Cincinnati's Centennial Parks Master Plan: Our quiet strength

Keeping Cincinnati's more than 100 parks and greenspaces relevant and user-friendly is a major undertaking requiring relentless planning and coordination. Christopher Manning and Steven Schuckman know this more than most which is why they've made it two of the guiding principles of the  Cincinnati Centennial Parks Master Plan,

To create the plan, which is the third park master plan in Cincinnati history, the Cincinnati Park Board, under the direction of superintendent of planning and design Steven Schuckman, hired local landscape architecture studio Human Nature Inc. as the lead consultant. Christopher Manning, a landscape architect with Human Nature, was the principal-in-charge of the effort.

"Given that it's been 100 years since the first one [master plan] by George Kessler, we were honored to be selected to produce the plan," he says.

Manning gives much of the credit back to the Park Board team of Schuckman, director Willie Carden, and manager of financial services Marijane Klug.

"Mr. Carden is a beacon of leadership for our city departments and a role model," he says.  "Marijane is one of the most creative and aggressive financial people I've ever met, and Steve was the day-to-day - sometimes hour-to-hour - contact and literally co-authored the plan with us."

Jess Parrett of Leisure Services Management was the primary sub-consultant handling demographics, programming and funding strategies; and Kolar Design and the University of Cincinnati DAAP Senior Graphics Capstone Class created the graphic materials.

The public also played a heavy role in creating and supporting the plan through its advisory committees, public "town" meetings, surveys on the website and focus groups with stakeholders.

"We receive day to day support in our efforts from approximately two dozen park advisory councils and through the hands-on efforts of numerous volunteers," Schuckman says.

Through 2007, volunteers had logged more than 87,000 hours over two years of work.

It began in 1907
The origins of Cincinnati park planning began in 1907 with "A Park System for the City of Cincinnati" by landscape architect George Kessler, a German immigrant who was known throughout the Midwest for park projects in Kansas City and for designing the layout of the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.

In the 1907 plan, Kessler sought to connect the city's parks with parkways and boulevards, thereby relieving congestion and blight within the city, protecting hillsides and views, securing undeveloped land and providing citizens with better health and recreational opportunities.

"Most major cities in America were creating park systems in the late 1800s and early 1900s," Manning says.  "These plans were authored by visionary planners, architects, and landscape architects such as Olmstead, Cleveland, Manning, Kessler and Burnham.

Shuckman believes that having a master plan was - and is - critical to the development of Cincinnati's parks.

"Having a master plan in 1907 and the comprehensive city plan of 1925 positioned the city to receive millions of federal dollars for park improvements in the 1930s," he says.

The Centennial plan is designed to achieve the same, focusing heavily on our hillsides and streams, greenways and trails, and building upon Kessler's vision of parkways and scenic boulevards.

"We put a lot of focus on these natural corridors," Manning says.  "We also proposed expanding Kessler's parkways vision to include our entire interstate system, creating green filters that cleanse air and water and choreograph views."

"Several key proposals related to 'strengthening the urban core'," he says.  "Another key series of proposals related to 'strengthening natural systems'."

"Our new plan lays out an achievable roadmap for the next 10 to 20 to 30 years," Schuckman says.

Cincinnati's "front yard"
The centerpiece of the plan is the Central Riverfront Park, often referred to as Cincinnati's "front yard". The $80 million project, which will tie the Banks development to Bicentennial Commons, Sawyer Point and the Ohio River, will fill over 40 acres of now vacant land with:

  • Outdoor performance venues
  • A Great Lawn
  • A promenade, hike-bike trail
  • Adventure play areas
  • Boat access
  • Water features
  • A carousel
  • Grand stairs
  • "Family-sized" swings
  • Tree groves and picnic areas

The new park could eventually hold such events as Taste of Cincinnati and Oktoberfest, Riverfest and Tall Stacks.

Groundbreaking on this "second wave of park building" is expected in September, and the result is expected to be a nationally-recognized destination. Schuckman says that the Urban Land Institute and the Trust for Public Land consistently find Cincinnati's park system to be one of the finest in the country, right up there with Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago and New York.

"Such national organizations as the Trust for Public Land points out that having a master plan and updating it every five years is one of the marks of an excellent park system," he says.

Agents of Transformation
The Centennial plan sailed through approvals by the Board of Park Commissioners, the City Planning Commission and City Council, a testament to its strength.

"People generally recognize the great asset that our parks are to the city and region," Manning says.

This Saturday, more than volunteers will converge on Owl's Nest Park for the construction of a KaBOOM! playground, visualized as part of the park's upgrade and designed by neighborhood families and children. Also this year, the Park Board is celebrating the 75th anniversary of Krohn Conservatory, and soon they expect to rededicate Mount Auburn's Hopkins Park.

"Philosophically, I think one of the most powerful visions of the plan is that it promotes 'parks as agents of transformation' for our city," Manning says.  "Today, we have the opportunity to revitalize our urban core and invite people back into more livable and dynamic urban settings.  Parks are a key part of that."

"And for us, parks are part of a long-term legacy that we will be leaving for future generations, and it is very inspiring work," he says.  "I call them 'the quiet strength of Cincinnati'."

Photography by Scott Beseler

Map provided by CCPMP

Kessler drawing of Washington Park  1907

Cincinnati's front yard

International Park

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.