State of the Beach/State Reports/IL/Beach Access

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Illinois Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access76
Water Quality65
Beach Erosion6-
Erosion Response-3
Beach Fill6-
Shoreline Structures7 3
Beach Ecology1-
Surfing Areas35
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


In many coastal states, the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM) defines the boundary between private property and public beach and water. This is not the case in Illinois. Private property and riparian rights along the Illinois coast extend to the calm water shoreline and migrate landward or lakeward with changing lake level (Illinois case law: Brundage v. Knox, 1917).

The “public trust” doctrine, which goes back to Roman times, declares that waterways are inherently public, and cannot be sold even if the sovereign wants to. The first U.S. court to articulate the public trust was the New Jersey Supreme Court, in a case involving oyster beds. “[W]here the tide ebbs and flows, the ports, the bays, the coasts of the sea, including both the water and the land under the water…are common to all the people,” the N.J. court said in the 19th century case of Arnold v Mundy. Each person, it added, “has a right to use them according to his pleasure.”

The U.S. Supreme Court embraced the doctrine in 1892 in Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, which involved the attempt of the Illinois legislature to transfer shoreline along Lake Michigan to that corporation. Public trust lands are “held in trust for public uses,’ the Court said; and these uses are “always paramount.” The railroad didn’t get the land. In another case, the Supreme Court embraced the “ebb and flow” rule, which defines the area of public access to that defined by high and low tides.

However, this still leaves the potential problem of private owners blocking access to beaches. What good does it do to own a beach, if a row of private houses stands in the way?

Illinois, like Wisconsin, tends to favor property rights over public access. See, e.g., Beach Cliff Bd. of Trs. v. Ferchill, 2003 Ohio 2300 (Ohio Ct. App., Cuyahoga County May 8, 2003); 312 IND. ADMIN. CODE 1-1-26, 6-1-1 (1996); Schulte v. Warren, 75 N.E. 783 (Ill. 1905).

An article in the Chicago Tribune on August 9, 2005 summarized the current, somewhat confusing situation regarding policies for beach access along the Great Lakes.

No line in the sand on beach rights; Confusion reigns in state on public access to shore

By Sean D. Hamill

A recent Michigan Supreme Court ruling guaranteed the right to stroll along all Great Lakes beaches in that state.

But even though Illinois environmental groups believe the law is the same here, they don't expect a court ruling to clarify that point soon. Confusion remains over exactly where private property lines end and the public's begin, and several fences on the North Shore reinforce the point.

"Part of the reason it hasn't happened in Illinois is that virtually the entire lakefront of Chicago is open to the public," said Shannon Fisk, staff attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. "And the North Shore has its share of beaches."

In the Michigan case, which resulted from a land dispute involving a property owner along Lake Huron, five Supreme Court justices ruled July 22 that people can walk, run or fish anywhere between the water's edge and what is considered the ordinary high water mark.

That is farther than two other justices, in a minority opinion, wanted to grant access, allowing people to wander only from the water to the wet sand beside it--the "keep your feet wet" standard that allowed homeowners to shoo people off the beach.

The ruling solidified the "public trust doctrine," said Keith Schneider, deputy director and founder of the Michigan Land Use Institute.

"This case showed that the public trust doctrine is the law of the land, that there are certain resources on Earth held in common by all people--the sea, the air and the shoreline," he said.

There has not been a major ruling on the public trust doctrine in Illinois since 1990, when a dispute over Loyola University's attempt to build into Lake Michigan went to court and U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen ruled that the lake bottom was part of the "public trust."

A case similar to the one in Michigan "just hasn't come up," said Cameron Davis, executive director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes in Chicago, who was involved in the Loyola case. "I was surprised the Michigan case was a case at all. Most of this is pretty settled [legal] stuff right now."

But north of Chicago, where public beaches intermingle with palatial homes and at least one private club's beach on Lake Michigan, it is clearly unsettled.

Davis and Fisk believe that in Illinois the high water mark is the point at which the public access ends, not the wet sand.

