We are Water | Evanston residents overwhelmingly support free beach access

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We are Water Evanston is a community-based participatory research project that explores our relationship and concerns with water. Local water activists and educators from the Citizens’ Greener Evanston’s Watershed Collective and researchers from Northwestern’s Center for Water Research came together in early 2020 to better understand water challenges in the city to inform evidence-based solutions.

This is the first part of a series of eight articles. In the series, we share some of our key findings and calls to action on topics such as beach access, water experiences of insecure housing, flooding and green infrastructure, perceptions of drinking water safety, sources of water information and what it means to our community to live next to Lake Michigan. For more information on this series, click here.


Watching the sunrise, swimming and spending time with family and friends are just a few of the many activities residents enjoy at Evanston beaches, according to interviews with 75 Evanston residents year-round. last. We are Evanston water, a community-based participatory research project exploring the city’s relationship to drinking water and Lake Michigan.

However, making memories at the beach isn’t an option for everyone in Evanston. Beach passes (formerly known as beach tokens) cost $10 for a single day or $30 for a seasonal pass, which creates a barrier to beach access.

Recent activism for universal beach access

Evanston Fight for Black Lives began advocating for free beach access earlier this year, raising awareness on Social Media on the inequity of the current system and to launch a petition campaign demanding free beach access for all, garnering over 6,000 signatures.

Evanston City Council then voted in May to declare that access to the beach would be free on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. The Council will also explore the possibility of making Evanston’s beaches free every day of the week for all residents in 2022, according to a precedent. Evanston Round Table article.

A Brief History of Beach Tokens

Evanston’s beaches were segregated until 1930, when Alderman Edwin B. Jourdain, Evanston’s first black alderman, worked to desegregate the beaches.

Evanston Beach tokens and passes. (Evanston History Center Collection)

However, in 1931, Evanston began selling beach tokens to white residents only, framing the tokens as a way to raise money for a “beachfront beautification program”.

Black residents could only access one rotating free beach, according to a recent article in The Daily North West.

When the tokens were put in place, Ald. Jourdain did not approve of the new system, according to a civic leader interviewed by We Are Water whose identity was kept anonymous for research purposes.

“Ald. Jourdain was offered a token, and his response was, “If those tokens aren’t available to my people, then I don’t want them either,” the civic leader said.

Resident Perspectives on Beach Access

Universal beach access resonated strongly with the 75 residents surveyed from July to December 2020, more than half of whom expressed concerns about the current beach token system. Many wanted free access to the beach. “I feel like the lake is for everyone,” said one resident. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about it, and because of that, there’s a system where people have to pay to get access to a body of water that’s for everyone. I think that’s ridiculous.

Interviewees often discussed beach tokens from an equity perspective, which revealed why many Evanston residents support universal beach access: increasing access among racial groups and socio-economic.

For example, one resident shared his belief that beach tokens continue to exclude black residents, noting that “I think it has a lot to do with class and race and segregation. I feel like [universal beach access] would be like another fix, and another way to give back to the community is to stop laundering the [expletive] edge of the lake.

Some interviewees described beach passes as prohibitively expensive with no reference to race. One resident told us the high prices made it expensive to buy passes for his whole family: “I have four members of my family and when I add it all up, I’m like, shall we go to the beach often enough to make it worth it?” Some interviewees mentioned that they regularly visit beaches other than Evanston due to their lower cost.

Although the City offers free tokens to residents who qualify for Parks and Recreation Fee Assistance, a local religious leader we interviewed, said many people may not know how to access these tokens, which creates another barrier for low-income residents.

Outside of the fight for fair access to the beach based on race and socioeconomic status, some residents simply wanted the lake to be free as a public good. One resident cited the spiritual benefits of the lake: “People don’t live on bread alone,” they said. “They also have a spirit, and everyone needs to relax and get away from their troubles. I think the lake is one of them.

Concerns about universal beach access

While most residents we interviewed supported universal access to Evanston’s beaches, 11 had reservations about the beaches being completely free. These interviewees were most concerned about non-residents of Evanston using “our beaches”. One resident, for example, was in favor of providing free tokens to residents of Evanston, but noted that free beaches would mean crowded, “flooded” beaches.

Another resident expressed safety concerns that would come with an increase in bathers: “I have a daughter, and if people come and we don’t know where they’re from, we don’t know them ? ” they said. “That would be very worrying.”

A recurring concern among those we interviewed was how the City would pay for maintenance, lifeguard services, or erosion control without the revenue generated from beach tokens. However, revenue from beach tokens/passes, which totaled $779,833 in 2019, actually goes into the City of Evanston General Fund, meaning it could be used for law enforcement, emergency services, public works, or parks and recreation, among other services.

Yet one resident said funding for these services should not come at the expense of residents who pay for beach access. “If our municipal budgeting has gotten to the point where we have to charge our beaches, for some weird reason they decided to do it, then our municipal budgeting has failed,” the resident said.

Potential solutions and call to action

Respondents came up with creative alternatives to the token system. For example, one civic leader suggested an annual tax offset while another resident emphasized prioritizing beach access for Evanston residents, charging only beach tokens for non-residents.

The general feeling that emerges from our research is the need for the beach to be open to everyone.

“If the answer is that completely universal free access would be problematic in any of those other ways, then you have to find a rationing mechanism, but until you show me that’s the case, my instincts is, yes, of course – free and open to humans, not just residents of Evanston,” a civic leader said.

We want to hear from you. Did this summer’s free beach days (Saturday, Sunday, Monday) change the way you accessed the beach, for better or for worse? How? ‘Or’ What? Please email [email protected] with your stories!

Readers interested in supporting universal beach access can sign Evanston Fight for Black Lives’ petition. They can also urge their local council member act to make the beaches free.

Follow We are Water Evanston on Instagram (@wearewaterevanston) and Twitter (@waterevanston).

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