Walnut Hills / E. Walnut Hills

On the Ground: Green tide sweeps across Walnut Hills


Less than a mile from Peebles Corner lies one of Cincinnati’s most beloved green spaces, Eden Park, which — contrary to popular belief — is not located in Mt. Adams.

Walnut Hills proudly claims all 186 acres of Eden Park, which includes open green space, wooded hiking trails, playgrounds, a reflecting pool and gazebo, a Presidential tree grove and unmatched views of the Ohio River Valley. Visitors from across the region flock to the Cincinnati Art Museum, Playhouse in the Park, Krohn Conservatory and other programming that is offered on or adjacent to park grounds.
 
In many ways, Eden Park is the quintessential city park. But even though it’s the most well-known public space in Walnut Hills, it's far from the only one. In fact, residents of Walnut Hills have carved out many spaces of their own, tucked into side lots, alleyways and once-vacant corners.
 
These smaller spaces, like big sister Eden, have become some of the neighborhood’s greatest shared assets for community gathering.
 
Creative placemaking tackles last-century problems
 
Once densely populated and diverse, significant decline in the second half of the 20th century reduced many of Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods to little more than shortcuts to downtown for suburban commuters. Many historic buildings were demolished, out of necessity or safety concerns, leaving the Walnut Hills landscape disjointed, dotted by the vacant lots that became a prevailing symbol of urban disinvestment.
 
Today, Walnut Hills is working hard to reclaim its identity through creative placemaking and urban gardening initiatives that position vacant lots as assets instead of liabilities.
 
Placemaking is a city-planning concept identified by urbanist pioneers in the 1960s. The goal is to rethink public spaces with people as the central figures — not just cars or businesses. By reclaiming public assets and redesigning them for community use, residents can retain ownership of their neighborhoods and transform “dead spaces” into fruitful, productive ones.
 
Placemaking is a city-planning concept identified by urbanist pioneers in the 1960s.

From a development perspective, placemaking initiatives spur economic growth by showing investors that residents are engaged and active in the community. For that reason, one of the neighborhood’s primary difference makers, the Walnut Hill Redevelopment Foundation, has made community building through placemaking a companion mission to its real estate and economic development efforts.
 
A few years ago, the WHRF undertook two significant placemaking projects — Five Points Alley and the St. James Pocket Park. These projects addressed two paved areas that had become blighted nuisances in the community.
 
The Five Points Alley project, in particular, has been very successful at activating a once-dead space into a vibrant community asset. The alleyway, which sits just off Gilbert Avenue near the new Gomez Salsa, now offers beer gardens, food festivals, music, community meetings and other vibrant programming where there was once litter, overgrowth, graffiti and crime.
 
Turning the neighborhood green again
 
In promoting the health and wellness piece of its mission, the WHRF has been instrumental in turning vacant lots into vibrant, flourishing community gardens.
 
Concord Garden is one such space, which is managed by the WHRF. The now two-year-old garden offers 62 raised planting beds, providing produce for Walnut Hills' food pantries. The garden’s sustainable features include a greenhouse and tool shed, rainwater collection pond, brick patio and compost bins — all at least partially comprised of reclaimed materials like old tires and used shipment pallets from around the neighborhood.
 
The WHRF’s next gardening project will feature a foraging orchard where residents can hand-pick fresh fruit. In true placemaking fashion, the orchard’s designers relied on community input and suggestions.
 
“When we did health surveys, we struggled to get people interested in (vegetables like) green beans and zucchini,” said the WHRF's CFO Betty Winters Waite. “They were interested in greens and tomatoes, but we had a hard time getting them interested in any other vegetables. People would often walk by and ask, ‘Do you have any fruit?’ That’s why we decided we may be looking at gardening the wrong way.”
 
The orchard will be planted on a lot that had been vacant and densely overgrown for at least 20 years. In response to a community survey, the first trees will be peach, pear and cherry, in addition to berry bushes and raised beds for watermelon and cantaloupe.

The Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati, Mercy Neighborhood Ministries, Elevate Walnut Hills and the Walnut Hills Area Council all manage other gardens that are strategically placed around the community for easy access by neighbors who want space to grow their own food, volunteer or just get their fingers in the dirt.
 
Walnut Hills resident and volunteer Gary Dangel revitalized a vacant lot across from Frederick Douglass Elementary School. Dangel used the rural gardening skills he acquired as a child and the landscaping knowledge that paid his way through college to transform the lot into an educational garden where he now leads a weekly after-school garden club called Mr. Cecil’s Planting Panthers.
 
Dangel is also an employee of Elevate Walnut Hills, which manages the Produce to the People! Garden, and a board member at the WHRF; he has also leveraged relationships with outside agencies like Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, Vitality Cincinnati and various corporate volunteer groups with a focus on community gardening.
 
Dangel sees three immediate results from urban gardening efforts in the neighborhood: crime reduction, community engagement and food production.
 
“Walnut Hills has a wealth of vacant lots that are often blighted and a magnet for crime,” Dangel said. “Cleaning up and activating the lots serves to not only reduce criminal activity but is also a great way to meet and get to know my neighbors while growing food.”
 
He added: “Addressing the health concerns of our residents and the prevalent food insecurity has been a focus of Elevate Walnut Hills from the start. There has been a disconnection in our society from the soil and where our food comes from. Growing food provides many benefits beyond it being more nutritious. It tastes better, and the process of physically working in the garden is great exercise. It drastically reduces your grocery bill during the growing season, while challenging you to find creative ways to prepare the produce. There’s also something healing about being in nature and nurturing a plant from seed to harvest.”
 
History on display in Walnut Hills’ public spaces
 
Dangel also worked with fellow longtime resident Fred Orth on another outdoor project that has quickly become a Walnut Hills staple.
 


Orth retired 13 years ago from a career in community development with the City of Cincinnati and considers himself a historic preservationist. He was a part of area council conversations a few years ago about installing a new public park at the corner of East McMillan and Chatham streets.
 
Orth knew exactly what he wanted to build: Green Man Park.
 
The park’s most visible feature is a half-wall structure with a Green Man carving — the architectural motif that represents growth and vegetation — gazing toward Peebles Corner.
 
The two-ton limestone carving, which was created by David Hummel in the late 1800s, was originally affixed to an office building at that same location until the 1990s. Once the building was demolished, leaving a vacant lot, Green Man was sold to an antique dealer and sat in an East End basement until two years ago, when Orth tracked the carving down and purchased it using money he’d made during the sale of Walnut Hills’ iconic Windsor School building.
 
“Make money in the neighborhood, keep the money in the neighborhood,” is Orth’s motto.
 
Orth donated Green Man and joined organizers like Dangel in creating the park. The park has already been activated for community use, and a grand opening ceremony will take place next May.
 
Green Man is significant both to the neighborhood’s history — once greeting passersby in the bustling business district — and to its future, as residents like Orth hope to welcome that vibrancy back to Walnut Hills.
 
“He is a figure who goes back for thousands of years in cultures all around the world,” Orth said. “Green Man stands for rebirth, revitalization and rejuvenation.”

On The Ground takes an in-depth look at Walnut Hills, one of Cincinnati’s oldest and most culturally diverse communities. Over 12 weeks, our team will offer insight into the people, places and projects that have long defined the neighborhood, as well as its plans for moving toward a bright future.

On The Ground in Walnut Hills is underwritten by Place Matters partners LISC and United Way and the neighborhood nonprofit Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation who are collectively working together for community transformation. Additional support for data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center. 
 

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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