Cuyahoga County has about 32 miles of Lake Erie shoreline — but only 10% of that is currently publicly accessible. Travel just over 100 miles west, and you’ll find another 32 miles of shoreline along the Maumee River and Maumee Bay in Toledo, much of which remains industrial, abandoned or otherwise undeveloped.
Histories of pollution in Cleveland and Toledo alike have left both waterfronts with less-than-positive reputations, and the algal bloom crisis of 2014 left Toledoans distrustful of the city’s drinking water. While gains have been made in the health of the cities’ waterfronts overall and concerns over drinking water are now largely unfounded, access to water is about more than just what comes out of our tap.
“Having access to waterfronts is important for many reasons — certainly personal health, and not only the act of getting there, but then being near the waterside is also beneficial just for mental health [and] emotional health,” Jennifer Grieser, Director of Natural Resources for Cleveland Metroparks, said.
Urban Access to Healthy Land and Water
Disparities in water access typically fall along socioeconomic and racial lines, disproportionately affecting minority residents (not to mention other disparities in water equity from rising water bills, aging water infrastructure, flooding and other disasters worsened by climate change). As both cities experienced depopulation and white flight, development and upkeep of Cleveland’s and Toledo’s public, waterfront access points often weren’t focused within the range of more impoverished and underserved neighborhoods.
Jennifer Elsworth, now Park Programming and Interpretation Coordinator for Metroparks Toledo, moved to Toledo from Cleveland 14 years ago, and in that span of time has seen Metroparks Toledo work to begin changing that.
“I remember when I moved to Toledo, we had this open area that supposedly was going to get transformed into a metropark. And there were like two tons of garbage that had to be moved out. And I remember standing at what is now Middlegrounds Metropark and looking at the river thinking, ‘Gosh, that river — this is going to be a fantastic view. And the fact that this is going to be accessible to so many people will be awesome,” she said. “And so when it finally opened, that was a real turning point for Metroparks and having a park downtown.
Middlegrounds Metropark was once situated at the bustling hub of rail transport in Toledo, a place where people and goods moved through and crossed paths. There, the city’s first train depot was built, and attached, a handsome building housed the Island House hotel, with warehouses, docks, grain elevators nearby. As flooding pushed people and activities away from the Middlegrounds in the late 19th century, the area became a largely industrial and subsequently derelict area of freight housing and railyards.
Now, it is a 28-acre green space that opened up half a mile of riverfront for public use and recreation.
Cleveland’s abandoned riverfront land is going through a similar transformation: in recent years, Cleveland Metroparks developed Edgewater Beach and other parks near downtown, and a broader community initiative called the Cuyahoga County Lakefront Public Access Plan aims to open up 30 miles of waterfront access.
In particular, Grieser pointed to newly opened TIGER trails, the result of an over $16 million project to “connect up some inner city neighborhoods and provide them not only trail access, but access to Cuyahoga River and access to Lake Erie.”
The new trails connected 66,000 Cleveland residents to the lakefront.
Grieser also said the response has been overwhelmingly positive, especially for residents who have lived near the waterfront for years and yet never before had an easy way to take advantage of that: “‘I lived so close to the lake and I couldn’t get there. And now I can’ — that kind of messaging.”
She said that visitation to their lakefront parks is at record highs, attracting a quarter of Cleveland Metroparks’ overall visitation.
Metroparks Toledo also facilitates a program called Connections Camp specifically to bring children in underserved areas to immersive nature experiences. And Elsworth said that new riverfront developments are already having impact on children’s experiences and sense of connection to the Maumee River and its welfare.
“This past year, we were able to bring the campers to Glass City Metropark, [a] brand new metropark right along the river, so we were able to engage them in some water quality talk, she said. “When kids are so impressionable, when they’re young, they’re always gonna remember these experiences and what they saw along the river.
Getting Citizens Involved
The benefits of opening up public space and access to waterfronts don’t end there. According to both Grieser and Elsworth, the more people interact with and become familiar with waterfront ecosystems, the more likely they are to be involved in keeping these environments healthy — ultimately paving the way for public participation to solve larger issues around water quality, pollution and more.
“You expect water to come out of your sink when you turn on the faucet, but where is that coming from? How does it get there? What is the water treatment process?” Grieser said. “Folks that have kind of a larger [waterfront] area that they’re traversing, you know, they see a lot of the different processes and steps that go into that. So it’s more of a disconnect with the immersion experience.”
