The Lehigh River, The Waterfront, and the Blue Mind
From the very founding of Allentown as Northampton Town in 1762, to the great industrial boom of the 19th and 20th centuries, to today, the Lehigh River has played an integral role in the city’s success. As the natural heart of the valley, the Lehigh River is deeply intertwined with Allentown’s character making its accessibility important to linking Allentown’s people with their community and environment. While this great resource has a number of parks and access points, for years the decaying shell of Lehigh Structural Steel has shielded it from the city at large. All this is poised to change for the better with the development of The Waterfront.
As Allentown mayor, Ed Pawlowksi, told the Morning Call “The Waterfront is going to dramatically change the area for the better…We have real, live flowing water that you can kayak on, Jet Ski on and so forth… Unfortunately, the vast majority of people don’t know about it because we have this old industry that’s formed a barrier. So the development will certainly be transformational… because people love water.”
And people do love water. As we discussed in a past post, Wallace J Nichols, author of Blue Mind, argues that we are drawn to waterfronts because we reap a great variety of benefits by spending time in, near, or on water. To recount a few such benefits, bluespace in connected to increased self reported happiness levels; decreased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the bloodstream; increased cognitive function; increased physical activity; and increased overall health as connected to an increase in immune function, decrease in incidence of cardiovascular disease, and so on. All this simply by spending a few extra minutes a day within eyeshot of a water feature – thus making the opening up of the Lehigh River so important for Allentown.
First and foremost, the Waterfront development will expand Lehigh River access for Allentown residents, workers, and visitors. The Waterfront’s planned public spaces are designed with human-water interface at their very core. With the Riverwalk planned, replete with a river-facing open air amphitheater and public plazas, passersby will have the ability to stop and enjoy some time by the water. Blue Mind data suggests that these public bluespaces will directly increase the populace’s wellbeing. It also suggests that simply by building the Riverwalk and having it as a public resource, a higher proportion of people living near the river will engage in active lifestyle choices. Certainly, a run or an evening stroll is more enticing with a river view – especially since the Riverwalk will connect Allentown to 165 miles of the Delaware and Lehigh Heritage trail.
Historically, rivers have been arteries of trade and transportation, and, today, we can add recreation to that list. As the Lehigh is a long and diverse river, more access points mean connecting Allentown’s community members to the recreation resources up and down stream. Two planned floating docks for the North and South ends of the Riverwalk will increase direct access to the river and encourage engagement in watersports. These public docks can be used for recreational boating, kayaking, jet skiing, and stand up paddleboarding (SUP), amongst other pursuits, like fishing. The Lehigh River is well stocked with a variety of game fish including Trout, Smallmouth Bass, Largemouth Bass, Carp, Catfish, and more. It’s important to note that these watersports can prove therapeutic. Nichols cites case studies of veterans engaging in boating as a way to decrease symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
As research shows that taking a fifteen-minute break from work to sit and view water can decrease stress levels and increase cognitive function significantly, the Waterfront includes riverfront office buildings so workers and businesses can take full advantage of the tonic effects of the “Blue Mind.” This development will have the duel benefits of economic growth – with job creation, tax revenue for local municipalities, and worker efficiency – and good health – with employee’s benefiting from decreased cortisol levels and increased physical activity.
As the benefits of bluespace extend to man made water features, the Waterfront includes more than just the river. The Waterfront plans to maximize its capacity for bluespace by creating water features in buildings and plazas. The Furnace Street Plaza, located on the north end of the site, will include a lovely reflecting pool for people to enjoy. Though still in the design phase, each building planned will include its own unique water feature to create the soothing of effects of water while indoors.
In short, the Waterfront will create a myriad of opportunities for Allentown to reengage with the Lehigh River which is a resounding win for Allentown as a whole.
Nichols, Wallace J. Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do. Little Brown, 2014