Water. We couldn't live without it; our bodies, I was long ago told to my uncomprehending amazement, are largely made of it. Of necessity we drink it, bathe in it, play in it and travel on it. Other than light, there is no greater gift than water to the planet, whose surface is, of course, mostly covered by it. And yet, up until quite recently, we in this country tended to ignore or, worse, to seal ourselves off from nearby bodies of water when building our cities.

This was mainly a coincidence: Our history is relatively short and corresponds roughly to the Industrial Revolution. If our early ports were lively -- today they'd be looked upon as miraculous mixed-use developments -- they gradually became less so as the scale of commerce increased. Despite the farsighted protests of some reformers, urban waterfronts became single-use districts. Waterfront land that wasn't occupied by great shipping operations or heavy industries was regarded as cheap leftover space for city dumps or prisons or maintenance facilities -- things we'd rather not see or think much about.

So when one thinks about cityscapes, it becomes clear that one of the more dramatic, positive attitude adjustments of the postindustrial age is the new look cities are taking at their rivers, lakes, sounds, inlets, harbors. Consider this: If two decades ago a little organization called the Waterfront Center had issued a call for entries in a juried competition for "Excellence on the Waterfront," the response would have been complete bafflement. Oh, the folks out in San Francisco, proud of their new Ghirardelli Square, might have sent in some slides and, had they done so, would have won by default. But basically, back then, the concepts of excellence and waterfront didn't compute.

Last spring, however, the Waterfront Center -- a six-year-old, 900-member operation with a staff of two -- did announce such a competition, and everyone understood what it was about. More than 100 entries from 34 states and five Canadian provinces were received. From these the seven-member jury, on which lay persons outnumbered design professionals, selected 18 winners in seven categories. The very range of the winning entries, which were announced here yesterday, is evidence of a corner turned: They come in all sizes and degrees of complexity; some are famous and some unknown (beyond, say, a 50-mile radius); some are hard, citified, active, and others soft, green, passive. The crucial common denominator is that each signals a rebirth of community pride in a prime economic and social resource.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., one of two Top Honor Award winners (the other is the justly renowned Harbour Town by Sasaki Associates on Hilton Head Island, S.C.), is a case study of the causes and effects of waterfront revival. The aquarium itself was brilliantly conceived and beautifully designed (by Julie Packard of the Packard Foundation and architect Charles Davis of the San Francisco firm of Eshrick Homsey Dodge and Davis): As a regional aquarium it focuses upon the marine life of the bay it faces, and as a brand-new building it decisively takes its design cues from the character of a neighborhood made world famous (or perhaps infamous) in "Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck.

The fate of Cannery Row, though specifically due to the disappearance of its principal lifeblood -- sardines -- in the 1940s, mirrors that of many commercial, industrial and port facilities in the postwar era. With businesses being wiped out by a changing economy, waterfront sites and buildings were simply abandoned and then neglected or mistreated in various ways. In Monterey, the last of 23 canneries packed into a mile-long stretch of bayfront closed in 1973, leaving local landowners, merchants, planners and citizens perplexed, like their counterparts in countless cities across the land.

And in Monterey, as elsewhere, redevelopment occurred sporadically. Only gradually did the awareness dawn that, if the community as a whole -- scuba divers as well as hoteliers, residents as well as tourists -- were to benefit from this now underused waterfront, the process had to be guided by an overall concept for the public good. The aquarium, modeled to an extent upon the proven success of the National Aquarium in Baltimore (which also won an award), is a dramatic signpost of the right way to go.

Festival marketplaces, mimicking the success of pace-setting developments such as Ghirardelli Square or, in Boston, Fanueil Hall, have been the preferred form of large-scale, tourist-oriented waterfront development. Several of these -- in Toledo, Miami, New Orleans and Portland, Ore. -- were selected by the jury. In Miami, a nondescript plot of land on Biscayne Bay was reclaimed; in New Orleans, an abandoned brewery was restored and added to in exemplary fashion; in Portland, retail operations were commendably woven into a new, clustered residential development that brings a piece of the city to the very edge of the Willamette River.

But such marketplaces, though undeniably beneficial, have become the waterfront cliche'. Despite superficial differences, there's a certain strident sameness to them coast to coast. Those who share this feeling can take heart from the citizens of Portland, Maine, who ran the Rouse Co. out of town in favor of attempting to maintain and strengthen their "working" waterfront, and also from the variety of these awards.

There's obviously a lot more to the remaking of a waterfront than simply converting cleared land or old warehouses for use by boutiques and the ubiquitous clusters of food stalls. Those new marketplaces destined to have longer-term impact function as key parts of a larger scheme of things. In Boston, for instance, Faneuil Hall was conceived as one stop in a sequence, a "walk to the sea" starting at the new government center and ending in a multipurpose waterfront park, which, not incidentally, received one of these awards.

Boston, in fact, has been a model laboratory for the new discipline of urban waterfront reclamation. The prize-winning park abuts Long Wharf, a reconditioned shipping facility that has become a centerpiece for a rapidly diversifying population of boats in the harbor -- it can accommodate rowboats, motorboats, sailboats and 300-ton commuter vessels. One estimate says there will be more than 2 million waterborne commuter trips annually in Boston by 1990, and as a Boston architect has observed, "working boats, the working waterfront, the lobstermen, are very much alive and well and will remain in the harbor."

There are, too, communities out there with the good sense to realize that only minimal alteration is necessary to make certain waterfront areas accessible to the public. In Corpus Christi, Tex., a 22-acre wildlife preserve was discreetly improved by an 800-foot boardwalk lifted over the tops of the beautiful marsh grasses. In Portland, Ore., where obviously they think highly of their river and do well by it, an abused, leftover spit of land was remade into a place where humans, plants and wildlife beneficially coexist. The details here caught the jury's eye: New plants were chosen not simply for their prettiness, but also for their value to birds; basalt boulders were employed to stabilize the river's edge, and also because they "shelter fingerling salmon against predation."

Ann Breen and Dick Rigby, who together left the Commerce Department six years ago to start the Waterfront Center, thoughtfully structured the competition to make sure that modest but excellent projects such as these would qualify. Supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, this is the first of an annual waterfront awards program. The fact that Breen and Rigby, who should know, are confident that the stock of quality projects was not depleted this year is indeed upbeat news.