However, Doug Gaynor, Evanston's director of parks, forestry and recreation, said that after private homeowners asked last year whether people they found on their beaches were trespassing, the city researched the issue.

"The interpretation we've been going on is you have to keep your feet in the water," Gaynor said. "If someone wants to challenge us, OK, we'll deal with it."

At the north end of Evanston, Northwestern University has a private beach, open only to students, faculty, staff and members of its athletic complex.

Though there is a small slice of city land next to it that could provide access to the university's beach under the "high water mark" standard, Alan Cubbage, a university spokesman, said there haven't been any disputes over the years.

"It has not been an issue," he said. "Sometimes we have to kick [NU] students off the beach [after regulated hours], but that's usually it."

At Lee Street Beach in Evanston, where the south end of the city's beach abuts a series of homes with their own beachfronts blocked from the public, being able to walk along the entire lakefront made sense to a lot of people on the beach last week.

"I've never thought about that," said Patricia Caldwell, who was with her three young children. "But where we're from [in Peru], you can walk along the beach for a long, long time, so I guess it would be nice."

Evanston resident Susan Struve said it's no surprise there have been few disputes in the city.

"Beach accessibility is very important to me," she said after cooling off last week with her children, Natalie, 6, and Katharine, 10 months. "But in Evanston there's certainly more than 50 percent of the lakefront is Park District land, and there's public access, so I don't know that it's much of an issue here."

That has been true for Mary Ann McGrath, who, with her husband, Bob, has owned the home on Edgemere Court right next to Lee Street Beach for 11 years.

They haven't had problems with people trying to come onto their small section of lakeshore but have fretted as people regularly tried to walk on the breakwall that separates their property from the city beach.

That led to them working with the city last year to erect a 10-foot fence that extends over the breakwall in an attempt to keep people off of it, though it also acts to bar people from their beach.

"We're not very territorial. Mostly, we just don't want anyone to get hurt," Mary Ann McGrath said. "I'm just happy that I can look out and see the lake every day. It's a gift I wish everyone could have."

In Chicago, the trustees of the Illinois and Michigan Canal Commission, when authorized to sell city lots in 1836, crafted a caveat that protected a portion of Chicago’s lakefront to be “forever…open, clear and free.” Preservationists and environmental champions, such as Frederick Law Olmsted and A. Montgomery Ward followed, establishing and preserving the lakefront for public recreation. This public use tradition was advanced by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward Bennett in their Plan of Chicago (1909). In 1973 the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance established a special lakefront district and mandates the City of Chicago to create parks along the entire Chicago Lakefront: “Complete the publicly owned and locally controlled park system along the entire Chicago Lakefront.”

Definition of a Beach

Although it can be easy to get consensus that a beach is a sandy area along the shore, for the purposes of coastal zone management it is important to clearly define what is meant by the term "beach." The degree of engineering along the Illinois coast requires defining a beach definition specifically for this coast.

An example of how engineering is relevant to the beach definition occurs along the Chicago lakefront. Segments of the Chicago shore are concrete promenades atop revetments with deep water marginal to the revetment. During summer, these promenades have assigned Chicago Park District lifeguards, deepwater swimming is allowed, and the concrete promenade is commonly used for sunbathing. The Chicago Park District and the public have at times referred to these concrete shore segments as "paved beaches."

For the Illinois Coastal Management Program (ICMP), presented here is a beach definition that is specific for the Illinois shore and is original to the ICMP. A beach along the Illinois shore of Lake Michigan satisfies the following definition:

A beach is the area of unconsolidated material (sand, gravel, pebbles and possibly cobbles), either naturally occurring or artificially placed, that has an upper limit either along the line of permanent vegetation or along the lakeward edge of any coastal structure such as a revetment, bulkhead, breakwater, groin or sidewalk, and a lower limit below water where sand persists across the lake bottom and calm-water depths are no greater than six feet.

