Reenvisioning Urban Seascapes


Marine ecologists who study urban seascapes agree that we need to expand the boundary of urban planning – literally – beyond the water’s edge and into the surrounding marine environment.

Building sustainable coastal cities requires understanding our impacts on surrounding marine habitats and shifting our approach to facilitate biodiversity, ecological resilience, and species that directly or indirectly provide essential ecosystem services for coastal populations.

But what does this actually look like in practice? A handful of designers and architects have been hard at work developing and testing impacts of novel seascape designs.

Examples of seascape design

  Living breakwater
Olympic Sculpture Park
The Barangaroo Project

Climate Ready East Boston
Rendering of East Side Coastal Resiliency project, Manhattan, New York East Site Coastal Resiliency
Underwater Museum of Art (MUSA)


Integrating seascapes into urban planning

Novel designs as experiments for urban planning
Photo of eagle statue at Redondo Beach, WA Beyond the water’s edge (TEDx) (coming soon!)
Future ocean cities
 Cover of Blue Urbanism, by Timothy Beatley Blue urbanism



Novel designs as experiments for urban planning

Key Points:

  • Large coastal construction projects by private developers are currently the primary venue in which to develop and scientifically test ecologically-informed seascape design strategies, which are crucial for future coastal cities.
  • However, environmental policy in most countries provides few incentives for integrating eco-engineering into these projects.
  • Advancing seascape design thus requires partnerships between developers, designers, and scientists that are mutually beneficial, efficient, and potentially novel.
  • How can these partnerships be initiated and what are the risks and potential benefits for each respective party?

Research dredge being lowered into the water






Blue urbanism

Cover of Blue Urbanism, by Timothy Beatley
(c) Island Press, 2014

Key Points:

  • “Blue urbanism” was coined by Timothy Beatley as an approach for reenvisioning the relationship between coastal cities and the marine environment. The concept is summarized at as follows:
  • “We live on the blue planet, with three-quarters of its surface covered by oceans. Yet, we also increasingly live on the urban planet. Those two realms are profoundly disconnected. Yet, cities impact oceans in many significant ways, direct and indirect. Cities can and must begin to include oceans in their planning, what might be called blue urbanism, and a natural extension of the emphasis given to urban greening and green urbanism in many cities today.
  • “What would it mean to live in cities where we care about and feel connected to oceans? Blue urbanism challenges us to imagine how terrestrial urbanites can also be understood to be citizens of the sea, citizens and inhabitants of the blue world, and as such care for and steward over this most amazing of Earth’s realms.”


Rendering of East Side Coastal Resiliency project, Manhattan, New York
(c) Bjarke Ingels Group / Rebuild by Design / NYC DDC

Timothy Beatley is the author and conceptual founder of “blue urbanism“. In his book, he describes blue urbanism as an approach to managing and developing coastal cities in a way that fully incorporates the marine environment. “Blue urbanism — an emerging set of ideas and perspectives,” he notes, “would mean that cities would seriously evaluate and carefully regulate their effects on marine environments; and city planners are potentially on the front lines of this new movement” (source). Because most coastal cities have jurisdiction over nearshore environments, he argues they also have the power to actively manage these environments and mitigate the effects of city development on marine ecosystems.


He suggests this may involve a suite of management tools, including reducing pollution and “urban detritus” (such as plastic wastes; note detritus has a different meaning to ecologists), changing regulatory guidelines for ports and shipping, and curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, he suggests that even simply incorporating maps of ocean sprawl into city planning may produce considerable progress.

(c) Poseidon Resort via

Beatley’s exploration also goes beyond regulatory tools, working towards a new vision for how we interact with urban marine environments. Floating cities, underwater buildings, soft urban edges, and public spaces that integrate the shoreline are among the directions he considers. … Did you know there’s already a restaurant in the Maldives where you can dine 5m below the sea’s surface (link)? And a luxury resort in Fiji where you vacation entirely underwater, at 12m depth, in the bottom of a tropical lagoon (link)?

These of course are venues most of us will never have access to, and who knows the extent of their environmental impact, but they’re helpful images for re-envisioning the future: How can we design urban spaces to more fluidly integrate marine habitats into everyday life? Whether we’re purposeful about it or not, we are constantly shaping and reshaping urban seascapes. Why not do this in a way that promotes filter feeders that clean urban waterways, foundation species that enhance marine biodiversity, and marine resources (eventually maybe even fish we like to eat)?