Riverfront Park is a model for how to breathe new life into treasured but aging civic icons while honoring generations of cherished memories and crafting a forward-looking public space.
In the heart of downtown Spokane, thundering waterfalls mark where Spokane Valley meets the eroded great gorge of the Spokane River. The site is a sacred gathering space and historic fishing grounds of the Spokane Tribe. It became the city’s birthplace as settlement was drawn to the power of the falls and was later exploited for industry. A forward-looking vision reclaimed the site for the 1974 World’s Fair (Expo ’74), the first environmentally themed World’s Fair. After the World’s Fair, the grounds became Riverfront Park, permanently transitioning the 100-acre site from industrial landscape to park.
As the new century arrived, Riverfront Park began showing its age as venues, programming, and infrastructure declined. In support of change and investment, Spokane’s citizens passed a bond. Following an ambitious national call for a landscape architect, the city selected Berger Partnership, a Seattle landscape architecture firm, to lead the park’s reimagining from master plan to implementation.
Geologies, Ecologies, and Cultures
Opened in 2019, the reimagined Riverfront Park celebrates regional geology, ecology, and culture. The underlying basalt rock that defines the region is integrated in landscape elements. Native ponderosa and understory replace lawn and eastern hardwoods. Enhanced views and improved access reconnect city to river and reintroduced riparian plantings soften the river’s long-hardened, concrete shorelines.
Recalling the site’s industrial and railyard past, “Big Steel,” boldly colored custom utilitarian stock steel furnishings that mimic the site’s former railcars, and “Big Wood,” unapologetically chunky wood detailing, flourish as site furniture and details.
The Spokane Tribe was integral to the design process as part of a concerted effort by the city to forge a more rich and genuine relationship. Snxʷ Meneɂ (sin-hoo-men-huh) or Salmon People Island, a basalt outcropping between two falls and one of Riverfront’s most dramatic destinations, was renamed Snxʷ Meneɂ (Salmon People) by the tribe and serves as a place of storytelling, recognizing the Spokane as a living culture experiencing new growth and success.
Spaces, Places, and Programs
The south bank is the park’s downtown gateway with marquee attractions including the restored Rotary Fountain and historic 1909 Looff Carrousel. A new bridge with terraced seating and steel-grated cantilevers provides visual connection to the river. Simple planting, curvilinear paths, and serpentine basalt seat-walls seamlessly unify park elements.
The Expo ’74 pavilion, which has long defined Spokane’s skyline, was reimagined with programmable “light blades” that generate spectacular nightly light shows for the community and includes an exciting new elevated experience where visitors ascend universally accessible catwalks with never before seen views to the river and downtown.
A new promenade links the park north to south from downtown to the arena and beyond. Its angular route aligns with park features while crossing three river channels with unique bridge experiences. With permanently integrated infrastructure, the promenade hosts pop-up programming and festivals.
Treating and mitigating extensive soil contamination onsite healed the formerly industrial landscape. LID features treat stormwater that once flowed into the river. Incorporating and displaying native materials and ecologies educates visitors and builds community pride in the landscape’s natural riches.
Culturally, the park once again provides powerful, memorable experiences as the treasured heart of the region, strengthening the connection between Spokanites and their river. With universal accessibility and experience, affordable family entertainment, and free and low-cost programs, the park serves all community members. Even as COVID undermined planned events, the park and staff nimbly responded with new safely distanced activities that allowed Riverfront to remain a vital gathering place.
Riverfront’s success has reshaped the city’s psyche by building pride in place and becoming a catalyst for a strengthened forward-looking can-do spirit.
Reimagining Riverfront Spokane (Riverfront Park Spokane)
Landscape Architect: Berger Partnership
Client: City of Spokane
NAC Architecture (Architecture and Electrical Engineering)
Dark Light Design (Lighting Master Plan)
Land Expressions (Local Landscape Architect)
Garco Construction (Design-Build Contractor)
Hill International (Owner’s Representative)
Walker Construction (General Contractor)
GuildWorks, LLC (Pavilion Shade Canopies)
Photography: Built Work Photography, Miles Bergsma, Fly With Beck