Sustainable Small Harbors

Michigan is home to more than 80 public marinas and harbors, managed by state, county, or local governments. They are part of a boating culture that draws $2.4 billion in economic activity to the state each year. Even so, with increasingly scarce state and federal funding, public facilities face plenty of challenges. Factors such as fluctuating water levels and seismic shifts in the state’s economy have left some harbor communities struggling to adjust.

But that’s not the end of the story. Tourist dollars are returning to Michigan after the financial recession, and a growing interest in dining and outdoor recreation opportunities in coastal towns could position Michigan’s waterfronts as vital drivers for flagging local economies. In addition, a state mandate requires state-funded boating facilities to develop five-year management plans, so the time is ripe for managers to think carefully about the long-term future of their harbors.

That’s where the Sustainable Small Harbors project comes in. Funded by Michigan Sea Grant and a host of partners, the project’s goal has been to identify the barriers preventing small harbors from becoming economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable, and to equip coastal community leaders with the tools to assess and strengthen their own waterfront assets.

The project launched in 2014 with an in-depth assessment of the unique challenges facing Michigan’s small harbor communities. The project team also visited six case-study communities around the state and led public design workshops to help community members develop and prioritize meaningful ways to make their waterfronts more environmentally, socially, and financially sustainable.

The Small Harbors project team pulled together their insights about small harbor sustainability and how to run community assessments into a single document: the Sustainable Small Harbors Tools and Tactics Guidebook. The guidebook is available to any community interested in developing and implementing a long-term environmental, economic, and social sustainability plan.

Now, the project is moving into a new stage. MISG and the State of Michigan have launched an effort to update the 2017 Guidebook using new information on emerging tools and tactics and updates to best practices, including strategies related to fluctuating water levels, climate resiliency, decarbonization, changing economic activity, and state and federal funding and programs. It will include additional success stories for small coastal communities seeking resiliency, new and improved coastal resiliency tools, and steps toward a just transition to decarbonization. The revised Guidebook will also incorporate issues related to environmental justice that may affect policy implementation, and how to address them.

The two-year project, led by Donald Carpenter, Principal, Drummond Carpenter, is anticipated to run through January 2024.