Bradenton’s Riverwalk

USF’s School of Architecture and Community Design provides bold ideas to make the jewel of the city’s waterfront shine.


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (March 8, 2013) – Everyone who enjoys downtown Bradenton’s newest showpiece – the Bradenton Riverwalk – can thank University of South Florida students for some of its most enjoyable aspects.


School of Architecture and Community Design Assistant Professor Shannon Bassett’s “Urban Architecture and Landscapes” design workshop class contributed imaginative concepts and she said, “Over 50 percent of their designs and ideas were actually implemented by the project’s construction architects Kimley-Horn and Associates. That was such a wonderful experience for all of us.”


This 1 ½-mile stretch along the Manatee River, on downtown Bradenton’s north edge, instantly attracted all kinds of people: from the youngest to the eldest and every age in between – male, female, some with dogs, some with bikes, scooters, kayaks. Some stroll, walk, jog or run; others choose to sit, read, doze or simply watch everyone else. All around them the beauty of the river, the native greenery and the man-made structures – swings, chaises, benches, sculptures, interactive playgrounds – all extend invitations to linger and enjoy. 


“Our initial intent was to bring life to the place, to make it bloom,” said Adam Swirsk, a member of Bassett’s class, working for his master’s degree in architecture. “The place needed a dynamic atmosphere.” 


Fellow student Ashleigh Baird introduced an especially dynamic element with a skate park. 


“I remember a particular conversation our team had discussing the benefits of locating a skate park near the 'wellness zone' – as we called it – thinking the potential mixing of generations would create a much more dynamic atmosphere and get people interacting with one another on a whole new level,” Baird said.  “Looking at it today, it seems the design of the skate park as well as the overall layout of the waterfront will facilitate this very well.” 


One look at the scores of – primarily – young people taking turns swooshing up and down the undulating walls, intuitively orchestrating their jumps, twists and turns with amazing precision, and it is very clear there was a great desire and need for such space.


Also notable for their beauty and functionality are the shade structures, another student’s idea. Brennen Huller, a current SACD graduate student from Tampa, has had the experience of studying abroad in China as part of another design studio course offered by Bassett. It readied him for this project.


“I focused on the main issue found in our type of climate and that is the lack of shade,” he said. “By attempting to solve this issue, I found that a simple shading device can be much more. It can be capable of multiple functions and create interactions on its own. As an example, the shading device can morph into a bench and become anything from workout equipment to playground equipment.”



His original design was much larger in scale but of necessity had to be made less complex. “They interpreted the aspiration and designed a simpler shading device with an organic feel.”


The Bradenton Riverwalk showcases a lot of innovative thinking.


Open around the clock, the riverwalk features a Great Lawn, a 400-seat Mosaic Amphitheater, a Botanical Walk showcasing the area’s plants and flowers, a family fun zone, pavilion and event area, fishing pier, tidal discovery zone for observation of the ecosystem along the river's edge, shaded outdoor living rooms, a flex lawn for exercising, a beach volleyball section, kayak and canoe launch, a day dock and more in addition to the skate park.   


There’s plenty to delight the eye beyond the natural beauty. A virtual outdoor gallery competes for attention. Along the main walking path there are 19 pieces of art, nine “Postcards” that illuminate the rich history of the Manatee River, and hand-cast jewel-toned glass blocks along the railings.


The ears get their due as well. In addition to the laughter from children running through a colorful splash pad in the playground, an acoustic sculpture made up of two sound dishes that create different sound effects gets passers-by to stop by as does “Big Eyes, Big Ears,” another sculpture that functions like a periscope users can swivel to gather the sights and sounds.. 


“We concluded that timid strategies would not work, but rather bold new ideas had to be introduced,” Baird said. “I have visited the site after the completion and seen some of our bold ideas actually realized. They worked great!”


Bold was exactly what Realize Bradenton Executive Director Johnette Isham was looking for when she reached out to USF School of Architecture and Community Design Director Robert MacLeod. She was attracted to USF’s concentration on sustainability and its orientation toward protecting the environment.


“Realize Bradenton and the Downtown Development Authority understand the value that collaboration with colleges and universities brings to opportunities to strengthen the downtown core,” she said. “Students and faculty challenge us with big ideas that are based on research and examination of what other communities have taken advantage of in the development of their downtown areas.”


Bassett points to the benefits to her class of architecture students.


