They say that life’s a beach.
But just as improving life can be a challenge, so is improving a sandy stretch of lakefront.
That’s the costly reality facing Evanston, as portions of the Lake Michigan beachfront have been eaten up by rising waters, impacting not only the beaches, but also parkland nearby.
In 2020, the city installed temporary fixes for $750,000 … rocks and sandbags … along a mile and a half of beaches, to minimize erosion and prevent rising waters from inundating parks.
But temporary fixes are just that … short-term.
City Engineer Lara Biggs said “the temporary repairs are about stablization for a few years.”
So on Tuesday night at the downtown library, city officials and consultants laid out the issues with a series of pictures and charts, and asked members of the public what they like best about Evanston’s lakefront, what they’d like to see change over years to come, and what should be kept.
There’s little disagreement that action is needed, although what action at what location is still uncertain.
City resident Holly Robinson said “parks were created to give city dwellers access to nature and a respite from city life.”
She called Evanston’s beaches and lakefront parks “one of the city’s greatest assets.”
Ald. Melissa Wynne, whose 3rd Ward includes part of the lakefront, said “it’s critical that we do something to figure out a way to hold on to the shoreline.”
The 1st Ward also goes along the lake. Ald. Claire Kelly said “a lot of areas can be explored to make the lakefront more enjoyable.” Kelly said improvements could help lure more visitors from out of town, who would then spend money at Evanston restaurants and shops.
Over the past decade, the city’s consultants said, Lake Michigan has gone from record low levels in 2012-13 to record highs in 2020-21.
While the waters have receded a bit, allowing a little less urgency, there’s still little doubt that a long-term problem, made worse by climate change, will not just disappear.
Eight beaches or parks are under consideration for repairs. From north to south they are sites at the Water Treatment Plant, the newly reopened Dog Beach, Greenwood Beach, the Dempster Street Launch Facility, Elliot Park, Lee Street Beach, and the Sheridan Road Revetment ( a revement is a rock barrier).
About thirty people went from photo board to photo board, placing sticky notes with comments on various options, such as putting in an offshore reef, or having a boardwalk, among others.
Pamela Ferdinand, a science journalist, was not overly thrilled with any of the concepts, calling instead for the use of more natural components, such as plants which absorb water, and installing sidewalks which are permeable rather than those which create runoff.
“The more hardened a shoreline is,” Ferdinand said, “the worse you make it.”
Over the next year or so, the city’s consultants will review the input and come up with proposals and preliminary engineering plans.
That review includes survey responses from 1,300 Evanstonians.
Then the really tough part begins, at least for City Council, which has to decide what to do, and where to get the money.
While some federal funds might be available, the total price tag for all the work is just a guess right now, a guess no one wants to make without hearing from the consultants.
Even then, it could take years to get it all accomplished.
“The odds of us fixing everything are very very small,” said Biggs.
“But this is a start.”
I agree with the individual quoted in the article. The solution should in part be naturalizing and softening the lakefront. I thought it was now common knowledge that revetments increase erosion due to wave reflection… Look at some of the plans for Chicago’s lakefront, and Northerly Island as examples to follow. Also, our lakefront is completely uninviting for residents and visitors alike. Its walled off with little pedestrian permeability. This should also be part of the plan. How do we soften access to the lake and how do we naturalize the transition areas between the inland parks and the beaches.
Did anyone bring up the most pressing lakefront issue: allowing everyone to go topless at the beach?
That would be a “hoot” but might lead to significant erosion among families going to the beach.
To follow up on my comment, there are communities in the US and around the world looking at innovative ways to create sustainable, resilient waterfronts (lakes and oceans) with recreational areas and wildlife habitats. But first, they get the data they need to see specific impacts on distinct waterfront areas over time (because one area affects another) so that they know where and how to target resources for the best and longest term results.
Resiliency-minded planners also look at where critical infrastructure is sited (ie our water treatment plant) and whether it needs to be adapted or relocated. And they use materials such as permeable surfaces and soft, nature-based approaches such as living shorelines (http://www.keweenawreport.com/featured/eagle-shoreline-protection-is-fighting-erosion-in-the-great-lakes-with-living-shorelines/) to work with the water than fight against it.
Nantucket in Massachusetts, for instance, held a contest with designers, architects, students to come up with forward-thinking concepts, and there’s no reason we couldn’t do the same. That’s also a place where geotubes – similar to those proposed by the designers here – have been a tremendous failure in stopping erosion (https://www.savenantucketbeaches.org/gestures) and have, in fact, caused scouring.
Around the world, cities are looking beyond their shorelines to climate change impacts inland for a bigger picture approach. Rotterdam, for instance, is converting ponds, garages, parks and plazas into part-time reservoirs. They’re also revitalizing neighborhoods and improving equity to build social resilience to future water threats.
Some interesting links (and there are plenty more):
Evanston needs more than a landscape architect to solve this problem. Teaming up with environmental scientists or The Alliance for the Great Lakes could be a start to maintain and improve our beaches. There is no short term solution or a quick fix.
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