverways

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Manhattan is an island—some would say a landlocked island—and grew to prominence because of its harbor, but like many American cities, New York seems to avoid its waterways. Over the past decades, ferry and water taxi service has made an impressive reappearance on the city’s rivers—but along the way an evident problem has arisen. By definition, ferry landings are located at the edge of the city, usually in windy, exposed waterside sites that offer an unpleasant and discouraging experience for passengers waiting for a ferry or for connecting surface transit.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in New York harbor and discovery of the Hudson River. Over the past few years, under the leadership of the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial, a consortium of New York civic groups—including the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance and the Hudson River Foundation—have been developing plans for a system of “Quad Landings”: floating docks designed to allow access to and from the water for a wide variety of vessels, from ferries and water taxis to sailboats, kayaks, and other craft.

Building on this initiative, James Biber of Pentagram Architects and James Sanders of James Sanders + Associates have developed Riverways, a practical, economical, and flexible system of elements that allow water access where there is currently none, or enhance ferry and water-taxi landings that already exist. Though relatively small in scale, these elements are intended to provide crucial points of linkage, integrating the region’s water and land transportation into a single unified system, and opening the city’s waters for recreation to the immense populations adjacent to them. The proposal is designed to increase access to the water for communities frustrated by their proximity to magnificent waterways that can be seen but not touched.

Download a PDF of the complete proposal here.


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Historical Perspective

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American cities and towns arose around their waterways, which not only linked them to the larger world but interconnected the communities themselves. In the second half of the 20th century, cities turned away from their waterfronts, leaving behind hundreds of miles of urban edge with little or no life. Over the last twenty years, cities have begun a dramatic return to the water. But many communities have no way to reach the water’s surface at all. Even where they do exist, landings for ferries and water taxis are typically exposed, inhospitable and devoid of any urban amenities, discouraging their use or expansion.

The Brief

1. Provide shelter at the water’s edge;

2. Create an iconic structure, visible from the water and land side, with an acknowledgment of the Hudson Quadricentennial;

3. Allow rapid deployment, flexible configuration and cost effective points along the entire Hudson from Albany to the New York Harbor.

The Design

The basic design of the Riverways landings consists of a floating dock and a matching landside platform, placed beneath two matching canopy structures. The retractable canopy elements provide shelter from rain and sun, serve as highly visible markers, celebrate the transition from land to water, and provide the setting and context for a wide range of purposes, including transit, recreational access, and activation. A flexible kit of parts approach allows the basic “H”-shaped design to adapt to a variety of activities, site conditions and communities. The modular system is affordable and easy to install.

The iconic structure, a reference to sailing ships with tall masts, rigging and sails, is not only visible from a distance, but unique along the water’s edge. In addition, the structural pair of “H’s” are an embedded reference to Henry Hudson, a kind of giant HH logo.


The landings would open the city’s waters for recreation and provide a link to mass transit.

The system, in addition to being a kit of parts that is able to re-assembled in many configurations, is quick to install or move, a kind of “pop-up pier.” Manufactured and assembled off site, the entire package can be floated to the site and erected in a day. With only a day of site preparation, a day of “shipping” and a day of installation, the landing is ready for use, and for the addition of programmatic elements like cafés, kayak storage, ticket offices, swimming facilities and more.

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Transit

In addition to the traditional ferries, New York and other cities are now seeing the emergence of water taxi and water jitney services. These employ smaller high-speed vessels that travel up and down rivers and other waterways to link disparate locations, often serving a tourist and sightseeing function as well as conventional transportation. The proposal will improve the visibility of the water taxi docks from both land and water, marking their presence even when no vessel is visible, and providing a consistent look that links the disparate stops into an integrated and easily identified waterborne system.

A lightweight pavilion, placed in proximity to both the ferry landing and transit stop, will offer a seasonally enclosed seating area with sheltered views of the water, along with a small coffee bar, newsstand, and ticket booth. The pavilion would transform the experience of connecting from land-based transit (cabs, buses) to waterborne ferries, and could become the crucial point linkage for a new integrated land-water transit system in New York and other metropolitan areas.

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Recreation

A century ago, dozens of floating pools lined the edge of Manhattan and the waters of the Hudson Valley were favorite places for swimming. In recent years, the water quality of the Hudson and other rivers in the region has improved enough to allow for swimming, but concerns for tides and currents still make bathing in those waters a challenge. A pair of nets lowered from the two gangways would create a sheltered bathing area between the floating dock and the shore.

The proposed floating dock is designed to moor a wide variety of recreational vessels, from sailboats and pleasure craft to kayaks and canoes. A network of such landings, located at scenic locations throughout the metropolitan region, would likely encourage large numbers of people to venture out on the water, “touring” the city from one landing to another.

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Activation

While its primary function is to improve access to the water for transit and recreation, the proposed landings will also serve a third purpose: activating the water’s edge. Water landings can become centers of activity and public gathering places as well as places of connection—the same mix of uses that was once common in the waterfront districts of American cities.

With a small freestanding kiosk providing storage for chairs, tables and other supplies, the landings can become the setting for a wide range of programs and events, from civic receptions and community festivals to educational and cultural programs. A simple bleacher-like base structure on the landside platform and a roll-down projection screen on the waterside canopy structure can transform the landings into an open-air theater for movie screenings and small-scale musical and theatrical performances.

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Yesterday, the design was unveiled to the public at an event at the Standard hotel in New York. Introduced by Joan K. Davidson, Chairman of the Hudson-Fulton-Champlain Quadricentennial Commission, and Kent Barwick, President Emeritus of the Municipal Art Society, Biber and Sanders shared the proposal with a crowd of city officials, civic leaders, architects, designers, and water’s edge advocates and enthusiasts.

Adapted from the Riverways proposal.

Project Team

Pentagram Architects: James Biber, partner-in-charge, architecture; Michael Zweck-Bronner, Adriana Rodriguez-Pliego, Suzanne Holt, designers. Graphics by Michael Bierut and Kai Salmela.

James Sanders + Associates: James Sanders, principal-in-charge; Sarah Unruh, Lucy Gardner, designers.