Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Some skillful placemaking

At its south end, Lake Huron flows into the St. Clair River. Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario are right at the start of the river. Both towns grew up as industrial cities. Sarnia was Canada’s first petroleum refinery and a center of the chemical industry. There is still has an active refinery on the Canadian side of the river. Port Huron grew up as a shipping town, and still bills itself as Michigan’s Maritime City. The riches of the area’s forests, ag fields, and, later, industrial enterprises, and easy shipping of those products, made the town prosperous. Port Huron and Sarnia could have gone the way of other rust belt towns, but some far-sighted placemaking has instead left it a lovely river-front town.

Even though practically none of the natural riverbank remains – it’s all rip-rap and sheet piling – both towns committed to the idea of public access to the river. Public access was a guiding principle as former industrial sites were cleaned up and replaced with offices, public works, mixed use residences and parks. Other than stretches of private homesites that remained private homesites (including luxury homes where fish shacks previously stood), the rest of the river features walkways close enough to the river to fish from. And fishermen use those access points extensively day and night. The immediate proximity to open Lake Huron makes Port Huron/Sarnia a port of choice for boaters (including yacht owners).

One example shows the Port Huron’s commitment to public access. When the new sewage treatment plant went in, the standards called for a fence to exclude riverfront access. Instead the city insisted, against the directives of government agencies, on retaining public access.

Now, thanks to the efforts of the St. Clair River Binational Pubic Advisory Council, projects have begun to reclaim some of the riverfront to more fish-friendly cover on both sides of the river. With all of the waterfront development, a natural stream course isn’t feasible, but sheetpiling and rip-rap are being replaced by shallower-gradient rock walls and gravel. With the reduction in industrial discharges and the clean up of the water treatment systems over the past many years, a thriving fish community occurs, including a healthy sturgeon population.

The cleanup efforts are likely helped by the area’s relative affluence. Although the recession has taken a large toll on personal incomes, the yachts and luxury homes along the river indicate some degree of financial wherewithal remains (and waterfront property appears to be out of the price range of most people, unlike the St. Marys River where ordinary people can live on the river). A local industrialist helped in placemaking by reclaiming a mile of former industrial land to public use, including the Great Lakes Maritime Center.

If you want to see what happens when a town commits to public access to its water front, come see Port Huron/Sarnia. (For a good view of the river front, including the luxury homes, take the tour boat.) You’ll see that with public access, people interact with the river in many positive ways and become motivated to work to improve the place’s qualities.

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