A walk in the park

A walk in the park would seem to be as simple an activity as, well, a walk in the park.

But actually, it hasn’t always been that easy to do to Cincinnati – and elsewhere. With their roadways heavily used by cars bringing picnickers, ball players, golfers and those out for scenic drives, there’s often little room for pedestrians seeking an unstructured way to exercise their feet and those of their children, dogs and elderly relatives. Those in wheelchairs, too, have had difficulties looking for ways to use parks.

Those parks that are urban forests often have wooded hiking trails, but that’s not what everyone wants for a variety of reasons, including their steepness, lack of pavement for recreational bicyclists and runners, and sense of isolation. And sidewalks are rare in parks – which, after all, try to preserve green space.

As a result, parks in this area – and elsewhere – are coming up with new and easier ways to be experienced on feet (or while pedaling bikes). Cincinnati Park Board’s Steven Schuckman, superintendent for planning and design, even has a term for it: Healthy walks.

“In the relatively recent past, there’s been more interest in dealing with obesity, particularly in children, with an emphasis on healthier living and exercise across the board,” Schuckman says. “Also, as Boomers grow older, their interest in exercise is probably greater than it was for an older generation.”

Cincinnati Parks has plans, some quite unusual, for more walking (and riding). Perhaps most dramatically, its 2007 Centennial Master Plan calls for a 4-5 mile paved, 10-12-foot-wide mixed-use trail for Mt. Airy Forest along the ridge top, paralleling the roads. Mind you, this is for a park that already has 14 full miles of hiking trails within its 1,470 acres.

“The reason would be because there are no sidewalks in the park,” Schuckman explains. “Some people, especially those with small children, feel uncomfortable taking bikes into the roadway. And there are times when that park is filled with picnickers and cars, which makes that difficult.”

Although that particular project does not have a start date, there are others underway or recently completed. The 20-acre Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park, which opened in 2003 along the riverfront just east of downtown, has both gently winding walkways past public sculpture and a bikeway that someday might be part of a long-planned Ohio River Trail. It’s also near the Cincinnati Recreation Commission’s walkable Sawyer Point park and the pedestrian-only Purple People Bridge across the river.

Among the other city parks that have new paved paths, or have plans for them, are Ault Park, Eden Park, Cincinnati Riverfront Park, Caldwell Nature Preserve in Carthage, Bettman Sensory Gardens in Evanston, and Wilson Commons and Mt. Echo Park on the west side.

Some of these are relatively short, designed to provide better access to facilities, while others are for more extensive walking. In Eden Park, for instance, the idea is to encourage more visitation of the hillside Presidential Grove, where a tree has been planted for every U.S. president, by connecting it via an improved walkway system to several new memorial gardens.

And currently, the Park Board is upgrading Ault Park’s unpaved, wooded Valley Trail, which runs between Observatory Avenue and Old Red Bank Road. “We’re making it a much more usable walking trail and laying the groundwork for it becoming part of a bike-trail system,” Schuckman says. That will include, at a future date, paving.

Paved park trails are especially becoming popular as people look for ways to comfortably exercise in the park. “Paved trails generally are in our more open areas,” explains Jim Rahtz, deputy director of Hamilton County Parks. “They get a group of people who consider themselves walkers rather than hikers. It’s a different mindset, and there are more walkers than hikers in our park system.”

The county has paved trails in nine of its parks, Rahtz says. Most were built in this decade or the late 1990s; the most popular is the two-mile loop trail that encircles and crosses Winton Woods Lake. It is often as crowded with walkers on summer evenings as a shopping mall on a holiday. Many of the paved trails allow for cyclists – some, like Miami Whitewater Forest’s eight-mile loop, primarily are for riders although they get walking use.

But Glenwood Gardens, which opened in 2001 off Springfield Pike in Woodlawn, has proved especially popular for its one-mile paved loop and 1½-mile gravel loop for walkers/runners only. “It’s a gorgeous place to walk,” Rahtz says.

Across the country, parks are a potential asset in the battle against obesity. Four years ago, U.S. National Park Service and other Interior Department land-management bureaus, with the Surgeon General, promoted the Get Fit With U.S. program. It offered outdoor national parks as an alternative to gym and health clubs.

“In American consciousness, exercise connotes going to the gym or weightlifting or running on a track,” said Dr. Michael Suk, a White House Fellow within the U.S. Department of Interior who helped develop the program, in a 2004 telephone interview with this reporter. (He is now an orthopedic trauma surgeon in Jacksonville.)

“There’s an increasing sense we need to break out of that mentality,” he said then. “We’re trying to change the paradigm from the word ‘exercise’ to the term ‘physical activity’ to increase the range of what people can do.”

Walks can be good for the mind as well as the body. One of the most unusual new “healthy walk” opportunities in Cincinnati will be a labyrinth, scheduled for inclusion in the new 40-acre Cincinnati Riverfront Park, where ground was broken for construction last week. Funded by the Barr Family Foundation, the labyrinth is being designed by Sasaki Associates, the park’s design firm.

Krissi Barr, a Cincinnati Park Foundation trustee and member of the family that is backing the project, had the idea 15 years ago after seeing one at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth is a walking meditation space in which users follow a single winding, usually circular path from the edge to the center.

“You’re not focused on where you’re going, so it’s like you’re walking through your own head,” Barr says. “It’s for times likes these, when people need a place to relax. A labyrinth is a place to go find yourself and meditate.”

Steven Rosen is a Cincinnati freelance writer who contributes regularly to CityBeat, and also to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post and Variety. He recently won an award from the Cincinnati chapter of Society of Professional Journalists for arts and entertainment criticism.

Steven Rosen grew up in Cincinnati, attended Walnut Hills High School and worked at the Enquirer before becoming a Denver Post arts journalist and then a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. He contributes arts coverage to Cincinnati CityBeat. At one time, he published the fanzine “One Shot: The Magazine of One-Hit Wonders.”

Photography by Scott Beseler

Theodore M Berry International Park

Mt. Airy Treehouse

Mt. Airy woods trail
Newports Levee path
Reflection in sculpture at Theodore M Berry International Park

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Read more articles by Steve Rosen.

Steve Rosen is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer who serves as CityBeat's Contributing Visual Arts Editor and is a frequent contributor to The Enquirer. His writing also appears in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Variety, IndieWire.com, Western Art & Architecture, Paste and other publications and websites.