American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2006 Professional Awards
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Study area with neighborhood residences and topography. (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Historic image depicting the downtown as an integrated pedestrian urban environment; maps of the existing interstate location and future conditions once the interstate relocation is complete. (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Vision Plan (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Civic Realm – each neighborhood and district will have a landing on the water. (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Project Analysis. (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Street hierarchy and development framework. (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Downtown Districts. (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Promenade District: Existing conditions and new framework. (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

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Providence 2020 Plan, Providence, Rhode Island
Sasaki Associates, Inc., Watertown, MA

"An incredible exploration of urban design with a clear, strong vision. All cities should be so lucky. Beautifully done."

— 2006 Professional Awards Jury Comments

The Providence 2020 Plan links the valley to the bay along an arc of public waterfront parks and a spine of transit. The new definition of downtown encompasses 1200-acres along this crescent, embracing the traditional downtown as well as adjacent industrial districts. Building on unique characteristics of topography, access, and architecture, each district will be positioned slightly differently to attract investment and economic development, ultimately offering a variety of experiences. Waterfront landings in each district will welcome residents and other visitors into the continuous waterfront park system. A network of new streets will repair areas rent by infrastructure and will regenerate industrial zones. These pedestrian friendly streets will extend up to the neighborhoods on the surrounding hills, joining them to the life of downtown.

The goal of the project is to overcome the barriers of 19th and 20th century infrastructure and regenerate the languishing industrial districts that have dominated much of the waterfront. Providence is determined to position itself for the new economy, but new downtown development must be meaningful to the residents in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The purpose of the plan is to direct and shape private investment through consistent policies and targeted capital improvements. A fundamental underpinning of the current planning process has been to include public outreach so that this input can help shape the vision and the recommendations.

Providence is a city of many distinct districts, with residential neighborhoods occupying the high ground, overlooking the river valleys and the bayfront. In these low lying waterfront areas, industrial and commercial neighborhoods have traditionally dominated. Interstate highways and rail lines slice through the city isolating neighborhoods from each other and from downtown, and separating districts along the waterfronts. Over the years, a patchwork of plans has dealt with each district without ever looking at the connections and the relationships between the whole. Some districts are highly desirable for investment, while other areas languish. New proposals often exceed existing zoning limitations, raising the question of where to direct height and density. The residential neighborhoods on the surrounding hills currently feel disenfranchised from the downtown.

The commercial center, which grew up along the historic river port, features narrow streets lined with architectural gems. Over the last 20 years, public projects moved rails and river beds to restore a portion of the downtown riverfront for public access. In the adjacent downtown industrial districts, however, the waterfront is largely inaccessible: in the Promenade, the Woonasquatucket River is neglected and overgrown; in the Jewelry District, the Providence River is dominated by the highway and utilities; in Narragansett Landing, port activities over the years have left a residue of contamination, and several non-water dependent nuisance uses cluster there. The diminishment of industry in the City has left shells of buildings, vacant land, and brownfields. Without an adequate road network, many of these areas are relatively inaccessible.

The scale of new development and its parking has the potential to overwhelm the narrow streets and 19th century architectural fabric of the historic core in Downcity. Even in the surrounding downtown districts, the scale of medical research buildings and institutional expansion can be daunting. Allowing height and density in the surrounding downtown districts could threaten the preeminence of the traditional downtown and alter property values. Allowing height in the historic downtown seems out of scale.

Many plans have been developed over the years, but each one focused on a small geography creating a patchwork without physical or economic connections. In a city where downtown used to be the job center and the primary tax base, concern exists about the opportunity costs of ongoing residential development and institutional expansion. With the larger definition of downtown, priorities need to be established to direct private investors and to target public investment.

Reclaiming the right-of-way of an interstate in the heart of the downtown is a once in a lifetime situation. The vision for this land is hotly contested, while at the same time the new location of Interstate 195 creates a new set of barriers.

Design and Planning Concepts
The Providence 2020 plan sets forth a flexible framework for development integrating and anticipating the actions of the public sector, the private sector, the institutions, and the many non-profit organizations. Seven principles form the foundation for every recommendation in the plan. Within this framework, a great variety of decisions can be made over time to create the richly textured city, while still ensuring a shared vision of the overall outcome. The seven principles are summarized as follows:

  1. Connect the neighborhoods to downtown and to the waterfront.
  2. Link the Valley to the Bay with transit and a continuous waterfront esplanade.
  3. Position each district according to it unique assets to promote diverse mixed use environments.
  4. Create a network of pedestrian-friendly streets.
  5. Design parks and surrounding development as an integral place.
  6. Celebrate great architecture in both old and new buildings.
  7. Develop shared parking in strategic locations.

