Local filmmaker exposes the dangers of hillside erosion in new documentary "Living with Landslides"

In March of 2019, a large landslide occurred on Cincinnati’s Columbia Parkway, shutting down the parkway and sending the city government into a state of emergency. It would take the City of Cincinnati two years and $17.6M to stabilize a 2-mile stretch of the hillside.

It wasn’t the first time the hillside had fallen and it won’t be the last.

In her new documentary film, Living with Landslides, local filmmaker Laure Quinlivan tells the story of Cincinnati’s tenuous relationship with hillside developments and their ecological effects. The film includes conversations with landslide experts, geologists, and residents who have been affected by hillside erosion. It exposes the challenges of building on ever-shifting land and posits solutions for making peace with the region’s hills and valleys.

“The hills are alive”

Eric Russo of The Hillside Trust was one of the first to sound the alarm about hillside erosion on Cincinnati’s east side. His organization has been advocating for responsible use of hillside land for decades, working closely with property owners and municipalities to find viable solutions to the challenges of the region’s geology and topography.

Russo is the one who approached Quinlivan about the 2019 landslide, suggesting she take it on as a documentary project.

Laure Quinlivan, Director, Writer, ProducerLaure Quinlivan is a former city councilmember, investigative reporter, and seasoned filmmaker. Her film Visions of Vine Street documented the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in the months after the 2001 civil unrest in response to a fatal police shooting. It won a Peabody Award for its excellence in storytelling. 

Quinlivan says that documentary filmmaking is the natural evolution of her career in investigative journalism. 

“When you’re a reporter, one of the reasons you like being a reporter is that you’re curious,” she explains.

When Russo approached her about the issue of landslides the subject was familiar, but certainly not her area of expertise. As a resident of Mt. Lookout—a neighborhood with active landslides areas—she was interested in digging in and learning more. 

What she found was that the issue of landslides is not unique to Columbia Parkway or to Mt. Lookout. It’s a problem that extends region-wide and has cost the City of Cincinnati—and private residents—many millions of dollars in repair and remediation costs over the years.  
 
In her film, Quinlivan presents multiple experts to explain why Cincinnati’s topography is susceptible to landslides and how the development of hillsides has sometimes exacerbated the problem. 

The film also shares poignant conversations with residents whose homes have been damaged by landslides—some of them, irreparably. 

The film is a cautionary tale for homebuilders, developers, and homeowners who are considering building on one of Cincinnati’s beautiful hillsides. But, thankfully, the film also provides tips for builders and best practices for remediating hillside erosion.

Educating residents, making changes

Thanks to a partnership with WCPO-TV Channel 9, Living with Landslides is available for online viewing. Quinlivan is also showing the film in person, taking the conversation about landslides into the communities which are most affected by the issue. She’s considering a more abroad release of the film, as well.

Quinlivan’s goal in presenting Living with Landslides is two-fold. 

First, she wants to educate people about the issue of hillside erosion and landslides. In a landslide-prone city, the issue affects everyone. Engaged citizens will make better decisions about both public infrastructure and their private homes.

She also wants to help change the rules about how municipalities, builders, and homebuyers communicate about the risks of building on and near hillsides. 

“Educating the public is certainly a goal, but so is getting local government interested in doing what’s necessary to make a difference,” she explains.

As of now, Quinlivan says there are no legal requirements for notifying property owners—and potential property owners—of active landslides and erosion issues. 

“I understand what it takes to get laws changed and I know it’s complicated,” she admits, but she’d like to see new laws enacted to protect buyers from being sold at-risk property with no disclosure.

“A home is the biggest investment of your life,” she says. And, at this point, most homeowners have no idea about potential landslide activity around their homes. She’s making sure they’re no longer in the dark.

Where to see Living with Landslides
  • Watch it online, with ads, at WCPO-TV Channel 9.
  • Catch a community screening event—
    • October 5 at the Redmoor in Mt Lookout to benefit with MLCDC—Get tickets here.
    • October 29, noon, at the Esquire Theatre, presented by Clifton Town Meeting.

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.