Insights on the reconfiguration of vulnerable industrial waterfronts, defined by climate change and economic decline
The case of the Coney Island Creek, New York City, NY

Analysis at the intermediate scale of the coastline of the Coney Island Creek and six adjacent building blocks. Drawing by Drs. Gitte Schreurs


The growing impact of changing environmental and economic conditions on a global level, generates an urgent requirement for cities to respond in a resilient way. Therefore, this research aims to gain insights and develop spatial strategies for the reconfiguration of vulnerable industrial or post-industrial waterfronts that are dealing with pro­duc­tive decline and changing environmental conditions. More specifically, this project focuses on the (post-)industrial waterfronts of New York City.

New York City’s 930 kilometers of coastline was once indispensable for the industrial growth and economic welfare in the city. Industries and factories during the 18th and 19th century were fully dependent on water-bound transportation for their products, making the coastline properties highly valuable for industrial developments. However, shifts in transportation during the 20th century from boats, to trains and trucks made a waterfront location no longer necessary for industries. This has made the city’s waterfront subject to a vibrant history of industrial change and productive decline. Today, for the first time in New York’s history, there is a large interest in redeveloping the city’s waterfronts for mere residential and/or recreational purposes. However, this eliminates all chances for social diversity, employment opportunities for lower-educated workers and affordable residential properties in close proximity to their working space.

On the other hand, New York City is one of many cities worldwide that is suffering under the consequences of growing environmental issues. Climate change is causing the seas to rise and storms to intensify around New York; inundations of more than two meters are expected to occur every five years by 2030. The city invests a lot in studies on how to deal with the consequences of climate change in a resilient way, but simultaneously, the mayor’s office allows for large residential developments to be rapidly built on the city’s vulnerable coastlines, while barely taking into account the risks these vulnerable locations hold.

There is an urgent need to rethink the current redevelopment strategies for these vulnerable industrial waterfronts, taking into account both the changing economy and the consequences of climate change. This doctoral thesis does not believe in the current ‘tabula rasa’ method of demolishing all existing urban fabric on the waterfront and building from scratch. Instead, this research seeks to provide answers, based on gaining critical insights regarding the daily operation of a specific waterfront and its unique characteristics such as territorial configuration, property structure, appropriation of collective areas, resilience to climate change and a changing economic situation. The hypothesis is that, by fully understanding the conditions of transformation and the everyday operation of a specific coastal area at the intermediate scale; a full understanding of its levels of resilience can be generated. This profound knowledge can then be reflected on similar coastal areas and function as design strategies for architects and urban planners, considering an area’s full complexity, vulnerabilities and opportunities. In this way, a resilient answer can be offered that enhances the current social and economic structure of the area, while dealing with the threats of climate change.


PhD Project by Drs. Gitte Schreurs (Promotor: Dr. Prof. Kris Scheerlinck, Co-Promotors: Dr. Erik Van Daele, Prof. David Burney)


 *Top image source: Under Water New York,, first consulted on March 12th 2018