“They learned about landscape and ecology, integrated them with their disciplinary training in architecture and came up with provocative designs. The low-impact design strategies, which are good for the environment, actually secured a significant grant from environmental agencies to implement the design. These interdisciplinary collaborations are valuable lessons for students and city agencies alike attempting to implement and fund large-scale urban design projects for their cities and remediate the environment.” 


Just about every feature has roots in the students’ imaginations.


“During our initial analysis of the site we had identified multiple zones along the waterfront, and these zones seemed to lend themselves well to use by people of particular age groups or demographics,” Baird said. “One of our biggest goals was to mesh together these different zones in an effort to bring everyone together at once so that they could really feel a stronger sense of community.”


As designs turned into reality, Bassett’s students received a once-in-a-lifetime educational experience.


Baird added, “It was a real confirmation that our ideas about urban design were not just interesting, but that they had real-world applications and could be used to improve the community as well as enhancing the use of the waterfront.”


And it was Bassett’s approach to teaching that made it possible.


“She could get you brainstorming on so many different levels while still allowing you to maintain focus on your biggest goals - not to mention giving you freedom to test whatever crazy ideas might pop into your head. Her classes were intense, but always great fun and you walked away better for it,” said Baird.


The good feelings are mutual.


“The final design presentation to the city of Bradenton – including the citizens, elected officials and mayor, constituents and stakeholders was, in one word, electric,” Bassett said. “It was standing room only. It was an intense class and the students all rose to the occasion and just went for it. 


“My research and teaching focus largely on landscape and ecology as urbanism and as a new method for reading and designing the contemporary North American city. Bradenton was an incredible city to work with, they were open to bold and innovative designs and incredibly efficient as they got the project approved, funded, completed and opened in a relatively short period of time,” Bassett added. “As a teacher, what is especially gratifying is to see the design principles and concepts implemented and experienced in real time – it is truly special.”


So impressed were those involved in the Riverwalk project that they are welcoming USF input yet again.


Bradenton’s Village of the Arts is contemplating its next level of evolution. The community of restored 1920s-era homes has a large number of working artists who open their studios and galleries to visitors during the neighborhood’s ArtWalk on the first Friday and Saturday of every month.


Skwirsk is working with Bassett on this second cooperative effort of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority and Realize Bradenton and will be presenting design schemes at the second of two town hall meetings March 18.


“At the first Town Hall meeting, we listened closely to residents’ concerns,” Bassett said. “We are integrating these within the framework of issues I explore in my research, which includes developing alternative methods of reading, mapping and designing the city. These methods lie at the intersection of architecture, urbanism, landscape and ecology. Inherent within this framework is the premise that these strategies are more sustainable and compelling as place-making.”


The good impressions left on Bradenton’s boosters extend northward and closer to home. Bassett has been commissioned by the City of Tampa to do a design study for its Riverwalk along the Hillsborough River. 


Bassett has taught Urban Architecture and Landscapes design workshops for the past three summers. Her design workshops in the past two years after the Bradenton Riverwalk project focused on the Tampa Riverwalk. For the Hillsborough River’s downtown portion, students came up with a series of unique ideas. 


All of the students’ plans focused on creating continuous pedestrian walkways and boardwalks linking the existing as well as proposed spots along the river. Bassett calls it “stitching” the disparate and disconnected neighborhoods and no-man’s-lands between Channelside, Curtis Hixon Park, and the Trolley Barn.


The students would like to see the river serve as an additional “pedestrian lane” where water taxis shuttle people between various points along the Riverwalk. Perhaps most unique was a series of schemes that “softened” the edges of the river for water activities by removing seawalls to create floodable landscapes. Such approaches would create improved habitats for marine life and wildlife.


They hope to see at least a few of their ideas gain some traction as plans move ahead. Bassett was invited by the City of Tampa Office of Economic Development Opportunity and the Riverwalk Development manager to work on a grant to come up with some ideas for master-planning, shade structure design and programming.


With the Bradenton Riverwalk on their collective resume, Bassett and her students, Baird, Huller, Swirsk, and their classmates Daniel Alderman, Krista Bennett, Steven Flositz, Dominic Furlano, Sergei Klein, Marcel Maslowski, Richard Meacham and Michael Stallings certainly can point to a model project to show where bold ideas can lead.


“In the end, the students are able to point to a $6.2 million project they played a part in creating,” Bassett said. “Everyone benefitted from the process – the students and the community.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.