Ten Threats: Protecting Crumbling Shorelines

  • This is a private beach Charles Shabica developed for a homeowner on Chicago's North Shore. The grasses in the background are native to the area and help stabilize the beach and bluff. They also help trap and filter runoff. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is changing how the shoreline interacts with
the lakes. Humans like to improve on nature. For example, we like to build things to
protect our property. Protecting a home from forces like wind, water and soil erosion can
be a tough job and expensive sometimes. But if your property is along the shore of a
Great Lake, it can be especially difficult. Reporter Shawn Allee looks at one engineer’s
effort to protect lakefront property and nature:

Transcript

We’ve been bringing you reports from the series ‘Ten Threats to the Great Lakes.’ Our
guide in the series is Lester Graham. He says the next report looks at protecting property
and protecting nature:


One of the Ten Threats to the Great Lakes is changing how the shoreline interacts with
the lakes. Humans like to improve on nature. For example, we like to build things to
protect our property. Protecting a home from forces like wind, water and soil erosion can
be a tough job and expensive sometimes. But if your property is along the shore of a
Great Lake, it can be especially difficult. Reporter Shawn Allee looks at one engineer’s
effort to protect lakefront property and nature:


Great Lakes shorelines naturally change over time. Beaches erode. Dunes shift.
Sometimes, even the rockiest bluffs collapse.


That’s OK for nature, but maybe not for a house sitting on top of it. So it’s no wonder
that landowners try to stabilize their shorelines. To do that, they sometimes build walls
of steel or concrete to block incoming waves. It’s a tricky process. If the walls are too
short, they won’t stop erosion. But if they’re too long, they trap sand that moves
naturally along the lakeshore.


When nearby beaches can’t get sand, they degrade into muddy or rocky messes.


Charles Shabica is a coastal engineer. He’s been working at the problem for decades
now.


“My dream is to see the shores of the Great Lakes ultimately stabilized, but in a good
way and not a bad way where you’re causing problems.”


Shabica takes me to a small private beach north of Chicago. He engineered it to keep the
shoreline intact. The keys to that are two piles of rock that jut out into the lake.


The piles are just the right size – big enough to protect the shore, but small enough to let
some sand pass by. There’re other elements to the design as well.


Tall, blue-green grasses line the beach’s perimeter.


“Not only do waves tend to move sand around, but wind is also really an important agent,
too. So the beach grass and dune grass tends to stabilize the sand. And what will happen
is, you can see these things are seeding now, wind will blow the seeds and pretty soon
you get that stuff growing all over the place.”


A lot of homeowners and city planners applaud Shabica’s work. But not everyone does.


Some environmental groups say, once a landowner builds a wall or rock formation,
others have to follow suit, just to preserve their own sandy shoreline.


The environmental groups’ alternative? Keep development farther away from shorelines
and allow more natural erosion.


But that hands-off approach is not likely to happen. The majority of Great Lakes
shoreline is privately owned. And in many states, landowners often prevail in court when
they try to protect their investments.


Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute says the question isn’t whether to
build near the shore, but how to do it.


He says, in the past, landowners tried to get off cheap. They didn’t pay for quality
construction or get expert advice on local geological systems.


“If you don’t pay a lot of attention to these systems, it’s gonna cost you a lot of money.
And if you build inappropriate structures or inappropriate recreational facilities, you’re
going to either be paying a lot of money to sustain them or you’re gonna lose them.”


A lot of coastal geologists agree that, for much of the Great Lakes coast, private
shoreline protection efforts – even the bad ones – are here to stay.


In urban or suburban areas, housing developments near the shore often include a buffer or
wall.


Michael Chrzastowski is with Illinois’ Geological Survey. He says, in these cases, the
shore can look natural…


“But it’s going to be a managed, engineered facility, because wherever you are on the
shore, you’re influenced by some other construction or historical development along the
shore that’s altered the processes where you are.”


That’s definitely the case along highly-developed, urban coastlines, such as Illinois’.
Other parts of the region are catching up, though.


“What’s going to happen is, other places along the great lakes as they become more
developed and they become more urbanized, they’re going to use Illinois as a model.”


That could bring more projects like Charles Shabica’s little beach. Shabica says that’s
not necessarily a bad thing.


It’s just a way to come to terms with our presence along the lakes.


“Human beings are here to stay. It’s our responsibility I think to make our environment
better for us, but not at the expense of the biological community, and your neighbors.”


