We now know that the park doesn’t need a beach to succeed
If we want swimming, Bayfront isn’t the answer
We walk, roll and glide along curving paths as fresh breezes animate trees and bushes, framing views of Hamilton Harbour, where sailors and rowers skim across blue waters.
Bright swans, darting swallows and redwinged blackbirds draw the eye closer to shore and, from time to time, even a beaver comes into view.
From sunrise to sunset, people come to exercise, contemplate, meet, laugh and catch fish at Bayfront Park.
Since 1993, the park has served as both hopeful symbol and genuine reality of the harbour’s recovery.
Once, developers poured fill into the west harbour to create land they could sell. Instead, their plans were halted, the land was remediated and their project became a place that everyone could share.
The opening of Bayfront Park was a dramatic turnaround for generations of Hamiltonians who had grown up with almost no access to their waterfront, and little motivation to play there anyway.
Since then, the entire harbour has come a long way, and even before the completion of the Randle Reef containment project, much of the pollution that caused the harbour to be listed among the most toxic hot spots on the Great Lakes has been greatly reduced.
The one thing we haven’t been able to do much at Bayfront Park is to go swimming.
The man-made peninsula that is our park had opened with a promising experiment: a beach. But few have been able to use it, so the perpetually empty beach has become a sore point, leading to a municipal debate over what should happen there.
There is almost always too much bacteria at the beach to make it safe for swimming. In fact, the beach hasn’t met the harbour’s Remedial Action Plan target for safe swimming since 1999, mostly because geese and gulls use the shallow water and soft sand there as their toilet. Bacteria get trapped in the water and wet sand, creating a disgusting tea that has nowhere to go in its sheltered corner of the park.
Without wind to circulate the water, or plants to purify it, the beach remains unsafe for swimming, and its empty waters and forbidding signs suggest failure in the harbour.
In fact, science shows the opposite. Last summer, the Bay Area Restoration Council along with colleagues from McMaster University, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Royal Botanical Gardens gathered and analyzed dozens of water samples for bacteria, from every corner of Hamilton Harbour — or Burlington Bay, if you prefer. Except for a few sites, they came back well within safe limits for swimming.
We know for sure that the beach at Bayfront, as it turns out, is often an exception, not the rule.
There may be better ways to get wet in our harbour, such as deep-water swimming structures. Or by putting more resources into the beach at nearby Pier 4 Park, where wind, and water-circulation conditions are much more favourable and where it would be much easier to get more people safely into the water much more often. There may be better investments to make so that there are places the public can swim safely in the harbour.
Certainly, decades of action to clean the water justifies that we start planning such opportunities.
Perhaps there is an easy way to control the birds and clean the sand. But it might be time to let go of trying to make Bayfront Beach safe for swimming. It was a smaller experiment within the broader experiment of the park itself. Though the beach may not work, we now know that the park doesn’t need a beach to succeed.
It might even be time to let nature take over so the beach can be what it wants to be: a shallow-water, natural habitat that when naturalized, can speed up both the recovery of the harbour and the recovery of its reputation.
As the city ponders the report that it commissioned on the beach, it’s very important to remember that the harbour is in much better shape than it was when Bayfront Park opened. And with great improvements to our sewage treatment plants completed or in the works, we have the promise of getting much better than that.
If Hamilton wants to go swimming in the harbour, maybe it needs to pick a better spot than its man-made beach at Bayfront Park.
The beach at Bayfront Park in its typical condition: not suitable for swimming. Chris McLaughlin argues it might be time for a different direction.