Beach getaways are most often associated with cottage country or heading south for some guaranteed sunshine. For those of us unable to get away for more than a day at a time, however, urban beaches are our recreational water zones. But while city beaches and recreational water spots provide respite from concrete and traffic, they bring with them their own unique set of challenges.

In the U.S. and Canada, big cities are often situated on the shores of large waterbodies. Three such cities are Chicago, Boston, and Hamilton. And like many urban centres on the East Coast and Great Lakes, they have faced the familiar challenge of managing their city’s impacts on its waterways. Sewage and stormwater infrastructure, industrial pollution, and certain types of waterfront development have made the water in many cities un-swimmable, un-fishable, and un-drinkable.

Chicago, Boston and Hamilton are similar in that all three host large waterfronts. They differ in the challenges they face and solutions they use. From early development pressures, to the forced clean up harbours, all three showcase unique ways of safeguarding or revitalizing their water resources along with their reputation. While each city handled their unique challenges differently, their success stories set a precedent, and confirm how beneficial it is on many levels to make the health of a city’s waters a priority.

Chicago – a city with water at the forefront

Anyone who has visited Chicago knows that its waterfront along the shores of Lake Michigan is as much a part of its cultural identity as the big buildings that surround it. Unlike many other waterfront cities, Chicago had a long term vision back in the 1800s of the waterfront as a public space – one that would remain relatively free of manufacturing and transport. The vision focused on how Chicagoans could best make use of the lakeshore. This idea was championed by several important figures in the city’s history, some who went as far as to sue the city for development proposals along the waterfront. The city also received enormous amounts of private funding, which helped to ensure the success of its waterfront plans. Planning of this kind is rare, but it turns out that the champions of Chicago’s waterfront really did have a long term vision – one that several cities aim to emulate today. Today, the results of this vision are evident in the 24 public beaches available in the city, the safe drinking water obtained from its waterbodies, and the over 20 million visitors that add to its tourism economy each year.

Chicago / Photo by Alanscottwalker

Boston – historical cleanup leads to increased recreational water use

Boston, meanwhile, is a great example of a city that has worked hard to clean up a historic mess. Even just 20 years ago, Boston’s harbour (spilling into Massachusetts Bay) was dubbed one of the dirtiest in the U.S. Waste dumped into the harbour with limited treatment meant that beaches nearby were often closed due to high levels of bacteria that had the potential to make recreational water users sick. After years of government action that essentially stalled real progress, the city was forced by law to come up with a plan to clean up the harbour. Engineering feats that included additional treatment plants and the diversion of treated sewage from the inner harbour started to slowly change the status of the harbour. Today, the beaches around Boston’s harbour are a hub for recreational water users. While there is always room for improvement, you’ll find paddleboarders, boaters and swimmers alike at its many beaches. The city has been successful in improving both its harbour and its reputation.

Boston / Photo by Leatherndevil

Hamilton – remediation in hopes for a cleaner future

Hamilton, on the other hand, is a city that is currently going through a remediation process to clean up industrial pollution. Hamilton is located in southern Ontario and traces the westernmost shore of Lake Ontario. It is home to Randle Reef which is the dirtiest site on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. Contaminated with industrial chemicals (PAHs – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), the site was designated as a significant Area of Concern (AoC) as early as the 1980s. PAHs have a tendency to slowly seep beyond the initial area of contamination, rendering the harbour unusable for Hamilton’s residents. After years of technical planning and regulatory approvals, work finally began in 2015 to contain the contaminated sediment and work towards the goal of cleaning up the harbour. The cleanup of Hamilton Harbour, and particularly the Randle Reef site will allow for increased water quality and recreational opportunities for the city. It is an opportunity for the city itself to develop a long-term vision for the harbour, with water and citizens at the forefront.

Hamilton Harbour / Photo by Mark Ziubinski

Why is it important to maintain our waterfronts?

Success stories are great, but we need to know what we’re actually aiming for. Why is it important for cities to maintain or enhance their waterfronts. Why can’t we just go ahead with business-as-usual?

There are many benefits for cities that choose to clean up their dirty beaches and harbours. Apart from providing clean, safe areas for recreation, clean beaches attract visitors and boost a city’s economy. They also provide jobs for local people and encourage pride in one’s city and community. In many places, such as the urban hubs along the Great Lakes, making swimmable, drinkable, fishable water a priority the source of clean drinking water for an entire population is better protected.

Leaving room for green spaces and beaches on a city’s shores also creates natural barriers to climate events such as intense storms. Parklands and beaches act as protective shields for our cities’ infrastructure by absorbing water and dampening high winds and waves.

Finally, active and healthy waterfronts encourage us to engage with our cities and our waters, never forcing us to choose between the two. The more we love our waters, the more we’ll seek to protect them. It’s an example of good begetting good.

As increased development causes city dwellers to seek new and accessible ways to reconnect with nature, urban beaches will only become more popular. Cities like Chicago, Boston and Hamilton are only a few of the ones that set the stage for demonstrating how thoughtful planning and a will from government officials and citizens can create urban havens in our backyards.

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