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What's the Point of a Swimless Beach?
Justin Robertson: "Without a place to cool off, HtO Park is the world's biggest tease"

Toronto’s HtO Park. Image via flickr
A few weeks back, Toronto Star revealed Montreal’s latest urban addition at Old Port: an urban beach. It’s a beach that gives you the impression for a fleeting moment you are not in a bustling city, a place where you can bury your feet in sand. It looks, feels and has all the trimmings of a natural beach: sand, umbrellas and deck chairs. The only problem though, you can’t swim from it.  Yes, that’s right, no swimming.

Toronto has a swimless beach. Two in fact: a park called HtO and Sugar Beach. Both are situated among the concrete jungle of the Harbourfront. One is right on the doorstep of the Redpath plant, the other is cornered between hotels, condos and a congested highway. Here’s the sad news: neither are swimmable. Sugar Beach at least has splash pad to keep you cool; HtO has a place where you can clean the sand off your feet. But what does one do when things get stuffy? The inner child in everyone would like to cast off into the blue Lake Ontario. But you simply can’t.
It’s the world’s biggest tease.

So, apart from injecting the city with a beachy feel and an alternate landscape, what’s the actual point of a swimless beach? 
…Leslie Coates, manager of waterfront parks and special projects for the city’s Parks, Forestry & Recreation said when Janet Rosenberg and Claude Cormier’s HtO Park opened in 2007 (part of the Waterfront Revitalization Project), it was made with the intention of creating a “playful way to experience being at a beach” within city limits. Rosenberg said, she felt Toronto had turned it’s back on the waterfront for development north of the city, so the new artificial beach was a way to connect people with water. The nucleus for the design of HtO  — mainly the yellow umbrellas — was taken from the Georges Seurat oil canvas “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” a painting that depicts crowds of people reading books, men sitting on blankets with their dogs on the grass and women dressed elegantly hoisting umbrellas enjoying a summer’s day down by the water.

On the weekend I took a stroll down to HtO to speak with sungoers (who were part of the small percentage that stayed in town during Civic Holiday) on why they use the urban beach. With the temperature hovering in the 30s, the harbour was a frenzy of activity: canoeists paddling, yachts gliding across the water and ferries were chugging. On land, it was quiet. Twenty or so patrons on the beach were observing the summer chaos, reading their books, lathering on sun tan lotion and watching cyclists trickle by.

Robert Murray and Cathy Bairt, pensioners from Glasgow had been walking around the city and needed a place to sit. They had been to Toronto Island twice for a “cool off” and thought HtO Park was a “delight”. I asked them if it a tease that beach was so close to water you couldn’t swim in. “If we were younger, swimming in the water would be nice, but because we’re older, we just wanted to find a place to sit by the water,” said Bairt.  Widagdo from west end Toronto, who was there with his wife and toddler, said it was his first time and found it a great muse for kids. “He (his son) gets to dig holes in the sand,” he said. “But I see this more of a park, than a beach.” One man in his 20s (who did not want to be named) uses the beach frequently to sunbake said for an artificial park with beach features, we shouldn’t expect too much from it. “If you really want to both — swim and lay in the sand — there are places to do that. HtO is not that place. But, if all you want to do is lay around the sun for a while and read, like you would in a park then it’s the perfect place.”
But here lies the problem for urban beaches and places like HtO:  the idea comes with half of what people need. How about a place to cool off? Yes, there is a place to wash off the sand from your feet, but it’s not as reinvigorating as a swim. And what about the space? HtO on a busy day is hardly a place to be throwing a Frisbee or kicking a soccer ball. It’s a shoebox.

A kid cools off at Chicago’s Millenium Park. Image courtesy of Justin Robertson.

For all its charm and physical attractiveness, HtO lacks the ability for patrons to get wet. The torment of being so close to a stately body of water and not be able to enjoy it (or any other kind of water amenity) is enough to drive you, well — away. I hail from a beach suburb in Melbourne, Australia and having access to clean water on a beach means you don’t have to move anywhere else. It’s practical. I spent my summers with friends sitting next to a cooler stocked with a cocktail of drinks and 90 per cent of my time in the water throwing tennis balls and catching footballs. Toronto has an abundant of swimmable beaches, public spaces where you can do all these things at, but swimming is not the issue at play here. When you chose to build an urban beach near inaccessible water, at least think of ways to cool patrons down on a large scale — or, somehow make it a gladdening experience.

To be fair, the city of Toronto never intended HtO to be a swimming beach. For one, there is no swimming allowed in Lake Ontario’s inner harbour, where the shoreline is dominated by yachts, sailing vessels and ferries. And, the water quality is varying and simply too hazardous for Torontonians to swim in. If you did want to get close to the water, adjacent to the urban beach sits decks of canoes and kayaks where you can paddle out in the lake. But, if it’s a swim you crave, Toronto Island is just a ferry ride away equipped with four blue flag beaches.
One thought to consider is that urban beaches are a relatively new experiment. The first, which has been part of a movement, started in France in 1996, in the suburb of San Quentin just outside of Paris and was probably the first modern urban beach built outside city hall. Next was Paris-Plage, built on the Seine River, which followed suit six years later. It was built to relieve Parisians from the sweltering summers, a place to feel like they’re somewhere else outside the city.

But it’s places like Havneparken (Copenhagen), an industrial set of harbor baths,that make you envious of the ample swimming choices. Built in 2002, the baths have five pools and can host up to 600 people. It has pools for kids, diving boards and two 50m swimming pools; not to mention it can host open-air concerts. What about places like Chicago? Right, smack bang in the city, inside Millennium Park is a giant concrete slab.  At each end, like book ends, two tall rectangles sit spewing water out onto the ground. On the floor, water spurts out from dozens of holes. Kids try and dodge them to no avail. On the other hand, swimming aside, Berlin has transformed its River Spree frontage into a string of beach bars, cafes and restaurants.

A good ten minute walk away from HtO you do come across restaurants, pubs and stage areas for concerts, but in the age of having everything at your doorstep, why couldn’t there have been a kiosk, or a bar or built in sprinklers in and around the park? Opposite HtO, where the Beer Store and carpark are, could be prime real estate for some beachy pub establishments. Think, strips of watering holes like in places such as Fort Lauderdale or Miami. Even Ottawa just launched an urban beach right on the banks of the Rideau Canal, not as big as say Sugar Beach, but it comes equipped with a restaurant-patio bar only metres away. You could argue that the Waterfront has a long list of locations to whet your whistle (and it does) but at HtO it is bone dry. You may as well be in the Mojave Desert.

Toronto gets a tick for thinking outside the box with HtO. It could have been just another green park but they opted for an urban beach which injects life and colour into what is now seen as a condo jungle in those parts of the city. Too, it’s well supported by the public; Torontonians love it as I witnessed over the weekend. But, if you’re going to embark on crafting a swimless beach, at least make it jocular and lively or, inject water-cooling jet streams for the masses, like there is at Sugar Beach. After all, HtO is named after the water element H2O.


Justin Robertson is a freelance journalist from Toronto. His work has appeared in The Walrus, National Post and Toronto Standard. Follow Justin on Twitter @justinjourno

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