Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Thessaloniki’s New Waterfront is the centerpiece in an effort to transform the local economy, and other cities are taking notice.
THESSALONIKI, GREECE—Any single feature in the New Waterfront in Thessaloniki might distinguish it as destination. A seaside promenade that conducts visitors from the stalwart White Tower to the serenely modern Thessaloniki Concert Hall is bound to be a destination just by dint of its location. So the fact that the New Waterfront boasts aquatic gardens is almost gratuitous.
Koi ponds and lily pads run along the linear park. So do basketball courts, cycle paths, fishing perches, historical exhibits, an amphitheater, children’s playgrounds, and an iconic public artwork, among other amenities. The New Waterfront, which was started in 2008 and completed in two phases, today serves as a model for other waterfront reclamation projects, including a new waterfront park underway in Geelong, Australia.
Greece’s second city is rich in Byzantine and Paleochristian historical sites—the Roman forum isn’t even the best ruin you’ll find downtown. So a luxe waterfront park might seem like it’s just a cherry on top. In fact, Thessaloniki’s New Waterfront is key to this ancient city’s future. The city is working to make the waterfront park the centerpiece in an effort to transform the city’s economy.
Thessaloniki set the course for its New Waterfront back in 2000, when it launched a design competition for rethinking the coastal breakwater. Nikiforidis-Cuomo Architects, the firm that won the prospectus, began its work in 2006; the first phase of the park opened in 2008, and the park was completed five years later. The designers planted some 1,100 new trees over parkland and water areas covering 50,800 square meters (546,800 square feet). The park, which runs 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) along the waterfront, was funded by the European Union and regional leaders.
The waterfront park is thematically divided into 13 gardens, each given a poetic name, from the Garden of Alexander to the Garden of Shadow. The gardens are delineated by landscape and architectural features, such as the observation deck (which provides views) and the modernist wooden pergola (which provides shade). While the breakwater structure facing the Thermaikos Bay is the same along the entire waterfront run, the park area is differentiated by purpose. Strolling along the promenade feels like walking through successive rooms of an elaborate garden.
Six years in, the park appears to be a hit with locals. (Biking the park was an utter delight for this tourist.) The EU declares the project a National Strategic Reference Framework–funded success. But there are signs of stress among the splash parks and sculptures. Several stalls designed for commercial vendors stand empty (although the bar by the aquatic gardens was bustling). Beyond the park development, there are miles of unused waterfront.
In 2017, the city unveiled a strategic framework for 2030, the first for Greece. Much of the document focuses on expanding the potential of the New Waterfront in terms of its civic, economic, and environmental reach. For example, the 2030 plan identifies the New Waterfront as a potential root for a municipal cycle path network, and it calls for a land-use investment framework to fully capitalize on the economic opportunity at the water’s edge. (The document even references the New Waterfront as the city’s number-one tourist attraction—although that would seem to give short shrift to the giant Byzantine fortress and former Ottoman prison once known as the Tower of Blood.)
Thessaloniki’s 2030 framework was developed as the culmination of a two-year partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, a global climate nonprofit launched by the Rockefeller Foundation. As my colleague Laura Bliss has reported, the Rockefeller Foundation abruptly shuttered 100 RC earlier this year. The future of the program and the ongoing initiatives it augured is in question.
But the work to buttress the New Waterfront as a pivotal development for Thessaloniki continues. The eventual goal is to extend opportunities for commerce, mobility, and cultural amenities to cover the entire 8.5 kilometers (5.3 miles) of urban waterfront. According to the World Bank’s Social, Urban, Rural, Resilience group, the organization is now working with local officials to “revitalize the waterfront—and to rally the support of residents and private companies.”
Planners are now looking beyond the boundaries of the New Waterfront (or the Old Waterfront, which is lined by posh hotels). The new Holocaust Museum of Greece is currently under construction near the port area. Pier One, another site west of the Old Waterfront and the site of a former military warehouse, will soon be home to the National Museum of Contemporary Art. These waterfront developments, which may very well reorient the city’s center toward the port, show how Thessaloniki is embracing its status as the cultural capital of Greece.
Ultimately the goal of the 2030 plan is to ensure that Thessaloniki is an “inspiring, dynamic coastal city that ensures the well-being of its people and nurtures its human talent while strengthening its urban economy and respecting its natural resources.” The city’s already done that work. Going forward, the test will be whether this landmark can serve as a template for the rest of the waterfront.