That sounds reasonable enough. But it will ultimately mean the vast, natural coastlines of
the Great Lakes will be engineered, one beach at a time.


For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

IS IT SPRAWL? OR URBAN ABANDONMENT? (Part II)

  • Urban sprawl doesn't just alter the land in the suburbs. Central cities are affected by the loss of investment when people leave the cities and tax dollars are instead invested in building roads and sewers in the surrounding areas. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Concern about urban sprawl is often limited to the loss of farmland, traffic congestion, and unattractive development. But urban sprawl has other impacts. Building the roads and sewers to serve new subdivisions uses state and federal tax money, often at the expense of the large cities that are losing population to the suburbs. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham looks at the divide between city and suburb:

Transcript

Concern about urban sprawl is often limited to the loss of farmland, traffic
congestion, and unattractive development. But urban sprawl has other impacts.
Building the roads and sewers to serve new subdivisions uses state and federal tax
money, often at the expense of the large cities that are losing population to the
suburbs. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham
looks at the divide between city and suburb:


What some people call urban sprawl got started as the federal government’s answer to
a severe housing shortage. There wasn’t a lot of building going
on during the Great Depression. At the end of World War II, returning GIs needed
houses.


Reynolds Farley is a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Population
Studies Center. Farley says the federal government offered veterans low-interest
loans and developers started building modest homes on green lawns on the edge of
cities. But because of discrimination, the loans didn’t as often make it into the
hands of African-American veterans. Instead of segregated neighborhoods in the
city, segregation lines were newly drawn between city and
suburb.


“Very low-cost mortgages accelerated the movement of whites from the central city
out to the suburbs… built upon the long racial animosity that characterized cities
beginning at the time of the first World War and continuing, perhaps up to the
present.”


With segregation, there was a shift of wealth. Farley says jobs and purchasing
power were exported to the suburbs with the help of the interstate highway system.
And big new shopping centers displaced retail in downtowns.


People with low-incomes, often people of color, were left behind in cities of
abandoned houses and vacant storefronts that often didn’t have enough tax base to
maintain roads and services.


John Powell is a professor at Ohio State University. He’s written extensively on
urban sprawl and its effects on urban centers.


“So, we move jobs away, we move tax base away, we move good schools away and then
the city becomes really desperate and they’re trying to fix the problems, but all
the resources have been moved away.”


With no way found to fix the cities, whites have been moving out of cities to the
suburbs for decades. And now, middle-class blacks are moving out too. For some
metropolitan areas, leaving the city has become a
matter of income… although Powell says even then African-Americans have a more
difficult time finding a way out.


“Race never drops out of the equation. In reality, even middle-class blacks don’t
have the same mobility to move to opportunity that even working-class whites do
because of the way race works in our society.”


So, segregation continues. But now the line is drawn between middle-class blacks in
the older, inner-ring suburbs, whites in the outer-ring suburbs… and for the most
part in cities such as Detroit, poorer blacks left behind in the central city.


Smarth Growth advocates say part of the answer to urban sprawl is finding a way to
get more money back into the central-cities to make them more attractive to
everyone. That’s worked in cities such as Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis-St.
Paul. But those cities and their suburbs are predominantly white. For Northern
cities with greater racial divides, cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St.
Louis and Detroit it’s different. A lot of white suburbanites don’t want tax
dollars going to blacks in the city. And African-Americans in the city don’t see
urban sprawl as their issue, so ideas such as tax revenue sharing for a metropolitan
region are not a priority. The issue of regional tax equity that
works in predominantly white regions… becomes muddied by racial animosity in
segregated regions.


“Buzz’ Thomas is state senator in Michigan who has taken on the issue of urban
sprawl and its counterpart, the deterioration of city centers. Senator Thomas says
if state legislatures can’t find an answer to help cities, sprawl in the suburbs
will continue, paving over green space and farmland.


“You know, poverty and jobs and access to health care and access to quality
education are very realistic issues for cities like Detroit. But, a reality is they
go hand-in-hand with sprawl. As your black middle-class moves out of the inner city
because they’re not satisfied with those resolution to those issues. You know, it
links sprawl.”


Senator Thomas says legislators from rural areas and from urban areas are beginning
to realize they have a common issue. But before they can get to discussions of
regional tax equity, they first have to talk about the more difficult issue of
race…


“And have a discussion that might make me uncomfortable, that might make those
that I discuss it with uncomfortable. Only then, I think, can we really adequately
figure out how long it’s going to take us to resolve that issue.”