This definition of a beach does not rely on whether or not swimming is permissible. Excluding the element of "swimming" from the definition avoids the complication of the seasonal aspect of swimming and recognizes that along some public beaches, for safety reasons, swimming may not be allowed. The depth limit of six feet relates to this commonly being the shallowest depth contour shown on nautical charts (six feet is equivalent to one fathom). The six-foot depth is also the extreme limit to which a very tall person might be able to wade in calm water.

This definition of a beach makes no reference to lake-level elevation. Because the lake level of Lake Michigan is continually in flux, this beach definition means that the width of the beach will vary with changing lake level. Times of higher lake levels will result in narrower beaches; times of lower lake levels will result in wider beaches. This definition also recognizes that some beaches along the Illinois coast, in part or in whole, may exist due to the artificial placement of sand to nourish or create the beach. No distinction is made between artificial (engineered) and "natural" beaches. Because of the abundance of shore protection along the Illinois coast, beaches are not a ubiquitous coastal feature. Some sections of shore may have no beach such as where the lake water directly intercepts a breakwater, bulkhead or revetment and the local shoreline occurs along the structure.

Public beaches are those beach areas that satisfy the above definition and that are owned by a municipal, county, state or federal government. Although public beaches along the Illinois coast typically allow public access, this does not necessarily mean unrestricted public access. For example, there are permit requirements for access to the southern beach in the South Unit of Illinois Beach State Park as a means to manage human impact in this area of designated nature preserve. In addition, many of the municipal beaches along the North Shore require beach passes, tokens, parking passes or other access controls as a means to manage the beach areas specifically for municipal residents or those from other municipalities willing to pay for the use privilege.

Distinction Between Public and Private Beaches

Public beaches along the Illinois coast are owned by government agencies. In contrast, private beaches along the Illinois coast are owned by riparian owners. Riparian ownership along the Illinois coast occurs predominantly in the North Shore communities (Lake Bluff to Evanston) and also occurs at a few localities along Chicago’s far North Side and far South Side lakeshore.

According to Illinois Supreme Court case law (Brundage v. Knox, 1917), along the sections of Illinois coast having riparian ownership, the boundary between public and private ownership is the still-water shoreline. Above (i.e., landward of) the still-water shoreline is private; below (i.e., lakeward of) the stillwater shoreline is public. As the lake level fluctuates and the still-water shoreline shifts landward or lakeward, the boundary line shifts accordingly. The submerged part of the beach—the sandy lake bottom lakeward from the still-water shoreline—always remains in public ownership.

If there is a beach accretion of sand or gravel by natural or artificial means for which the riparian owner is not responsible, that accreted above-water beach area belongs to the riparian owner. The case law does not grant private ownership of any beach area resulting from the entrapment or retention of sand caused by the construction of any type of shore structure. Because of a long history of constructing numerous private groins along the North Shore, there are many such areas of accreted beach. Along these beaches, it is not always possible to determine where the correct boundary line is between private and public ownership. However, any beach area that is artificially accreted beach is legally public.

Also see Illinois Coastal Management Program Issue Paper Public Access and Recreational Resources.

Site Inventory

About 83% of the Great Lakes shoreline is privately owned, according to Drs. David Folger, Steve Colman, and Peter Barnes of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The map on page 3 of Chapter 5 - Shore Access and Recreation, which is part of ICMP's Program Document, shows "Public Beaches on the Illinois Coast of Lake Michigan Associated with each of the 15 Municipalities that are on or near the Lakeshore."

Distribution of Public Beaches along the Illinois Lake Michigan Shore

Engineering to make lakeshore parkland along the Illinois shore has resulted in much of the public shoreline consisting of revetments or bulkheads that preclude beach area. This is particularly the case along the Chicago and Evanston shore where stepped revetments (Chicago) or rubble-mound revetments (Evanston) extend along the shoreline of much of the lakeshore parks and there is no beach adjacent to these structures. The result is that the Illinois coast has a much greater extent of lakeshore parkland and public space than it does extent of public beach.

