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As city ponders the possibility, a brief history of urban beaches

Paris-Plages, a series of urban beaches along the river Seine in France that set the standard for most artificial beaches built in recent years

Posted on August 23, 2023

The artificial beach that Mayor Matthew Shoemaker has proposed building in Bellevue Park is hardly a new concept.

Shoemaker first floated the idea of a man-made beach recreation area during last fall’s municipal election.

Last month, city council voted unanimously to look into it.

A SooToday review of urban beaches in other cities has found that simulated beachfronts have been around for at least nine decades, but the idea really began to catch on about 20 years ago in France.

We found many of the sandtastic urban beaches recently built, proposed or under construction are part of revitalization megaprojects.

For purposes of this article, we’ve defined an urban beach as an artificially created recreational area within a city.

Our review didn’t include natural beaches, which have existed since the dawn of time.

London, England

As early as 1934, there was a man-made beach on England’s River Thames near the Tower Bridge.

At the official opening of Tower Beach that year, King George V decreed “free access for ever” to the sand beach for the children of London.

The Tower Beach was an immediate success. Five hundred visitors a day were expected, but initial turnouts were 10 times that, with as many as 50,000 reported on one bank holiday.

From 1934 to 1939, it drew half a million visitors.

It also attracted sizeable crowds after World War II.

The beach was permanently closed in 1971, amid safety and pollution concerns.

Now, as then, what’s left of the beach is owned by the British monarch, so King Charles controls access to the once-popular site.

There are few remnants of the original sand used to create Tower Beach, just a muddy, pebbly river bed adjacent to a pathway at the Tower of London.

Paris, France

There were other early urban beaches, temporary installations for festivals or art projects, but the idea didn’t really take off until 2002 in France.

That’s when the Paris-Plages (Paris Beaches) were launched by a socialist mayor who was anxious to ease the suffering of those Parisians unable to escape to seaside resorts, who had to spend the summer in France’s notoriously hot capital city.

Paris-Plages’s seasonal man-made beaches, installed for two months each year on the Georges Pompidou Expressway along the river Seine, were quickly embraced by tourists and locals.

Their design and programming set the standard for most artificial beaches built since then.

The Parisian beaches offer sand, palm trees, mulberry trees, lounge chairs, beach umbrellas, even a pop-up library.

Other features include swimming pools suspended over the Seine, kayak stations, free evening concerts and dancing.

Paris-Plages had four million visitors during its initial year.

Since then, pop-up beaches have been added in other parts of the city, including the Bassin de la Villette.

Sault Ste. Marie

In 2018, Kara Flannigan, a Green Party provincial candidate, proposed building a massive domed indoor beach on the Sault waterfront, similar to the Tropical Islands Resort in Berlin, Germany.

To be constructed inside a converted Nazi airship hangar, the 66,000-square-metre German theme park was so large the Statue of Liberty could have fit inside it, standing up.

Flannigan argued that such a development could enhance local food security with an indoor fish farm and facilities to grow edible crickets and mealworms.

“Because it’s warm, moist and high humidity, with bright lights, it works for seasonal affective disorder and mental health,” Flannigan said.

Mayor Shoemaker

Flannigan’s idea went nowhere at the time, but last year, now-Mayor Matthew Shoemaker proposed a domeless urban beach during his successful municipal election campaign.

Earlier this month, Ward 5 Coun. Matthew Scott and Ward 1’s Sonny Spina, acting on Shoemaker’s behalf, presented a resolution proposing city staff investigate the possibility of an urban beach at Bellevue Park.

“Urban beaches offer an accessible space that simulate a public beachfront through the utilization of sand, beach, volleyball courts and other related features,” the councillors said.

Their resolution passed unanimously.

Mayor Shoemaker made clear that he was proposing a non-swimming beach.

“We are not encouraging swimming in the St. Marys River,” he said.

“They can relax with a book without having the extensive travel time of going to the Pointe des Chenes beach.”

Shoemaker said establishing an urban beach at Bellevue Park could be more complicated than just hauling in truckloads of screened play sand.

He said the project may well have environmental obligations.

Toronto – HTO Park

Toronto’s popular man-made beaches actually started as an environmental initiative, capping 5.68 acres of contaminated soil on the city’s industrial waterfront, sealing the toxins under 5,250 cubic yards of soil.

The City of Toronto currently has two man-made beaches on its Lake Ontario waterfront and is planning a third.

Toronto’s first was HTO Park, a six-acre park and public beach that opened in 2007 at a cost of $10.5 million.

The unusual name is meant to riff on H2O (the chemical formula for water) and TO, a widely used abbreviation for Toronto.

