Insights on the reconfiguration of vulnerable industrial waterfronts facing shocks and stresses.
Coney Island Creek, New York City, USA.

Doctoral Dissertation by Gitte Schreurs
Defended on February 25, 2022


Examination committee

Prof. dr. Maarten Gheysen (promotor, KU Leuven)
Prof. dr. Kris Scheerlinck (co-promotor, KU Leuven)
Prof. dr. Erik Van Daele (co-promotor, KU Leuven)

Prof. dr. Caroline Voet (KU Leuven, secretary)
Prof. David Burney (Pratt Institute, USA)

Dhr. Henk Ovink (Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, the Netherlands)
Prof. dr. Eulalia Gomez Escoda (ETSAB – UPC Barcelona)
Prof. dr. Bruno Notteboom (KU Leuven)

Prof. dr. Rachel Armstrong (KU Leuven, Faculty of Architecture)

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


At first sight, cities are accumulations of the tangible, the perceivable and the more static:buildings and streets, infrastructures and waterways, houses and schools and parks and supermarkets. But cities worldwide are simultaneously under constant pressure from an intangible discourse, from changes caused by shocks and stresses, which require them to 

respond and adapt in a resilient way. These shocks and stresses can result from unsolicited events (like a superstorm or global pandemic), or self-induced changes (such as larger development projects or major social events), and may manifest only briefly (shocks) or last for longer (stresses). At some point, these shocks and stresses will affect the cities’ neighborhoods, triggering transformation of their spatial, social, economic, or environmental conditions and processes. This translation of shocks and stresses onto the neighborhood can manifest on a multitude of scales. It is this moment of impact, when the existing configuration and operation of a neighborhood meets the variable of shocks and stresses, that this research regards as the crucial moment when lessons can be learned.

This research considers post-industrial waterfronts in metropolitan cities to be protagonists, incubators even, in responding to shocks and stresses because of their unique spatial and social conditions. In a city that is constructed by a grid-plan, waterfront neighborhoods have unique spatial conditions because the systematic grid is interrupted by the coastline. Over history, this strategic and unique location has often resulted in them becoming pioneers for change, manifesting change first, in more extreme or in deviant forms than at more inland locations. As a result, several waterfront neighborhoods have gradually transformed into areas with interesting overlap scenarios, with a coexistence of multiple urban identities. Gradual internal transformation processes have transformed many post-industrial waterfronts into a coexistence of land uses, users and activities that have been continuously adapting to shocks and stresses, on multiple scales, for decades. This generated the foundation of this research, which is to learn from NewYork City’s waterfront as a laboratory for urban transformation processes.

This doctoral project uses New York City’s 830 kilometers of coastline as a learning case, focusing specifically on its post-industrial neighborhoods. Because of their unique conditions, post-industrial waterfronts have often experienced a more internal and gradual transformation process, while being spared from the impact of larger external processes. Their unique form of transformation has resulted in ambiguous urban areas that are constantly adapting themselves to local needs, becoming platforms for users and uses on a smaller scale. Generally, these waterfront neighborhoods have gained hybrid border conditions, located at the juxtaposition of water and land, of past and future, of rich and poor, of planned and unplanned. Their hybrid character is defined by their large socio-economic diversity and inclusiveness that are unique to the city. Their transformation is manifesting predominantly at the local and the human scale, while the impact of global- and metropolitan-scale processes remain largely absent. This results in neighborhoods where opposites and frictions are still present, but their transitional character generally guarantees a more harmonious adaptation to changing preconditions.

Through eight cases of post-industrial waterfront neighborhoods in New York City, this doctorate looks into their internal, gradual transformation processes, and compares this with how transformation is happening in a contemporary context, where the current larger societal, economic, or environmental processes affect an existing neighborhood. The question is posed as to how these larger-scale, external processes are spatially translated into the complex context of the post-industrial waterfront, and what this means in terms of shock and stress resilience. The thesis identifies multiple translations of such external processes of transformation, their scales, their stakeholders, and their potential point of impact within a neighborhood.

Ultimately, all the research comes together in the case study of Coney Island Creek, the main body of this research. Just like the eight selected waterfront neighborhoods, the case of ConeyIsland Creek is considered a laboratory, in order to reveal its actual needs and opportunities in a crucial stage before redevelopment. This hybrid post-industrial waterfront is the result of decades of gradual, internal transformation processes and has now arrived at a crucial turning point in time. The neighborhood has largely stayed under the radar for external processes of transformation, but currently, several proposals for their spatial translation are in the pipeline. The highly transitional area of Coney Island Creek is used by this research as an urban laboratory,

revealing its understated and small-scale potentials that may contribute to a city that is resilient to change and tolerant to multiple future scenarios. The neighborhood is fully analyzed by a multi-scalar approach, addressing global-, metropolitan-, local-, and human-scale shocks and stresses.Its built environment is revealed by its multitude of urban identities, analyzed by numerous mappings, drawings, interviews, photo reports, and so on. Finally, a reflection is made on the moment of impact, where the multi-scalar shocks and stresses affect the current configuration and operation of this neighborhood. The in-depth analysis of the case study considers the area in all its complexity, unveiling crucial insights in terms of potential transformation.

The outcome of this research is derived from a strong empirical approach in combination with an extensive theoretical framework. The research has been conducted by an exploration of multiple methods of analysis, including substantial fieldwork conducted by means of regular site visits, local interviews, organizing exhibitions, workshops, and summer schools, meetings with local professionals and stakeholders, in-depth analysis through mapping, drawing, making photo reports, conducting designerly research, and an extensive literature review of the existing academic research. All the information obtained has been combined with the goal of creating an extensive knowledge base and crucial insights into the values of post-industrial waterfronts asplatforms to learn from, to test strategies for the resilient and inclusive city, and to reflect the results on other non-waterfront locations.

Based on the analyses conducted, this research reveals how the post-industrial waterfront as an urban laboratory can contribute to the future transformation of the metropolitan city, as it has done throughout history. The innovation lies in the multi-scalar and multi-layered approach that is applied to understand the transformation of complex urban areas that would otherwise largely remain under the radar. The research uses the obtained insights to articulate a new attitude to read, understand, and intervene in hybrid urban neighborhoods. This attitude is to be perceived as an input for architecture, planning, and the reading of complex urban scenarios.



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