The most extensive reach of continuous public beach is six miles along the shore of the North and South Units of Illinois Beach State Park. In contrast, some of the neighborhood, street-end public beaches along Chicago’s far north lakeshore and several of the beaches along the filled land of the Chicago lakeshore may have a length no more than several hundred feet.

The only public beaches along the Illinois coast under county management occur at Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve, which is land that was the former U.S. Army’s Fort Sheridan. The only federal management of beach area occurs at Great Lakes Naval Training Center where beach area is accessible for base personnel but is not accessible to the general public. The majority of public beaches (33 named beaches) are along the Chicago lakeshore. Evanston has a total of six, Winnetka has four, and Highland Park has four. Both Lake Forest and Wilmette each have two. There are six municipalities with only one public beach (Zion, Waukegan, North Chicago, Lake Bluff, Glencoe and Kenilworth). The three municipalities of Winthrop Harbor, Beach Park and Highwood have no municipal beaches along the lakeshore. For Winthrop Harbor and Beach Park, this is because the lakeshore near these municipalities is state owned and part of North Point Marina and Illinois Beach State Park.

Public Beach-User Fees

The municipal beaches in Zion, Waukegan, North Chicago and Chicago all have unrestricted public access without user fees. In contrast, the municipal beaches of the North Shore communities (Lake Bluff to Evanston) have varied means of managing beach access. A user fee is a common management tool requiring the purchase of a day or season pass (or token) that permits beach use. There is a differential in fee rates for municipal residents and non-residents. Both the City of Waukegan and the City of Lake Forest do not require purchase of beach passes, but both manage access to beach areas by means of parking restrictions. The beach user fees are a long-standing practice for the North Shore municipalities. The fees provide revenue for staff costs, repairs and maintenance as well as assuring preference for municipal beach use to municipal residents who support these beaches through local taxing. Evanston is notable in having an agreement with the neighboring inland municipality of Skokie allowing Skokie residents to purchase Evanston beach tokens and passes at the resident rate.

State-Managed Coastal Zone Parks and Recreation Areas

Two state-owned and state-managed parkland areas occur within the boundaries of the Illinois coastal zone. These are located at the north and south extremes of the coastal zone. These two locations comprise a total of 3650 acres.

Illinois Beach State Park/North Point Marina

Located at the far northern reach of the Illinois coast and bordering the Wisconsin state line, this state coastal land consists of a total of 3070 acres in the state park, and an additional 140 acres at North Point Marina, of which about 70 acres accounts for the water area of the 1500-slip marina basin. Although the state park is commonly referred to simply as Illinois Beach State Park, based on an act of the Illinois legislature, the complete park name is now Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park. The state park and marina together comprise what is known as the Bill Cullerton Complex. Both the state park and marina are managed by the IDNR.

William W. Powers State Recreation Area

Located in the far southern part of the Illinois coastal zone, this parkland owned and managed by the IDNR borders Wolf Lake and extends to the Indiana state line. This recreation area, totally within the corporate limits of Chicago, includes a total of 580 acres of which 419 acres are open-water area and 161 acres are land marginal to the lake. This is a popular picnic and fishing site.

General Beach Access Resources

Maps and additional information on beaches along inland waterways and lakes can be found here.

Michael J. Chrzastowski of UIUC/Illinois State Geological Survey provided the following information (slightly edited) concerning beach access in Illinois:

The Illinois coast can be roughly divided into five segments that have different aspects related to public access.

