the great outdoors: five public spaces vital to cleveland's well-being

As city dwellers, we tend to focus on buildings. But it's the spaces in between those structures that matter most, say urban planners. Public spaces bring communities together, improve our physical and mental well-being, and drive social and economic change. The presence and quality of our public spaces is a measure of the desirability of a city.

Here are five public spaces vital to Cleveland's well-being.

Public Square
Corner of Ontario Street and Superior Avenue

Public Square not only is one of Cleveland’s most vital public spaces: It’s also the oldest. General Moses Cleaveland, our city's namesake, stood approximately where a statue of his likeness stands today when he declared the square the heart of the future town.

Originally designed as a New England-style town square, the space has evolved (or devolved) into a transit hub first for streetcars and now the RTA’s bus and Healthline operations. Populated by beautiful monuments to the city’s history, including a the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and the aforementioned Moses Cleaveland statue, the park is long overdue for a “green” makeover.

Nora Romanoff, Senior Project Director with LAND studio, is working with city leaders to redevelop the space back to its original purpose: “a meeting and gathering place." Mayor Frank Jackson personally has led the charge with the formation in 2010 of the Group Plan Commission, named after architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham's ambitious and progressive civic design.

“The Group Plan Commission lead the effort to coordinate a traffic study and a new look at the design of Public Square,” explains Romanoff. “This work continues today and will result in public spaces that are inviting, accessible, walkable, bikeable and beautiful -- everything that the City of Cleveland deserves as its centerpiece."

Mayor Jackson has favored closing off Ontario and Superior through Public Square, uniting the four quadrants into one. Another design leaves Ontario intact, while connecting the eastern and western halves by a hill. Regardless which design wins out, Romanoff emphasizes that now is the time to act.

“We must capitalize upon this chance to change the face of Public Square," she urges.

Wendy Park
Corner of Lake Erie and Cuyahoga River

Residing on the shores of Lake Erie, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, Wendy Park often is described as one of Northeast Ohio’s best-kept secrets. That wasn't always the case: During a cholera epidemic in the mid-1800s, the park was home to a hospital for the sick and dying. Some say visitors can still hear eerie (not Erie) screams for help late at night.

These days, volleyball courts draw local sports clubs, the Sunset Grille attracts drinkers and diners, and the matchless views appeal to shutterbugs. A defunct U.S. Coast Guard station, out of commission since 1976, stands sentinel at pier's end.

Made partly of debris, including chunks of the demolished Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Wendy Park has long suffered from a lack of a direct link to downtown; getting there involves a series of omni-directional maneuvers.

The proposed Lake Link Trail aims to correct that.

Utilizing an abandoned railroad bed, the Lake Link Trail "will travel though the west bank of the Flats, cross an expanded sidewalk on the Willow Street Bridge, and lead you to a new bike and pedestrian bridge that we’re calling the Lakefront Connector Bridge,” explains Lora DiFranco, Communications Director at LAND studio. “Downtown residents will be able to access the trail by crossing the Columbus Road Bridge."

More than just beachy-keen, DiFranco stresses that Wendy Park is integral to the future success of Cleveland.

“As the population of downtown and near west side neighborhoods continue to grow, residents are looking for more clean and safe green spaces where they can work out, have a picnic and walk their dogs," she says.

Perk Plaza
Corner of Chester Avenue and E. 12th Street

Three and a half years ago, Clevelanders woke to the sad news of a fatal shooting taking place in downtown's Ralph Perk Plaza. While there had long been discussions of redesigning the park, the crimes proved the impetus needed for city leaders finally to get something done. Two years after the shooting, the City of Cleveland unveiled the delightfully redesigned park to the praise (and relief) of many.

“The old park was designed with a large sunken area, which discouraged people from walking through the park and made visual surveillance more difficult,” explains Robert Brown, Director of the Cleveland City Planning Commission.

