What The New York Times forgot: Our innovative parks

The New York Times opined about Cincinnati’s reclamation of its shoreline, with no mention of the Cincinnati Park Board, which now controls and manages three miles of riverfront parks, stretching from the Suspension Bridge to International Friendship Park.

With their focus on the opening of Washington Park, the next phase of the Smale Riverfront Park and a myriad other projects, Deborah Allison, Park Board business services manager, and Steven Schuckman, the superintendent of the Board’s planning and design division, hadn’t even noticed the oversight.

They are used to being taken for granted, managing 10 percent of the city’s land, from small neighborhood parks and flowerpots along busy thoroughfares to top tourist attractions.

As of 2011, the Cincinnati Park Board controls Sawyer Point, the Serpentine Wall and Yeatman’s Cove, as well as the Showboat Majestic, a National Historic Landmark and the last surviving riverboat theater.

Schuckman, who has worked at the Park Board for 22 years, sees their work impacting quality of life in the city more today than ever before.

Here are four reasons why:

1. Parkonomics (parks as economic drivers)

More than 140,000 visitors flocked to the riverfront on Reds’ Opening Day this year to celebrate new spaces; Smale Riverfront Park officially opened May 18 and has been drawing crowds ever since.

From bike proms to family picnics to impromptu concerts, Smale Riverfront Park embodies parks as they were meant to be, Schuckman says. He recalls an economist’s estimate, pre-dating park construction, that the park alone would bring 1.1 million new visitors to the waterfront every year.

Parks raise property values – those apartments at the Banks that overlook the parks can rent for more than $1,500 a month in part because of the beautiful park in their front yard. (A portion of Banks’ tenants and residents’ maintenance fees helps support park upkeep.)

Two geothermal fields that sit underground do even more. They supply enough energy for the park and the Moerlein Lager House, a Cincinnati Park Board tenant.

In fact, enough geothermal capacity was built in to be able to supply energy for future developments, including a boutique hotel in the Banks, a strategy that will keep the properties off the Duke Energy grid.

Then there is Washington Park. Set to open July 6, it is a model of public and private investments as well as park innovations. The monumental effort in conjunction with 3CDC showcases the biggest greenspace in Over-the-Rhine and celebrates the city’s past while making it sustainable for the future.

Dry wells in the park, for example, will divert all of the runoff from the space away from the city sewers, creating a self-sustaining system. Each of the five buildings in the park will have vegetated green roofs. Limestone walls around the park have been “upcycled,” part of an effort to recycle whenever possible and retain the character of the space.

2. Parks as community-builders

Last month, residents in East Price Hill spread out picnic blankets to watch a movie at Olden View Park on Matson Place, the newly restored park space that sits where the Price Hill Incline used to drop its passengers. The Park Board added its funding to support from Price Hill Will and the Queen’s Tower apartments to reclaim a community gathering spot.

The Geier Esplanade has reshaped Oakley Square; updates to Hoffner Park in Northside and Classon Park in Clifton Heights give neighbors more opportunities to gather, connect and share.

“Parks, even if they are small, are such catalysts for development and community-building,” Schuckman says.

3. Parks as environmental innovators

Geothermal, solar, wind and water. Name the environmentally friendly technology and the parks are on it. “They really are at the forefront of everything,” Allison says. “Our parks are great guinea pigs.”

Cincinnati Parks include 14 solar arrays, the largest number of solar facilities in the state. Krohn Conservatory’s LED sign is solar-powered, and arrays gather energy for buildings in Mt. Airy, Eden Park and other sunny spots.

Green roofs and solar trash compactors are visible reminders of the parks’ “green” focus, sure, but much more lies underground.

Park Board planners take full advantage of funding available because of the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati’s consent decree with the federal government. Don’t know about the consent decree?

Simply put, the city’s outdated concrete sewer system, which overflows during heavy rains, violates the federal Clean Water Act. Getting to compliance means overhauling the old system and mitigating lots of sewer runoff, including water that flows into parks.

At Washington Park, for example, six newly constructed dry wells will collect water that flows from the site, redistributing it back into the ground rather than into the sewers. Schuckman notes that when firefighters recently tested the wells, they worked so efficiently that no amount of water could flood them.

Water touches nearly every park project, including Ault Park and its endangered salamanders. That popular park’s current renovations, a project estimated to save 17 million gallons of water, will also benefit financially because it helps the MSD's  consent decree work.

For every project that diverts water from the city’s sewers, Schuckman can get funding support thanks to the consent decree. Partnering with the MSD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does more than save taxpayer dollars. It often leads to more jobs for local workers and creates sustainable models that parks in other cities can adopt.

4. Parks for health and fitness (and bikes!)

From the new Cincinnati Bike Center at the riverfront to bike racks in Fountain Square and around the city, the Park Board takes the needs of the cycling community seriously.

Schuckman notes that just this month, when he attended the ribbon-cutting at the nine-mile bike trail loop that connects Armleder Park to the Lunken trail, more guests arrived via bicycle than car.

He knows the health and economic benefits of getting residents outdoors and exercising, whether that means strolling for three miles along the Ohio River downtown, biking a trail or being a part of the Park Board’s 75-year-old public nature education and adventure program.

From Camp Canine and Grandparents’ Camp, to winding wooded trails and upgraded playgrounds, the Park Board’s recreational programs include offerings that engage thousands of inner-city youth and residents from every neighborhood, not to mention visitors and vacationers.

Do Good:

Support the Cincinnati Parks Foundation.

• Visit the extended run of the Butterfly Show.

Like Cincinnati Parks on Facebook and look for opportunities to tell your federal representatives that the parks need their support, too.

Look for stories about the next phase of Smale Riverfront Park and other key park projects in Soapbox.
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