  1. On the far northern part of the state shoreline is Illinois Beach State Park and North Point Marina. The park and marina are state-owned shoreline and there is generally unrestricted public access along the shore. The park is divided into a North Unit and South Unit. Beach access walking between the units is prohibited because this would require walking along a security-restricted beach fronting the decommissioned Zion Nuclear Power Plant. In the South Unit of the state park, access along the shore south of Dead River is by permit only because this area is a designated nature preserve.
  2. South of the state park, public access to the shore is available along the city of Waukegan and city of North Chicago public beaches.
  3. South of North Chicago is the lakeshore at the U.S. Navy’s Great Lakes Naval Training Station. No public access is allowed along this shoreline. However, the beaches and marina here are available for use by uniformed and non-uniformed personnel associated with the base.
  4. From the village of Lake Bluff south to the city of Evanston is what is commonly referred to as the “North Shore.” This string of municipalities has predominantly private residential lakeshores and there is no public access to the beaches fronting these residential properties. The restricted public access is mainly a logistical issue caused by the dominance of private property and the lack of public easements or right of way going down a coastal bluff to the shore. Public access to the lakeshore occurs at the one or more public lakeshore parks and beaches that each of the municipalities maintains. The beach use at these facilities is generally restricted for use by municipal residents either by requiring some type of seasonal beach-access token, beach pass, or beach-parking permit. Each municipality establishes its own rules and guidelines for beach access. Some of the municipalities have agreements with neighboring inland municipalities to allow these non-residents to purchase beach access.
  5. From Evanston south to the Indiana state line is the Chicago shoreline. A symbolic shoreline length for the city shoreline is 30 miles. Other shorter lengths are sometimes reported because of the complexity of the shoreline crenulations, promontories, lagoons and small-boat harbors resulting in different methods in measuring the shoreline distance. The history of the Chicago lakefront involves more than a century of sustained efforts to maximize public access to the shoreline along lakefront parks and beaches. Today all but four miles of the city lakeshore has public access. An effort underway by the Chicago-based Friends of the Parks (FOTP) is promoting what is called the The Last Four Miles Project which is considering options for providing public shoreline access along this last non-public segment. For all the beaches and park shoreline in Chicago, there is unrestricted public access for residents and non-residents.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a Website which identifies 14 outdoor swimming facilities, seven of which are beaches. For each site, detailed information is provided, including directions, a site map, and a list of facilities and designated site activities.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources prepares the Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP) to guide the conservation and development of Illinois’ outdoor recreation resources. Providing parks and open space systems that are resource-compatible and serve the needs of all citizens is the ultimate goal. The 2009-2014 SCORP also presents policy direction for the Department’s local recreation grant programs.

The Chicago lakefront is a string of parkland that extends along nearly all of the city's 30-mile shoreline. Public access along the water's edge is provided by the Chicago lakefront bike path and by stepped revetments that extend along the water's edge.

Here's information about the 27 lakefront beaches managed by the Chicago Park District. There is also a Lakefront Trail Map that shows all of the beaches and support facilities.

The USACE took oblique images of the entire Great Lakes shoreline (USA portion only) in 2012 by plane and has provided the images for free online. Once you’ve opened the webpage, select a Great Lake (or river) of interest to you by checking the appropriate box in the left-hand window pane. You may select or deselect a particular state as well. To view an image of interest to you, zoom into the area on the Google satellite map (in middle), and then select a spot along one of the colored lines that you’d like to view. Note that each colored line represents an individual pass of an airplane. Once you select a spot along the line, a window pane on the right will appear showing you the image of that exact spot on the map. Double clicking the image will enlarge it and offer metadata. If you scroll up and down and select different images in the right-hand window pane, your camera icon on the satellite map will move along with your picture change.

Beach Attendance Records

Information on beach attendance in Illinois was not readily available.

Data on beach attendance may be available through the Chicago Park District and/or the park districts for each of the other municipalities located along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Economic Evaluation of Beaches