In the meantime, many cities are still losing population and revenue. Suburbs
continue to sprawl. And farms are becoming subdivisions, retail strip malls and
fast food restaurants.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

RACE’S ROLE IN URBAN SPRAWL (Part I)

  • Urban sprawl sometimes conjures up images of subdivisions sprouting up in cornfields. But land use experts say the term should also include a focus on the central cities that are left behind. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Experts seldom talk about one of the driving forces behind urban sprawl. White flight began the exodus of whites from city centers, and racial segregation is still a factor in perpetuating sprawl. In the first of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports on the issue that’s often overlooked:

Transcript

Experts seldom talk about one of the driving forces behind urban sprawl. White
flight began the
exodus of whites from city centers, and racial segregation is still a factor in
perpetuating sprawl.
In the first of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports on the issue that’s often
overlooked:


Land use advocates argue that urban sprawl and deteriorating inner cities are two
sides of the
same coin. The tax money that pays for new roads and sewer systems for sprawl and the
investments that pay for new strip malls is money that’s spent at the expense of
city centers
because it’s not invested there.


For the most part, all of that investment is made in communities that are
overwhelmingly white.
Those left behind in the cities are often people of color who are struggling with
high taxes to pay
for the deteriorating infrastructure and government services designed for
populations much larger
than are left today.


White flight was aided by government and business institutions. Government home
loans for
veterans of World War II that made those nice subdivisions possible didn’t seem to
make it into
the hands of black veterans. Banks often followed a practice of redlining. And
real estate
brokers also worked to make sure the races remained segregated.


Reynolds Farley is a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Population
Studies
Center. Farley says today, when planners and government officials talk about white
flight and
segregation, they talk in the past tense. They don’t like to acknowledge that
racism like that
still exists…


“Well, I think there is a lot of effort to underestimate the continued importance of
racial
discrimination and the importance of race in choosing a place to live. There’s been
a modest
decrease in segregation in the last 20 years. Nevertheless, it would be a serious
mistake to
overlook the importance of race in the future of the older cities of the Northeast
and Midwest.”


Farley says as recently as two years ago a federal government study looked at real
estate
marketing practices and found there were still “code phrases” that indicated whether
neighborhoods were white or black.


“Subtle words would clearly convey to white customers the possibility that there are
blacks
living there, the schools aren’t in good quality. And the subtle words could convey
to blacks
that they wouldn’t be welcomed in living in a white neighborhood.”


In the North… racism has evolved from overt to covert. It’s a wariness between
the races not talked about in polite society. It becomes more evident as solidly
middle-class blacks begin to move into older suburbs and whites flee once again to
newer
subdivisions even farther from the city core.


Land Use and ‘Smart Growth’ advocates say it’s time to face up to the continuing
practice of
segregation. Charlene Crowell is with the Michigan Land Use Institute. She says it
starts by
talking about the fears between white people and black people.


“By not addressing those fears, the isolation and the separation has grown. So,
until we are able
to talk and communicate candidly, then we’ll continue to have our problems.”


But it’s uncomfortable for most people to talk about race with people of another
race. Often we
don’t talk frankly. Crowell says we’ll be forced to deal with our feelings about
race sooner or
later. That’s because as more African-Americans join the middle-class, the suburbs
are no longer
exclusively white…


“My hope is that those who feel comfortable in moving further and further away from
the urban
core will come to understand that they cannot run, that there are in fact black
homeowners who
are in the suburbs and moving into the McMansions just as many whites are. And we
all have to
look at each other. And we all have to understand that this is one country and we
are one
people.”


In cities such as Detroit, white flight led to rampant urban sprawl in the
surrounding areas
and left huge pockets of poverty and streets of abandoned houses in the inner city.
Heaster
Wheeler is the Executive Director of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. He says
while his
constituents often worry about more pressing urban issues, he knows that it’s
important that
African-Americans living in the city recognize farmland preservation and urban
revitalization
are connected. The investment that paves over a corn field is investment that’s not
going to
rebuild the city. But… black politicians largely have not been
involved in land use issues and usually they’re not asked to get involved…


“There is a racial divide on this particular issue. Often times African-Americans,
people of color and folk who live in the urban centers are not present at the
discussions about
Smart Growth.”


Wheeler says policymakers on both sides of the racial divide need to recognize that
land use
issues are as much about abandoned city centers as they are about disappearing
farmland…
which could put urban legislators and rural legislators on the same team. That’s a
coalition
that could carry a lot of sway in many states.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links