Students & the University need to better protect Lake Ontario

Insufficient appreciation and preservation efforts can erode the lake’s beauty and limit access to clean drinking water

Professor David McDonald recounts a history depicting a community that has neglected the waterfront.

Like it or not, you are Lake Ontario. Our bodies are about 60 per cent water, and the water we drink here in Kingston is from the lake—a lake that we often don’t do an adequate job of preserving. 

The good news is that this water is clean and safe. It’s not perfect, but it’s some of the best drinking water in the world, and we’re lucky to have access to it. 

It’s publicly owned and operated by Utilities Kingston, an organization that must answer to the city’s population if it fails to provide access to clean water. Not all cities can say this.

We also have a wonderful waterfront in Kingston. With more than 220 kilometres of shoreline, there’s something for everyone. Students and community members can enjoy a misty sunrise, skate on the Cataraqui River in winter, scuba dive for shipwrecks, or even brave the winds of November. 

Most recognizable of all, no doubt many of you have enjoyed swimming at the Breakwater Park and the Gord Edgar Downie pier, which was re-opened last year after a major renovation.

However, our waterfront has not always been like this. Decades of neglect and poor urban planning mean the lake was once contaminated and largely shut off to the public. People in Kingston turned their backs on the lake due to this pollution and an overall lack of access, further contributing to decay. The promotion of backyard swimming pools and shifts to indoor activities only exacerbated the trend. 

Fortunately, the last 10 to 15 years have heralded a major waterfront revitalization. A new state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant and infrastructure updates to replace century-old pipes (the reason for the Big Dig on Princess St.) are making Kingston’s water some of the best across the Great Lakes.

We also have wonderful new public spaces on the waterfront. Hundreds of community activists and forward-thinking city councillors have made this happen, with events like mass swims, artwork along the shoreline, and a growing awareness of the importance of waterfront wildlife like turtles and mink. 

At the time of this change, people started to realize what we had lost, while at the same time seeing the potential of what we could regain and remake. Public water became a powerful metaphor for broader social and environmental change. 

Kingston now has an award-winning 30-year Waterfront Master Plan, with dozens of significant projects set to unfold in the coming years. Breakwater Park was just the first. Future plans include refurbishing the swimming facilities at Richardson Beach, building a long promenade on the break wall in the Flora MacDonald Confederation Basin, paving bike paths along the waterfront, and improving public parks along the shoreline throughout the city. 

But that doesn’t absolve the rest of the Kingston community from working to protect the shoreline. So what can you do to help preserve and enhance our public waterfront? 

First, learn about the water you drink, where it comes from, and how to manage it sustainably. The water treatment plant is right beside the pier at Breakwater Park. Additionally, information about water quality is available online.  

Second, use our public waterfront spaces, and treat them respectfully. Encourage peers who might not know about the facilities we have, or who may think it’s not safe to swim in the lake, to join you in these endeavours. 

Most of all, celebrate the public nature of our water and waterfront, and help to promote better public access and ownership of our critical water resources. If you see things that could be improved, talk to your city councillor to advocate for action to be taken.

Beyond our individual actions, Queen’s University also needs to do a better job of engaging with Lake Ontario. We showcase the lake in our promotional material, but you’d hardly know the lake is even there when you walk around campus. 

This is clearest in our architectural design: we have many buildings onthe lake, but none of them are of the lake. 

The Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts is an example of that disconnect. It’s beautiful inside, and looks out at the water, but there’s no real access to the waterfront. Instead, there’s a neglected outdoor patio on the southeast corner, but no steps to get you down to the shoreline. 

A primary feature there instead is an ugly metal fence that seems to be designed to discourage people from accessing the water. 

This is hardly the kind of engagement one would hope for from such a privileged waterfront location. The University can improve shoreline accessibility at this location as a start.

For future waterfront developments on Queen’s property, blueprints should be made with the City’s Waterfront Master Plan in mind.

On a more positive note, Queen’s has limited the sale of bottled water on campus and has improved the number and quality of public water fountains. It was also one of the first campuses in Canada to do this. 

But this is a small change. There’s still more work to be done on our part as individuals, and on the part of the University to ensure the preservation and appreciation of our waterfront.

The more people that engage with it, the faster we can move things along. We’ll all be happier and healthier for it, too. 

David McDonald is Coordinator of the Water Access Group in Kingston, and Professor of Global Development Studies at Queen’s.

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