Researchers from the University of Chicago performed an economic study of the the value of a day at the beach in 2004-2005. Using the results from a survey of 1500 Chicago beach goers in the summer of 2004, this study provides information on beach use, including a description of visitors and their preferences for beach and lake front amenities. An economic model of the demand for beach trips was used to calculate of the value of spending a day at the beach, the seasonal value for Chicago beaches, and the lost value associated with swim bans. Additionally, non-market valuation was employed to compute beach goers willingness to pay to reduce swim bans by 50 percent. The estimated per-person value of a day at the beach was estimated at $35, which is higher than estimates for other beaches in the U.S. or the value for a day at a Lake Erie beach. The total seasonal value for beach goers in 2004 was just over $800 million, and over $1 billion in other years with higher attendance. The lost value to individuals who would not visit the beach in the case of a swim ban totaled over $17 million for the season, and is likely much higher since additional sources of lost value exist. A comparison of valuation techniques shows the various sources of value for Chicago beaches, including use value from swimming, non-use value from knowing the beaches and water are clean, and the values associated with preserving the beaches for future generations.

An analysis of jobs in the Great Lakes region by Michigan Sea Grant published in 2011 shows that the Lakes are key to the economy of the Great Lakes states in many ways. More than 1.5 million Great Lakes-related jobs generated $62 billion in wages, in 2009. For the complete analysis, see: Great Lakes Jobs Report (PDF).

NOAA's Office for Coastal Management (OCM) has written a discussion of the recreational value of beaches, in the context of beach fill projects. In 2009 OCM released Introduction to Economics for Coastal Managers, a basic introduction to economic ideas and methods that can be applied to coastal resource management. The economic concepts provided in this introduction are illustrated through several case studies. Other OCM/Digital Coast publications can be found here.

The following two websites provide information on the economic value of coasts and the ocean throughout the country.

The National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP) provides a full range of the most current economic and socio-economic information available on changes and trends along the U.S. coast and in coastal waters. You can download data on jobs and GDP associated with specific types of coastal activities for each coastal state. You also can download data on commercial fishing and landings. The NOEP made public their fully updated Non-Market Valuation website in September 2008. The largest database in the world of studies documenting the environmental and recreational values of ocean resources, the website now includes 1) an updated methodologies section, 2) frequently asked questions, 3) examples of how Non-Market valuation influences public policy, and 4) an expanded table summarizing valuation estimates from across the United States. In 2014 NOEP released an updated State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2014, which points out that there is an imbalance between the economic importance of coasts and coastal oceans and the federal support for stewardship of these resources. According to the report, coastal states supply over 81 percent of American jobs and contribute $13 trillion to the economy, or 84 percent of GDP. More on this here. The National Ocean Economics Program previously released State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2009, which presents time-series data compiled over the past 10 years that track economic activities, demographics, natural resource production, non-market values, and federal expenditures in the U.S. coastal zone on land and water. The report states that coastal states account for more than 80 percent of the U.S. economy. The most recent report released by NOEP is the State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2016. The Center for the Blue Economy (CBE) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey now houses the National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP).

The website of Restore America's Estuaries has a report The Economic and Market Value of Coasts and Estuaries: What's At Stake?. According to the report, U.S. coasts and estuaries that have been protected and managed in a sustainable way are worth billions. Beaches, coastal communities, ports, and fragile bays are economic engines that drive and support large sectors of the national economy. The report focuses on aspects of coasts and estuaries that are most dependent on ecologically healthy conditions. The authors also examined a growing body of research that reveals the economic consequences of environmental change in coastal and estuary ecosystems.

A report A Review and Summary of Human Use Mapping in the Marine and Coastal Zone was published in December 2010. This report was prepared by ERG for NOAA's Coastal Services Center. The report evaluated different methods and approaches to measure human uses of the coastal and marine environment. The uses were divided into 1) military and industrial uses, 2) consumptive uses (e.g., fishing) and 3) non-consumptive activities (e.g., swimming, surfing, kayaking).