“We developed an urban beach that encourages residents and visitors to rediscover the water, luring them from the hustle and bustle of the city,” says landscape architect CCxA.

CCxA describes the beach atmosphere as “a modern re-enactment of Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte (1884-1886), with its bright colours, play of light and shadows, and sense of peaceful refuge.”

HTO Park is credited with retaining 100 per cent of annual rainfall on-site.

That’s eight million gallons a year, filtered and gradually released into Lake Ontario.

Since the park was built, the number of fish species in slips adjacent to the park has risen from six in 2007 to 11 in 2014.

Sixty-five per cent of visitors to HTO Park come from outside Toronto.

Fifty-seven per cent of visitors say they come because of the beach.

Toronto – Sugar Beach

Three years after HTO Park, Toronto opened Sugar Beach in 2010, another CCxA-designed artificial beach.

Situated on a triangle-shaped waterfront property a stone’s throw from the Redpath Sugar Refinery, Sugar Beach is known for its candy-floss-coloured pink umbrellas.

“The omnipresent horizon of the lake and adjacent industrial buildings recalls Georges Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884),” CCxA says.

“Tinted by sugar spray carried on westerly breezes from the neighboring Redpath Sugar Factory, a series of hard rock candies with coloured stripes and dozens of pink umbrellas are scattered across a sandy wedge of beach along the Jarvis Slip.”

The two-acre park cost $14 million.

Among other features are a barge-mounted inflatable screen used for open-air cinema screenings.

Toronto – Whisky Beach

Further east on the Toronto waterfront, a third urban beach is planned near the popular Distillery District.

It will be part of a large mixed-use community including residential, office, retail, and cultural space.

The development is on the former site of a rat-infested, post-apocalyptic shantytown where hundreds of squatters occupied land on which Home Depot wanted to build a superstore but was denied by the Ontario Municipal Board.

Publicly accessible spaces of the massive project include the urban beach and a 14-metre-high so-called “whisky fountain” that, for better or worse, will spurt only water.

Montreal – Clock Tower Beach

Designed by the same architect behind Toronto’s three urban beaches, Montreal’s Clock Tower Beach charged an admission fee when it opened in 2012.

Today, it offers a wooden boardwalk, lounge chairs, parasols, tons of silky sand and a festive atmosphere: all for no charge.

There are great views of the St. Lawrence River, Jacques-Cartier Bridge, Île Sainte-Hélène and Old Montréal.

Lansing, Michigan – Rotary Park

Lansing’s $1.8-million Rotary Park was built in 2019 without a solitary dime of taxpayer expense. Thank you Rotarians, who were the largest contributors.

In addition to a man-made riverside beach, the popular attraction now includes a kayak launch, a lighted forest, a big fireplace and a concert venue tucked under a bridge.

It’s open to the public from dawn to dusk, with 24/7 security cameras providing after-hours protection.

Omaha, Nebraska

An urban beach will open this summer at Omaha’s Lewis and Clark Landing, on what used to be little more than bare concrete.

The new beach will include fire pits, volleyball courts, long logs and bleachers.

It’s part of a $400-million, multi-year, public-private transformation of three riverfront parks that officials are hoping will encourage even more spin-off investment in downtown Omaha.

Madrid, Spain

What’s expected to be Europe’s largest urban beach is scheduled to open early in 2025 in Madrid, Spain.

The artificial beach will be just one part of a massive surf park using wave-generation technology developed by the Spanish company Wavegarden.

The development will also feature a surf school, surf shop, beach bars, a skatepark and features for young children.

It’s expected to provide a year-round training facility that will be home to national and European teams.

Wavegarden surf parks have previously opened in Brazil, Switzerland, South Korea, Australia and two in the United Kingdom.

New projects are currently underway in Brazil, Australia, southern California and Scotland.

Wavegarden parks often have an artificial sand beach component.

Manila, Philippines

You don’t necessarily need sand to make an artificial beach.

A recent beach nourishment project undertaken by the Philippines Department of Public Works and Highways instead used crushed dolomite: a translucent mineral made up of a carbonate of calcium and magnesium.

After debris was removed from a 500-metre section of Manila Bay, two layers of ordinary sand were laid down, then overlaid with crushed dolomite.

Environmental and health issues have been raised about use of the mineral as an alternative to natural beach sand.

The dolomite has already been replaced more than once after adverse weather conditions.

Another 400 metres is expected to be added to the Manila Baywalk Dolomite Beach.

New Westminster, BC 

Most of the urban beaches we researched for this article were well received in their communities.

A beach built on a timber wharf at New Westminster Pier Park in British Columbia won some big awards but didn’t end well.


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