Part of the city's distinct charm is the variety of places that have grown up along the river valley and the bay: the Promenade District, Capital Center, Downcity, Jewelry District, and the Narragansett Bayfront. Different architecture, activities, and tradition make each area stand on its own merits. Opportunities for infill development, adaptive reuse, and new streets and parks are vast, suggesting that each district could host both residential and commercial uses as well as supporting retail and civic uses. The concept of 18-hour mixed-use districts with places to live and work in close proximity to the arts as well as services encourages a committed downtown residential community.

The continuous waterfront greenway will weave through each downtown district, punctuated by a series of distinctive park landings for the neighborhoods. While Providence has made great strides on its continuous waterfront parks, these efforts need to extend upriver to the Woonasquatucket River and down to the Bayfront. The distribution of new waterfront parks will make every neighborhood and every resident welcome to the larger recreational system. Walkable streets, for which Providence is already well known, will extend into the former industrial districts to create more permeable access and real estate frontage. The relocation of Interstate 195 offers the opportunity to create a seamless pattern of new streets, parks, and development blocks with an emphasis on connections down to the water's edge.

A transit spine will connect the head of the valley to the bayfront, following along the length of the waterfront. The concept for the transit line can evolve over time, beginning with a rubber-wheel trolley, expanding into bus rapid transit, and if driven by demand, eventually being replaced by light rail transit. Transit stops will be spaced about one half mile apart to collect a five minute walk zone. At a few key locations, intermodal centers will interface with regional bus service, the existing trolley system, and automobile commuters using nearby structured parking.

Looking to the future, the character of each district should be celebrated to underscore different strengths. In this way the districts will complement one another and lessen the threat to the traditional core of downtown. This approach will build a city with a variety of choices for living, many different destinations for visiting, and investment decisions based on physical and economic competitive advantages.

Process and Implementation Strategy
The goal of the planning process was to inspire joint action toward a shared vision. Leaders in every sector were identified and gathered in small groups and one-on-one meetings in January 2005. These discussions brought forward a range of issues, goals, and ideas from a broad base. Interest groups included neighborhood representatives, arts and cultural organizations, real estate developers, large employers, economic development entities, environmental groups, health care and higher education institutions, and State and City staff and elected public officials.

As the team synthesized the key issues and developed design concepts and planning strategies for implementation, these ideas were discussed with the community leaders and with the broader public. A series of events held in May and June 2005 combined open houses and public forums. The dialogue from these meetings shaped the urban design and planning recommendations of the Providence 2020 plan. Through a close working relationship with many of the community leaders, the plan was able to identify the appropriate roles and responsibilities for implementation.

The implementation strategy focuses on phasing and the designation of roles and responsibilities of the different involved entities. Unlike previous plans, the Providence 2020 plan addresses the greater downtown and prioritizes public investment across this broader area. In this way, the public and the private sector can target development to the appropriate district within the context of a schedule for improvements over a 15 year period. Phasing plans allow the involved stakeholders to focus their efforts, and direct capital budgets and fundraising for the immediate projects. The strength of the plan, however, is its flexibility to accommodate opportunity-driven projects and unforeseen situations within an overall development framework.

The Providence 2020 Plan provides the city, the developers, the institutions, and the many other stakeholders with a shared vision of connected downtown districts. Cities need a broader vision and a new set of rules to shape uneven development pressures for residential, mixed use, institutional and entrepreneurial business uses in a variety of inner city locations. The emerging districts can develop unique identities that complement the traditional core and create a multiplicity of places to invest, to visit, and to explore. Access to the water, so long denied, will once again be possible through the regeneration of derelict industrial land. Through this planning process, Providence will reclaim its position as a beloved waterfront city drawing energy from a new economy that thrives in the diversity of multiple districts joined to the heart of downtown.

Project Resources


Vanasse Hangen Brustlin

ZHA, Inc.


Community Development Planning: 
Barbara Sokoloff Associates, Inc.


Promenade District: Proposed Woonasquatucket River Restoration and Civic Realm. (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Downcity/Capital Center District: Existing conditions and new framework.  (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Downcity/Capital Center District: Proposed harbor Landing Park.  (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Jewelry District: Development framework and potential. (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Jewelry District: Proposed South Street parks and proposed plan. (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Bayfront District: Existing conditions and proposed framework. (Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

Access to the waterfront, mixed uses and well defined public spaces are key elements of the proposed Bayfront District. Photo by Sasaki Associates, Inc.)

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