From the whaling and fishing ports of New England to the commercial ports of the South and the Great Lakes to the Gold Rush ports of the Pacific, our waterfronts often have deep roots and important stories to tell. Utilizing a range of legal and funding strategies, government agencies and nonprofit organizations can preserve and restore working waterfronts with historic or cultural importance.

Local governments may designate through zoning historic preservation districts to control development in or around working waterfronts. Although the majority of historic preservation happens at the local level, through the tireless efforts of local historical societies and land trusts, the federal and state governments provide important legal protections for designated historic sites and funding through grant opportunities and tax incentives. Historic properties may be listed on the National Register of Historic Places or a state equivalent.

A historic designation can provide a number of benefits including the placement of limits on development, access to grant and funding opportunities, and increased public awareness and tourism revenues. There can be significant drawbacks, however, to a historic designation. There are often severe restrictions on how historic structures can be used and repaired, which decreases flexibility to adapt to future conditions. Communities need to carefully consider the costs and benefits of historic preservation before embarking on a working waterfront preservation initiative.