Coastwide
Artificial dunes and perms built in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy are pictured on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, in June 2017. (Getty/Interim Archives)

USA - How To Fix Americans' Diminishing Access to the Coasts

The U.S. government should protect Americans’ right to work and recreate on the coasts by requiring that publicly funded projects provide and improve public access.

U.S. coasts provide a multitude of benefits to the American public. They offer leisure in the form of recreational activities and relaxation; they improve overall health and act as cooling centers; and they create economic opportunities ranging from renewable energy to fishing to tourism. Ecosystems such as salt marshes and mangroves also improve climate resilience by providing protection from storm surge and increasing flood resilience.1 Proximity to the ocean has even been found to improve people’s mental and spiritual well-being.

Historical inequities—deeply rooted in the United States’ long history of segregation, racial discrimination, and exclusion—have led to restrictive coastal access policies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further demonstrated the need for safe, accessible parks and wild places—especially for communities of color and low-income communities who have faced a disproportionate lack of access to nature yet have deep cultural connections to the ocean and coast.6 As the pandemic swept across the globe, wealthier and more privileged Americans were able to escape to private beaches, while those without the resources to do so were left to endure the pandemic without safe and pleasant outdoor space as a reprieve from sweltering summer temperatures.7 Notably, lack of community green space was also correlated with higher COVID-19 rates among communities of color.8

U.S. coasts provide a multitude of benefits to the American public. They offer leisure in the form of recreational activities and relaxation; they improve overall health and act as cooling centers; and they create economic opportunities ranging from renewable energy to fishing to tourism. Ecosystems such as salt marshes and mangroves also improve climate resilience by providing protection from storm surge and increasing flood resilience.1 Proximity to the ocean has even been found to improve people’s mental and spiritual well-being.2

Everyone should have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the country’s coasts and beaches, regardless of race, ethnicity, residency, or socioeconomic status. In fact, equitable coastal access is a fundamental right guaranteed by the incorporation of the public trust doctrine into U.S. federal law. This doctrine, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, establishes that a “public beach is held for the use of the general public and not solely for use by the residents of the municipality.”9

Yet the responsibility for implementing equitable public access policies falls to individual states. And according to a new data analysis from the Center for American Progress and the Hispanic Access Foundation, only 10 percent of U.S. coastal and Great Lakes states have strong legal protection laws to ensure equitable public access.

10% - Percentage of the U.S. coast and Great Lakes that is covered by strong legal protection laws to ensure equitable public access

Fortunately, coastal resilience projects present an opportunity to reinforce and expand equitable public access to the ocean and nature while also increasing the ability of coastal communities to withstand climate change. In 2021, Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included $1 billion in funding over the next five years for ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes habitat restoration and resilience projects through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).10 And more recently, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act—a major push to address the climate crisis that includes $2.6 billion for coastal resilience projects.11

This unprecedented funding presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make coasts and beaches more equitable. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and several states already require coastal public access as a condition to receive public funds. The federal government should adopt a similar coastal public access requirement as a minimum standard to ensure that federal coastal resilience investments truly benefit all communities.

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