The economic value of beaches can increase or decrease due to a number of factors, including beach width; the presence or absence of amenities such as parking, restrooms or lifeguard services; the suitability of the beach for activities such as surfing or swimming; and the presence or absence of pollution and beach litter. In June 2014 NOAA published an infographic on the high cost of marine debris based on the report Assessing the Economic Benefits of Reductions in Marine Debris: A Pilot Study of Beach Recreation in Orange County, California, which was prepared by Industrial Economics, Inc. for NOAA's Marine Debris Division. It found that having debris on the beach and good water quality are the leading factors in deciding which beach residents visit. Reducing marine debris by even 25 percent at beaches in and near Orange County, California, could save residents approximately $32 million during the summer by not having to travel long distances to other beaches. Beach characteristics were collected for 31 popular Southern California public beaches from San Onofre Beach to Zuma Beach. Orange County residents were also surveyed on their recreation habits, including how many day trips they took to the beach from June - August 2013, where they went, how much it cost them, and which beach characteristics are important to them. The results provided in an estimate if how much Orange County residents would potentially benefit, including how often they visit beaches and how much they would save in travel costs, over a summer season by reducing marine debris at some or all of these 31 beaches. The study focused on Orange County because of the number and variety of beaches, their importance to permanent residents, ease of access, and likelihood that marine debris would be present. Researchers believe that, given the results, the study could be modified for assessing similar coastal communities in the United States.

For additional general discussion of the economic impacts of beaches, please see the article Economic Impact of Beaches.

Perception of Supply and Demand

The residents of Lake and Cook Counties in Illinois have the benefit of numerous locations that provide access to the Lake Michigan shore. There is also the benefit of a variety of recreational opportunities and the in-place infrastructure that many of these recreational opportunities require. However, there are considerable planning and management challenges to reach the full potential of public access and recreation along the Illinois coastal zone.

Four elements of planning and management are important in the effort to address public access and recreation. These are:

Maintaining Existing Access and Recreation

Maintaining existing access and recreation along the coastal zone is prudent coastal stewardship. This involves the repairs and maintenance needed to counter naturally occurring aging and deterioration. Walkways, shore-protection structures, lighting and landscaping are only a few examples of the numerous items that will require periodic repairs and maintenance. This attention must be planned for and efficiently executed.

Areas that border existing access and recreation sites may have new construction, land-use changes, or changes in vehicular or pedestrian traffic flow that can have an indirect negative influence on existing coastal zone access and recreation. In an urban setting, such as nearly all the Illinois coastal zone, changes on the urban landscape are continual and can be rapid. Without consideration of potential impacts to coastal access and recreation, negative impacts can occur. The challenge exists for assuring the necessary communication and planning to avoid any detrimental impacts.

The agencies responsible for maintaining existing access and recreation along the Illinois coast and the inland waterways are diverse and span municipal, county, state, and federal government. Within a specific level of government, there may also be several different offices involved. For example, along a municipal beach there may be different access and recreation responsibilities for the municipal park district and the municipal engineering office. Identification of responsible agency or agencies must be determined on a site-by-site basis.

Enhancing Existing Access and Recreation

There is a continuing need to plan for and implement enhancements to existing access and recreation. Access in compliance with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990) is necessary. There is also the need to assure that access is equitable across the entire age spectrum from youth to senior citizen. Although beaches and lakeshore parks in Chicago can be accessed by an exceptional system of public transportation, the same cannot be true for the municipal beaches and lakeshore parks in the majority of the North Shore municipalities. Many of the North Shore municipal beaches are also of limited size, and efforts to expand municipal beach area would be beneficial to the beach users.

Signage is an important component of access and, in some coastal locations with a high proportion of Hispanic users, it is necessary to have multilingual signage in both English and Spanish. In a diverse urban setting such as Chicago, the potential exists for some specific coastal locations that are frequented by a large percentage of users other than English or Spanish speaking, and additional signage in other languages might be useful for safety or security.

The enhancement of existing access and recreation can have a variety of facets such as increasing user capacity, updating infrastructure, and improving site landscaping and/or aesthetics. In some cases, the enhancement of either access or recreation may not be mutually achievable. For example, the enhancement of a coastal area as a natural area may require restrictions on the type of access. Alternatively, enhancing recreation such as having beach areas designated for landing by Jet Ski users or other small watercraft may require limited or restricted use as a swimming beach. The necessary planning for enhancement of access and recreation resources needs to assure that there is appropriate balance across user interests.

