Cuyahoga Connections—Land&People

The Cuyahoga River gave birth to Cleveland. The place where the river joins Lake Erie attracted settlers from the East at the turn of the 19th century, and after the Cuyahoga became the northern terminus of the Ohio and Erie Canal in 1832, the city began to burgeon. With access to Great Lakes iron fields and the arrival of the railroad in the 1850s, the groundwork was laid for a 20th-century industrial giant, at one time the fifth-largest U.S. city.

Much of the city’s industry clustered by the meandering river and in an adjacent area that became known as the “Flats,” marking its contrast with the surrounding hills. Iron, steel, machine tools, auto parts and assembly, oil refining, chemicals and paint, electronics: many of these industries located in the Flats. They gulped water from the Cuyahoga—and dumped their effluent into it. In 1969, as the Midwestern industrial economy was beginning to collapse, the polluted river famously caught fire, helping to spur the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the next year.

As Cleveland positions itself for renewal as a 21st century economy, much of the Flats remains a symbol of the past, with empty industrial buildings, vacant land, and bulk-material storage lining much of the Cuyahoga River. But the Flats also remains a dynamic place, home to a working steel mill, market-rate housing, public housing, a new shopping center, restaurants, and entertainment.

Parkland along the Cuyahoga is still a rarity in Cleveland. And although Lake Erie is tantalizingly visible across the train tracks, there’s no way to get to its shore from the Flats riverfront. The lakeshore in the Flats remains a harsh place, where the only green is an occasional tree or untended brush. The river, newly restored to health, beckons to boaters, but residents have no way to access the water directly.

“The Flats have a wonderful mix of industry, new commercial development, and new people moving in—a lot of positive activity,” says Bill Carroll, Ohio state director for the Trust for Public Land (TPL). “But from any of these high-rise buildings adjacent to the Flats, you see a lot of what looks like wasted space.”

Change is on the way, however. Carroll and TPL project manager Dave Vasarhelyi are working with volunteers and nonprofit groups to help regenerate the Flats as a vibrant residential and commercial district by creating parks and greenways there. Through these partnerships and with the support of leading Cleveland foundations, TPL has acquired land for two waterfront parks, two trails, and the first public boating access to the river.

“Old industrial cities nationwide are rediscovering their waterfronts and rebuilding their economies with parks,” says Peter Harnik, director of TPL’s Center for City Park Excellence. “With its lakeshore and the river, Cleveland has the opportunity to create a world-class system of parks and trails along its major waterways.”

The result of TPL’s land acquisitions—fulfilling a decades-old vision—will be a Flats landscape threaded with trails and parks. This green network will link the Lake Erie shoreline and downtown with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park south of Cleveland and, in so doing, help revitalize the whole city.

“Historic Cleveland is a city rich with natural resources that were used to build an industrial economy, [but] not to connect people to their natural surroundings,” says Mayor Frank G. Jackson. “Today we are reversing history and reconnecting Cleveland to the water with trails, parks, and people-oriented development that will make our waterfronts magnets for residents and visitors alike.”

New Parks and Trails for the Flats

The northernmost feature in the envisioned chain of greenways and parks will be the Link to the Lake Trail, for which TPL acquired more than 1.3 miles of trail corridor last year. Beginning at an island park near downtown, the trail would make its way along weedy railroad cuts and the floor of the now-dry canal to join up with other new parks and trail in the Flats.

“We immediately saw the potential of the trail,” says Ann Zoller, executive director of ParkWorks, a nonprofit for which TPL acquired the trail corridor, using money from the state’s Clean Ohio Fund. “It is adjacent to so many neighborhoods and downtown. When it’s finished, folks are going to be amazed that it wasn’t always there.”

According to ParkWorks staffer Justin Glanville, the Link to the Lake Trail captures peoples’ imaginations because it “provides direct access to the lake and opens up the lakefront. It also provides green space for people who don’t have a lot of access to that. Residents love the industry in the area, but they also want a place to walk their dogs.”

Farther north in the Flats, where the canal once emptied into the river, TPL is working with the city and the nonprofit Ohio Canal Corridor to create Canal Basin Park. When complete, this park will stretch bank to bank across a big loop in the river and will serve as a central trail nexus, historical park, and outdoor performance venue in the shadow of downtown. It will also constitute the northern terminus of the 110-mile Towpath Trail, which traverses Cuyahoga Valley National Park and now ends about six miles from downtown. Since the 1990s, when TPL and Ohio Canal Corridor helped create Hart Crane Park, the two organizations have been working together to complete the trail, which will link Cleveland residents to the region’s only national park. To date, TPL has picked up 13 parcels to help create the Link to the Lake, Towpath Trail, and Canal Basin Park.

“This section of the Towpath Trail will connect directly to some of Cleveland’s most densely populated residential districts and allow bike commuting to downtown offices through the valley,” says Tim Donovan, executive director of Ohio Canal Corridor, which has been working to create parks and trails along the old canal route since 1985.

Residents of nearby neighborhoods such as Ohio City are enthusiastic about the park and trail work. Located just across the river from downtown, Ohio City is one of Cleveland’s oldest districts and is home to more than 10,000 people representing at least 15 ethnic groups. The work will reinvigorate the Flats, says Eric Wobser, executive director of nonprofit Ohio City Near West Development Corporation, which works on neighborhood development projects. “This is Cleveland’s birthplace and the center of our region.”

Bernie Thiel, a 20-year resident of the community and executive editor of the neighborhood newspaper Ohio City Argus, agrees. “TPL’s efforts will go a long way toward helping ensure that prime land in the heart of the city will be preserved and put to good use for years to come,” Thiel says.

As a kayaker, Thiel is particularly excited about efforts to convert a private, seven-acre marina into a public rowing center for the Cleveland Rowing Foundation, an umbrella organization for high school, collegiate, and adult rowing organizations that use the river— more than 800 rowers in all. (The foundation’s current small facility downriver can support only limited public rowing.)

Rivergate Park, as the new center will be called, “will transform seven acres of concrete industrial wasteland to an emerald gem in the Flats,” says Jon Adams, co-chair of the Rivergate Fund, which is raising money for the effort. “It will be a unique river-front park providing the only public access to the Cuyahoga for healthy, human-powered sports such as kayaking, canoeing, rowing, and dragon-boating.” The new park will allow the foundation to expand its rowing programs for youth and the disabled.

Projects like the Canal Basin and Rivergate Parks, the Link to the Lake Trail, and the Towpath Trail extension can transform an urban environment. Supporters look forward to the day when this green network will be a treasured amenity of the Flats and Cleveland at large, enhancing the city’s quality of life and thereby attracting new residents and business.

“This work is not just about parks and trails, it’s about creating a new Cleveland,” says TPL project manager Dave Vasarhelyi. “People can’t imagine Chicago without its lake and riverside parks and trails. Soon it’s going to be just like that with Cleveland.”

Tori Woods is a journalist and nonfiction writer who lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio. Explore more of her work at or email her at tori@toriwoods.