Ban Private Beaches

There are few summertime activities more essential than trips to the beach. But huge swaths of waterfront throughout the country are private property, off-limits to the public. This is a crime: all beaches should be public.

Bathers enjoy Guanabo Beach in Cuba, where beach access is constitutionally guaranteed. (YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2017, then-governor Chris Christie ordered public beaches across New Jersey closed as part of a budget standoff. When pictures emerged of Christie and his family enjoying the beach all by themselves, a wave of revulsion spread across the state and the country.

The governor wasn’t doing anything illegal. The Christie family was staying in a special gubernatorial beach house that wasn’t covered by the general shutdown. Even so, we were all disgusted by the sight of a privileged person using his power to enjoy the many pleasures of a beautiful beach that he’d stopped everyone else from using. The Christie family got to saunter around watching the sun glinting on the sand. The Christie family got to walk into the cool water and swim. Everyone else got to sweat and grimace at the pictures.

We were all right to be disgusted at Christie’s actions — but this is exactly what private-beach owners do every day.  

I was living in New Jersey at the time, but I grew up in Michigan. Even though I’ve spent most of my adult life elsewhere, I’ve always loved coming back in the summertime to see my family, drink good Michigan beer, and go to the lake, usually a small one near where I grew up in Lansing. There are few better ways to start a day than going swimming and sitting on the beach, reading and drinking coffee.

I recently tried to do exactly that and found out that the beach I’ve always gone to during warm-weather visits was closed because of an E. coli outbreak. Disappointing, but no worry, I thought to myself: there are so many other lakes in the city that a quick Google search turns up a list of the top ten.

But this was the only public beach anywhere nearby that doesn’t charge for parking. And only a tiny percentage of the beachfront property on most of those lakes are public in the first place.

There’s no reason we should put up with this. A beautiful and relaxing experience like going to the beach shouldn’t be hoarded for the exclusive use of anyone who happens to have enough money to exclude everyone else. Private beaches should be nationalized — they belong to the people.

At this point in my life, I could buy an annual parking pass for one of the other public beaches in Lansing (or shell out a few dollars for a day pass every time I visited) without it breaking the bank. But just a few years ago, such a small expense could have forced me to stay away from the water and sand.

When my wife and I were both adjunct college instructors, we spent an awful lot of time comparing cans of beans in the aisle at Walmart to see which one was ten cents cheaper — and counting the days until the end of the month when we got paid. That’s hardly unusual in a country where even full-time minimum wage workers in many states struggle to pay for rent and groceries, and millions of people struggle to make ends meet on gig economy jobs that are far less pleasant and comfortable than being an adjunct professor.

It’s bad enough to have to go long periods of time without getting to do things like go to the movies or eat at restaurants because money is too tight while you’re waiting for that next paycheck. But there’s something particularly galling about not even being able to afford to go swimming in a publicly owned lake.

Aerial view of Cala Macarelleta Beach in Spain, where private beaches are illegal. (Getty Images)

Another Michigan city where I’ve spent a lot of time lately is Houghton Lake. The whole downtown area runs along the edge of the lake. But I’ve only been able to find one public beach anywhere in the city, way out on the edge of town.

That’s not just the only public beach in the city that doesn’t charge admission if you want to drive there — as far as I know, it’s the city’s only public beach of any kind. And to find it, you have to drive past miles of sand and glistening water peeking out from between private businesses and expensive private homes whose beaches are off limits to you.

Technically, it’s all public. Like most states, Michigan designates all beaches as public up to the “median high-water line,” meaning that the water itself and the strip of wet sand hugging its edge belong to all of us in the eyes of the law.

But most of the dry sand is private property. Good luck to you if the public beach is a ways away and you want to (a) have a place to park, and (b) have a dry spot to set up a towel and leave your things while you go swimming. You’re as likely as not to face a “No Trespassing” sign before you get anywhere close to the part that you and I and the rest of us supposedly own.

As Nick Slater pointed out last year in Current Affairs, correcting this imbalance in access to beaches and other desirable but currently fenced-off places would not only correct a grotesque manifestation of economic inequality but provide real psychological benefits to many people. “We need to nationalize all these nice places for the health of society. But we also need to nationalize them for the health of individuals. Relaxation and fun aren’t luxuries — they’re essential parts of human life.”

Slater goes on to a cite a 2012 study showing not only that “spending time near the water” has both physical and psychological benefits, but that those benefits are more pronounced for those who can’t afford other luxuries.

“In other words,” he concludes, “the less able you are to pay for access to a private beach,” the “more you would benefit from being able to access it.”

Nationalizing the dry sand blocking off meaningful access to the wet sand and water isn’t exactly a wild-eyed socialist proposal with no precedent in the real world. Private beaches are illegal in Spain, for example. And there’s no reason that, after making all the beaches currently hoarded by the wealthy into public property, we couldn’t end the practice of charging for parking at publicly owned parking lots at the edge of all these publicly owned beaches. The cities and counties that own many beachfront parks right now can plead poverty and insist that they need to charge such fees, but this wouldn’t be plausible if the whole system was federalized.

It’s absurd that pleasures as basic as swimming in a lake or relaxing by the shore are, for so much of those shores, reserved for private-property owners and those with the ability to pay. In an even slightly better world, this would be the kind of detail we’d only read about in science-fiction novels about hypothetical ultracapitalist dystopias.

The public already owns all the water, as it should. Now it’s time to let the public enjoy it.