Identifying Potential New Access and Recreation Venues

Chicago Shoreline with the Navy Pier on the left extending into Lake Michigan

One of the greatest success stories in creating new access and recreation along the Illinois coast has been the redevelopment of Chicago’s Navy Pier. What in the late 1980s was abandoned dock space and deteriorated buildings has been transformed into the most popular tourist destination along the Illinois shore as well as the entire state. The Pier has become home to several dinner cruise boats, theatres, dining establishments, conference centers, and specialty shops.

Navy Pier is an example of creating a new access and recreation venue specifically suited for the urban setting of the central Chicago lakeshore. The wider application of the example of the Navy Pier success is the opportunity to redevelop former commercial, industrial or transportation-related land for public access and recreation. Some of the greatest opportunities for identifying such new access and recreation venues occur in Chicago near the mouth of the Calumet River, along the Calumet River, and along the shore of Lake Calumet. Additional opportunities exist along the Inland Waterways. In Lake County, there is also significant opportunity for new access and recreational venues along former industrial and commercial land along the lakeshore at Waukegan and North Chicago.

In contrast to the "urban" access and recreation demonstrated by Navy Pier, there is also the opportunity for identifying new access and recreation venues that emphasize natural areas, greater non-fee access to the shoreline, and ecological improvements to existing recreation venues. An option is to identify methods of creating incentives for individual private landowners to allow access to, or at least across, their stretch of private beach. Incentives could include provision of additional policing, regular beach clean ups at no cost to the landowner, property tax breaks, and other options.

Commercial and industrial activities will have a long-term future in the Lake Calumet area and along most of the Inland Waterways. Commercial water transportation is an important economic factor along these waters. In addition, there is a long-term future for the Inland Waterways to continue to have a primary role in regional wastewater management. However, there are also untapped opportunities for access and recreation marginal to and along these water areas. The Chicago River system of the Inland Waterways (i.e., North Shore Channel, and North, South and Main Stem Chicago River) has unique opportunities because of its geography traversing to and from the heart of Chicago’s central business district. The coastal zone corridor along the Little and Grand Calumet Rivers has opportunities because of the abundance of Forest Preserve District land that may have potential for new access and recreation.

Planning For New Access and Recreation

Lake Michigan is an asset to all residents of Illinois whether they live in Lake or Cook Counties or in any of the inland counties. Future population growth in the Chicago metropolitan area requires that there be an increase in public lakeshore access to meet this population growth. New access and recreation resources will continue to be in demand, as there is continuing growth in an urban population interested in water-related recreational activities. The growing popularity of canoe and kayak recreation along the Inland Waterways is just one example of this growing interest. There is also interest in further interfacing the Illinois lakeshore and the Inland Waterways into the plan for the Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Trails (Openlands Project 2007). The challenge will be to do the necessary planning such that access and associated infrastructure are in place to meet the growth and increased demand for lakeshore access and recreation.

Illinois's Lake Michigan shoreline is a built-up and predominantly urban/suburban coast. Private lakeshore property along the North Shore precludes any changes in public access along this segment. However, the North Shore municipalities are continually looking at ways of improving their lakeshore facilities. Chicago is in the process of expanding some beach areas and the Last Four Miles Project is proposing new Chicago beaches. Chicago is the most aggressive of all Illinois coastal municipalities in improving and expanding public access.

Public Education Program

Work by Friends of the Parks (FOTP) and their Last Four Miles Project has been the most active effort in making coastal access an issue for the Chicago lakefront.

Contact Info

Michael Chrzastowski, Ph.D.
Illinois State Geological Survey Senior Coastal Geologist
ICMP Coastal Resources Coordinator
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
(217) 244-2194

Dan Injerd
Manager, Lake Michigan Management Sectionv Office of Water Resources
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
(312) 793-3123

State of the Beach Report: Illinois
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