Reclaiming urban waterfronts (A lesson from Gord Downie) | Great Lakes Guide

People and the Lakes

Reclaiming urban waterfronts (A lesson from Gord Downie)

Published July 12, 2018

Most of us recognize how being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at... well, everything.

    We are so fortunate to be surrounded by water in the Great Lakes, so why is it that people in waterfront communities have such little access to water?

From pollution to private property and fenced-off areas, there are many reasons people find it difficult to truly connect with water.

Along the shores of Lake Ontario in the city of Kingston, ON, the water had been deemed unswimmable by experts. Community members including the late Gord Downie did not accept these conditions, and so began the 20 year reclamation of Breakwater Park and the new Gord Edgar Downie Pier.

Gord was a tireless champion and dedicated steward of Lake Ontario as a mentor and Board member of Swim Drink Fish. He always considered himself a citizen of Lake Ontario. It was his experiences in the waters surrounding Kingston that have fueled his powerful sense of belonging and inspired him creatively for decades.

The improvements to Breakwater Park are truly the realization of Gord’s vision for Lake Ontario. Which is why, though Gord is typically reluctant to accept such honours, he humbly agreed to accept the dedication of the Swimming Pier.

This project sets an example for other Great Lakes cities around the province. By developing a master plan outlining a clear vision for swimmable water in a place the experts all said was lost forever, the city attracted the necessary funding and a growing amount of support.

    This project flowed from a belief that "it doesn't have to be this way."

The improvements include real-time water quality monitoring, stormwater infrastructure but most importantly water access points that promote, rather than discourage, residents physically enjoying all that our Lake has to offer.

The Gord Edgar Downie Pier is the first of its kind in Canada. By investing in improvements like shade umbrellas, benches, pool ladders, and an accessible ramp into the water the city will breathe life into this old structure and create a destination where all residents can experience their lake.

For now, this park is one of a kind. Our hopes are that it sets a standard for communities across the Great Lakes to ensure that our waterways are fully accessible for everyone. As we learn about more destinations like Breakwater Park, we’ll share them with you through Great Lakes Guide.

    When it comes to water, hopes and dreams should lead us—not fear.

Shared values between friends and allies can get things done. Clean water is good for everyone — the recreational users, the commercial fisherman, the captains, the farmers, the children, the adults, the economy and the community.

That is what Kingston's Gord Edgar Downie Pier is all about. The park, the partners, and the name, in our opinion, are just perfect.

The ribbon cutting ceremony and gratitude swim at the Gord Edgar Downie Pier on July 26, 2018 marks the beginning of a new era for Canadian cities. This is the most exciting day in the history of the Swim Drink Fish movement and represents everything we have been working towards for nearly 20 years.

Jump in your lake this summer and use the hashtag #swimdrinkfish to share your photos and to connect with others supporting this movement.

To learn more about the history of this Great Lakes Challenge project, visit

See also:

Read more about Breakwater Park on Great Lakes Guide

Utilities Kingston unveils real-time sewage overflow monitoring and notification system

Gord Edgar Downie Pier at Breakwater Park reclaims Kingston’s waterfront



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