In 2012, Grieser started a watershed volunteer program in anticipation of the opening of the Watershed Stewardship Center the following year. Grieser had previously worked in the Catskills in New York — famous for beautiful hiking trails and diverse wildlife — but had never before seen the kind of volunteer turnout that she did in Cleveland; in the Catskills, she said, she’d be lucky to recruit 20 people to help. In Cleveland, she has to put a cap on the volunteer team because otherwise they have so many people there’s not enough to do.
In partnership with the West Creek Conservancy and the Northeast Ohio Sewer District, the center is “the first facility in Cleveland Metroparks dedicated to scientific research and promoting sustainable action,” according to their website.
Over in Toledo, Metroparks Toledo has been doing volunteer research collection for a while — but it wasn’t until the 2014 water crisis hit Toledoans hard that focus really shifted heavily to water quality in the Maumee River. Now, the park system is participating in a pilot program that uses citizen science to gather water quality data which is then given to the Cleveland Water Alliance to monitor and research harmful algal blooms.
“The really neat thing about this particular water quality monitoring program is it’s very accessible in the respect that anyone can learn the skills to accurately record and gather this data,” Elsworth said.
Elsworth said the program certainly garners attention — in the best way possible. Imagine people from all walks of life — retirees and children, experts and laymen alike — hiking up their jeans to wade into the Maumee or its tributaries, kicking up debris and using oversized nets to catch water bugs and macroinvertebrates, then counting and identifying them (different organisms have varying tolerances to certain levels of water quality, meaning finding a wide array of organisms “tends to indicate that your water quality is a little bit better.”)
“It gives us the opportunity even to educate the general public if they’re out for a walk [or] on their picnic,” Elsworth said. “And, you know, kids are just tickled when you can show them the crayfish and then let them know, well, the crayfish is part of what’s telling us if the river’s healthy or not.”
For Elsworth, it’s these moments that remind us that “everything is interconnected, even from that real small, beginning part of the food chain connected all the way up to us as humans and how we live and thrive.”
Collaboration Across the Great Lakes
Both Toledo and Cleveland are part of the broader Great Lakes ecosystem — and so their metroparks systems are working beyond just their immediate locales, as well. Water monitoring and data collection, of course, has implications for our region and beyond, as Toledo and Cleveland alongside other lakefront cities are guardians of one of the largest most precious sources of surface freshwater in the world.
But oftentimes water quality testing can be isolated to each city’s locale, meaning that it’s difficult to know whether data is reliable and nearly impossible to put together trends across the entire region. That’s why programs like Metroparks Toledo’s collaboration with the Cleveland Water Alliance are bringing volunteer data collection and community engagement to an important next step.
Cleveland Metroparks is also participating in a citizen science program called Great Lakes One Water, and “one of the main concentrations is creating a standardization and how we test water from Detroit all the way to Buffalo,” Grieser said.
“And so ultimately, it’s trying to create some cohesion and consistency in real long stretches of area, and then also engage more and more folks in the story.”
That story, according to Grieser, isn’t just a personal one — because, as she puts it, “Water is life.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Cleveland Water Alliance in preparation for the 2021 Erie Hack competition. More information can be found below and at eriehack.io.
The Erie Hack event is a bi-annual competition to accelerate innovative solutions to Lake Erie’s most pressing challenges.
Lake Erie currently faces many challenges that affect not only the wildlife and dependent ecosystems, but also the livelihood and well-being of those that live, play, and work near the lake and its watersheds. This multi-month innovation challenge is one of our most high-profile programs and brings together techies, creative thinkers, and entrepreneurs to develop solutions for problems such as water quality, infrastructure, and social awareness. Erie Hack will take place in the form of several engaging events — a hybrid of virtual and in-person gatherings — that will kicked off on September 16.
Anyone who is interested to participate should sign up on Erie Hack’s eventornado: https://eventornado.com/event/erie-hack#home
For more information, check out Erie Hack’s website: eriehack.io and this informational sheet: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1RG6Up8SZDu0qVUfZNsdi-dLBdT0Q124Lk44LAu0MpAk/edit
Want to learn more from professionals on the ground? Join Toledo’s virtual hack night on Thursday, September 30th from 6:00 – 7:00 PM. https://us06web.zoom.us/j/83766533803?pwd=MGFndTRibmk2WnlmZHpPYXdpQ2RnZz09