Reviving Great Lakes waterfronts for fun and profit

A new report finds that the economic benefits of cleaning up post-industrial waterfronts are huge — and that such efforts could pay even bigger dividends in the future 
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 16, 2019
a waterfront industrial building
After efforts by governments and local activists, the International Joint Commission removed Collingwood’s harbour from its list of “areas of concern” in 1994. (istock.com/chrisboy2004)

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The shipyard in Collingwood closed in 1986, but the memory of the industry remains. A local brewery is named for the way ships used to enter the lake. The names of the ships that launched from the Canadian Steamship Line yard are literally built into the streets, where sidewalk plaques memorialize vessels both merchant and military. And the site itself is now home to the Shipyards condominium development.

This recovery didn’t happen naturally, and it didn’t happen by accident: it was the result of efforts by governments and local activists to clean up the area and revive a prime portion of the town’s waterfront.

In the 1970s, the International Joint Commission (an agency, run jointly by the United States and Canada, that regulates the Great Lakes) began listing highly polluted “areas of concern.” Collingwood’s harbour received the designation in 1977 thanks to its high levels of industrial pollution and its sewage-treatment plant, which was dumping large amounts of phosphorus into Georgian Bay.

“We ended up spending eight years looking at a treatment plan,” says Gail Krantzberg, a professor of engineering and public policy at McMaster University who was named the coordinator of Collingwood’s remedial-action plan in the 1980s. The plan recommended, among other things, upgrading the sewage plant, introducing new forms of dredging to remove polluted lake sediments, and restoring Black Ash Creek, which drains into the harbour. In November 1994, Collingwood was officially de-listed as an area of concern.

The following year, the town celebrated the success with a Harbour Day party, which included a boat tour of the harbour.

“The then-mayor of Collingwood, Ray Barker, who’d lived there all his life, came to me and said, ‘Gail, for the first time in my life, I can see the bottom of the harbour,” Krantzberg recalls.

A new report from the International Association of Great Lakes Research, co-edited by Krantzberg, lays out the economic benefits of watershed rehabilitation, citing projects from both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the Great Lakes. (Canadian examples include Hamilton, Toronto, and the Severn Sound, which is home to Penetanguishene and Midland.)

The cost involved hasn’t been small: Hamilton has spent $40 million on harbour restoration since 1990 and is dedicating another $139 million to the remediation of contaminated sediment; in Severn Sound, $35 million was spent on restoration programs between 1991 and 2002; when Waterfront Toronto was founded in 2001, $1.5 billion was earmarked for municipal, provincial, and federal shore-land revitalization projects.

But, as the report notes, those costs have produced real benefits. Hamilton projects that its restoration will generate roughly $914 million through recreational water use and new government revenue by 2032. Toronto’s waterfront redevelopment has already led to more than $6 billion in tax revenue from new development projects. And Collingwood estimates that the shipyard redevelopment will result in $900,000 in ongoing annual revenue.

“The cleanup of the sediment cost $1.2 million,” Krantzberg says. “So, in less than two years, that money has already been recouped, and it’s all going back to the town.”

And, she notes, “It doesn’t include tourism revenue; it doesn’t account for fishing licences, since people can fish safely in the harbour.”

A 2018 study by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative found that such projects delivered roughly the same stimulus effect per dollar as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the primary post-2008 U.S. stimulus package) — even though their primary purpose hadn’t been to create jobs. It’s worth noting that, while stimulus policies can be politically fraught, funding for the Great Lakes Restoration remains broadly popular in the U.S. Congress, in large part because of local community support.

Increasingly, cities and towns around the Great Lakes are also trying to market themselves as “climate refuges,” communities that will have mild weather and abundant fresh water even as other parts of the continent — and the world — become less hospitable. In Ontario, Sault. Ste Marie’s pitch for the Amazon HQ2 competition included the fact that long-term projections indicate that the northern steel town will remain relatively untouched by climate disasters.

Krantzberg says that climate migration isn’t just a marketing invention — and that it’s something governments need to prepare for.

“The growth in the Great Lakes region could escalate quite rapidly, as people move from places without water to places with water,” she says. “We’re not shipping our water to Phoenix; if people from Phoenix want to live here, they’re welcome. How do we plan for that?”

She says that in order to make room for population growth — and to prevent it from reversing restoration successes such as Collingwood’s — governments will need to invest in planning and infrastructure, especially when it comes to controlling floods caused by increased rainfall.

“That’s one aspect of what climate change could do to our region that would move us backwards if we don’t plan for it now,” she says. “Yes, it’s a lot of money. But if we don’t do it, it will be even more expensive.”

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