Waterfront is usually an asset, yes? Property with water views and especially water frontage costs more than property a few blocks away. Yet, one thing I’ve noticed while living in Vermont is that few towns take advantage of their waterfront, which is most often riverfront. The river is in the background, but the town center seldom focuses on the water course. (Disclaimer: I have not been to every Vermont town, this is based only on my observations so far.) The exception is, of course, Burlington, whose waterfront (lake front) is a huge asset and draw to the city. The bike path, the lake access and waterfront park are some of the best reasons for living in Burlington.
Now, consider Montpelier, the capital city of Vermont. First of all, the face of the city from US Route 2 is far from appealing. While you can see the gold dome of the capital building and the Taylor Street metal truss bridge, the view is otherwise a few gas stations and the run down US Route 2 as it passes on to Berlin/Barre and beyond. Yet, if you drive by and skip turning onto Baldwin Street and State Street, you’ll miss the vibrant downtown, beautiful buildings and one of the prettiest cities in Vermont. Between US Route 2 and State Street is the Winooski River. You can really only enjoy the river from a few spots in town: a restaurant or two and the bridges crossing back to US Route 2.
Many small towns and villages developed around the rivers and water bodies for obvious reasons: use of the resource for water, transportation, flat and fertile agricultural lands. Backyards and the backs of buildings face the river rather than Main Street. There are few places to sit at a restaurant and gaze at the rivers. I think of the extreme – the Riverwalk in San Antonio, TX – and wonder why Vermont towns are not vibrant river fronts. Perhaps it is because rivers were used for industry and business. And because they frequently flood. There may be research on Vermont development along and the use of water courses; but in this post, I’m just pondering.
For starters, let’s compare today’s resources v. historical resources. We no longer use our waterways for transportation and industry (well, it is certainly not the majority). Currently our culture values water mostly for recreation, tourism and associated quality of life. We cannot change our historical development patterns. Instead, we need to adapt our communities and incorporate the natural resources into modern planning and use. River fronts currently serve for community recreation paths and parks. In some instances it would make sense to improve or create paths along the river. As this summer taught us once again, building on the water isn’t always a good idea and protection from flooding requires intensive planning. Are we afraid of our rivers? I hope not. Sure, they are unpredictable, but living near a waterway keeps me from feeling landlocked.
Think about where you live. How are the towns laid out? What are the resources and does planning take advantage of it? How is it different today than historically? Would you rather live near a waterway or far away?