Expanding Equitable Shoreline Access

September 28, 2023, Department, by Tim Carter, CPRP

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If you recently have visited any of the city beaches in Evanston, Illinois, you may have noticed something new laying across the sand. The City of Evanston recently installed more than 1,000 feet of portable roll-out mats across all six of its Lake Michigan beaches. The large blue mats help make the trek on the sand easier for people who use mobility devices or anyone who may benefit from a firm and stable travel surface. Additionally, a 10-foot-wide roll-out mat was installed at the city’s launch beach — making it easier to launch sailboats, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards.

Last summer, new park and recreation department leadership evaluated the entire lakefront through an equity and inclusion lens. One area that staff wanted to address immediately was the lack of accessibility on city beaches. In 2022, the department only had one accessible swimming beach, and that was primarily due to a high-water level nearly touching the end of the boardwalk. Staff recognized the need to eliminate the barriers preventing people from accessing the beach. The department researched solutions and started dialogues with the public works department and other city departments on ways to secure funding and how to best install and maintain the new mats.

Plastic boardwalks were already in place at nearly all Evanston beaches, but in most cases, didn’t go down to the water’s edge because of the need to have the beach grooming tractor path clear and free of obstacles. Additionally, the parks and public works teams had a hard time maintaining and keeping the boardwalk planks level because of erosion and shifting sand. The departments wanted to get beach patrons as close to the water as safely as possible, as well as to address the maintenance concerns.

Exploring Options

After some research, the department learned that roll-out mats offered many benefits that the city was seeking. They allow sand to slip through without causing the mats to sink into the sand and enable the city’s beach groomer to drive over the mat without damaging the material. The material stays cool in excessive heat, and its bright blue color can assist people with visual impairments.

The department purchased the storage carts from the manufacturer, which makes the set-up and take-down processes relatively easy. City park crews roll out the mats in mid-April and roll up the mats in mid-October so that beach users can use the sand area before and after the water closes for swimming. The mats are stored at several of the beach shacks at the lakefront. Occasionally, staff need to use a mallet to drive the spikes back into the sand. Otherwise, it’s nearly maintenance free.

The entire project cost about $50,000. “The cost was worth every penny,” says Audrey Thompson, City of Evanston’s park and recreation director. “All people benefit from the [mats], from those with walkers and wheelchairs, to our aging population, and even those with strollers,” says Thompson. The new roll-out mats have been well-received by residents, and the city is already exploring the idea of adding “T and Y branches” to extend the paths across the sand.

Keeping An Eye on Equity

In addition to the new roll-out mats, the city purchased beach wheelchairs to use at three of its beaches. Depending on the usage in 2023, city staff may purchase additional beach wheelchairs for use at other beach facilities. What’s more, the Evanston City Council eliminated beach pass fees for Evanston residents in 2021, making it a free amenity for those who reside in the City of Evanston.

The parks and recreation department constantly seeks to improve and enhance all its facilities, programs and services and now has its “eye” on improving the accessibility of its picnic groves within the lakefront parks and at the dog beach. Currently, staff is working with a coastal engineering firm to research ways to install a new accessible concrete path that can withstand the brutal Lake Michigan storms and erosion.

The beaches are the gem of Evanston and they belong to everyone. All residents deserve the opportunity to access Lake Michigan and experience this beautiful natural resource.

Tim Carter, CPRP, is Division Manager for the City of Evanston (Illinois) Parks and Recreation Department.