Later this year, a statue of Queen City legend and World Heavyweight Champion Ezzard Charles will rise in the West End’s Laurel Park. Funded by FC Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Parks Foundation, the statue is yet another win for those who cherish the city’s history. It’s also a win for a parks system that's renowned as one of the best in the nation.
You can describe the importance of Cincinnati’s parks however you like. The numbers speak for themselves: 5,000 acres of parkland, five regional parks, 70 neighborhood parks, 34 natural areas, five nature centers, 16 scenic overlooks, 23 swimming pools, 45 volleyball nets, 119 baseball diamonds, 275 basketball hoops, four disc golf courses, 155 playgrounds, 65 miles of hiking trails—and soon one very cool statue of the man they called the "Cincinnati Cobra.”
Still, if you really want to drill down to the importance of Cincinnati’s parks, you have to talk about how parks improve communities—and improve lives. That is the overriding message of the Parks Department, which is one of the most dedicated teams of people you’ll find in the city. It’s also the message of Parks Director Wade Walcutt, who assumed the position in 2017 after serving in the same role in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Walcutt had heard of Cincinnati’s park system long before he got the job. For good reason; its reputation precedes it. Indeed, Cincinnati’s parks regularly feature among the top ten in the country according to The Trust for Public Land’s annual rankings. At the same time, they've helped earn the city recognition as both a travel destination and one of the greenest cities in America.
“Everyone always talks about the great things happening in Cincinnati’s parks,” Walcutt says. “We undoubtedly have one of the best park systems in the country.”
Now, Walcutt is tasked with maintaining and improving it. To do that, he must rely on a constant stream of funds from the city and private donors. Like every parks director in America right now, though, he could always use more.
More is not necessarily coming—at least not from the city, not this year. But private donations to the Cincinnati Parks Foundation have topped $100 million since its inception in 1995, and the groundwork is laid to grow that sum even more. This money can then be funneled into big projects, like the astounding transformation of the riverfront, as well as small ones, including maintenance of playgrounds, lights, biking paths, and walking trails.
“Lots of cities and towns throughout the country can say they are supportive of their parks, and they are,” says Walcutt. “But they pale in comparison to Cincinnati’s passion and philanthropic spirit. It’s a huge deal. It’s something that separates us from every other parks system.”
As for Walcutt’s notion that parks can and should improve communities and lives, it finds support in the park board’s own 2007 master plan. The plan describes parks as being able to increase quality of life, raise property values, foster placemaking, help the environment, and promote social equity. They aren’t just cosmetic patches of green space after all. In this vision, parks are an invaluable source of renewal on both a personal and community level. They lure new residents. They draw in new businesses.They make people happier.
It’s a deceptively simple message. Doubters, though, need only look to Cincinnati’s urban basin for proof of its effectiveness. Washington Park and Smale Riverfront Park have resulted in exactly what’s outlined above, all of which can be summarized by saying they’ve increased “livability.” Ziegler Park is having the same affect now, and surely Laurel Park is soon to follow.
As for what’s next, Walcutt et al. have their sights set on Uptown. Maintenance efforts will focus on Jackson Hill Park, Bellevue Hill Park, Fairview Park, and Burnett Woods. Also on the docket are trail repairs and general upkeep in the city’s 70 neighborhood parks.
The shift uptown is a natural progression for the Parks Department, considering the city’s 1907 master plan hinged on the overlook potential of Cincinnati’s hillsides and the getaway appeal of Burnett Woods. Just as was the case then, the continued build-out of the basin ensures greater opportunities for larger impacts in the parks around and outside of it.
Neighborhood park are primed to prosper, too, which is the direct result of listening to what the community wants. Walcutt has personally done so in numerous community engagement sessions. There, he’s learned communities largely share his vision for what parks can do—the connectivity, the conservation, the improved quality of life. He’s also learned that, when it comes to the details, opinions are bound to vary.
“It’s clear that parks mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” he says. “It’s about balance. It’s about knowing our parks and green spaces are for everyone, and one need is not better or more important than another.”
In practice, that means preserving and increasing the multi-use character of Cincinnati’s parks so that everyone can enjoy them as they want. As Walcutt says, parks are for everyone, and different people can use them in different ways.
Fitting, then, that the park system’s next big win will be to memorialize Ezzard Charles, who, in addition to being Cincinnati’s most famous boxer, was also a combat veteran, a polyglot, a musician, a world traveler, and a mentor to kids in his community. Yep, Charles seems just the kind of person who would have celebrated Walcutt's vision for what parks can be. Soon his Laurel Park statue will move us that much closer to it.
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The Cincinnati Parks Administrative Offices are located at 950 Eden Park Drive (45202).
Visit the Cincinnati Parks Foundation to find out how you can support Cincinnati’s parks today.