Counter to the previous design, small hills replaced valleys, sleek benches replaced concrete knee walls, and stylish lights banish darkness and shadow. Safety no longer is an issue as hundreds fill the park daily for lunch, relaxation or work.

On Wednesdays in summer, the park serves as the "dining room" for the popular Walnut Wednesdays food truck round-up. The site also became home to the revived Pop-Up Party in the Plaza (nee Party in the Park) events, hosted by Downtown Cleveland Alliance throughout summer.

Linda Henrichsen of the Cleveland City Planning Commission says the city will explore expanding programming and adding amenities at the park.

“As with any of our public space projects, we will evaluate how the park is being used and community needs around the space,” says Henrichsen. “There is always a possibility of another round of fundraising at some point to add features.”

Market Square Park
Corner of Lorain Avenue and W. 25th Street

Market Square, like other public spaces on this list, wasn’t always a neighborhood darling. But with the well-documented revitalization of Ohio City, community leaders saw an opportunity to turn the decaying, unsafe space into a cultural meeting ground for residents from across the city. Now, visitors to the area's many attractions have an urban, active space to enjoy lunch on new tables and benches in front of a backdrop of fresh-painted murals.

“The goal of the redesigned park was to create a park that was more open, easier to program, and that embraced -- rather than turned its back to -- all of the activity in the surrounding Market District,” explains Eric Wobser, Executive Director of Ohio City Inc. “LAND studio led a process that brought on City Architecture to work with the community to do a conceptual design of the park.”

Following a $1 million renovation, Market Square Park celebrated its public unveiling in early June, officially kicking off the West Side Market Centennial celebrations.

Moving forward, Wobser says that by increasing the park’s exposure the neighborhood will work to ensure that the park is used as often as possible.

“Additionally, adjacent businesses are enhancing their own storefronts and properties in order to take advantage of the beautiful new public space," he adds.

Rockefeller Park
Follows MLK Boulevard from Shoreway to University Circle

“Rockefeller Park is a remarkable urban space," asserts Chris Bongorno, Director of Planning at University Circle Inc. “[It] gave Cleveland’s rapidly urbanizing east side a convenient and extensive recreational network where it could escape the hustle and heat of the city blocks and find shade, fresh water and a safe place for kids to play.”

Most locals know the name goes back to Mr. Monopoly himself, John D. Rockefeller, who in 1897 gifted 276 acres of land to Cleveland. The space, which stretches from Gordon Park on the lakefront clear down to Shaker Heights, arguably has become the cultural heart of Cleveland thanks in no small part to 25 or so ethnic-inspired gardens.

“The Cultural Gardens offer a variety of historic and modern monuments, fountains and landscaping that teach us about the history of our peaceful multi-cultural existence and offer a series of places for respite, reflection and inspiration,” explains Bongorno, who just so happened to propose to his wife in the Lithuanian Cultural Garden. “I had my eyes set on making my pitch in the Italian Garden, where I thought we might have our ceremony. But the moment was right as we sat in front of Jonas Basanavicius in the Lithuanian Garden, so I went for it.”

A recent addition to the lengthy park is the Harrison-Dillard Bikeway, a 3.7-mile trail that links the Lakefront Bikeway to the Lake-to-Lakes Bikeway.

Looking ahead, there's more on the horizon, says Bongorno, “There’s a delicate balance here and it remains to be seen what recommendations come out of these conversations.”

Two to watch:

Detroit-Superior Bridge, lower level

The Bridge Project aims to transform the now-vacated one-mile span that runs between W. 9th and W. 25th to a sheltered connection for pedestrians and bicyclists between Public Square, the Flats, and the city’s west side neighborhoods.

“We expect that exhibiting artists and performers would transform spaces within this span into gallery and performance space, and that food and beverage vendors would also take advantage of the flow of traffic," says local visionary James Levin.

Rotary Club of Cleveland W. 25th Street Rapid Site

This three-mile stretch of land follows along the tracks of RTA's Red Line, and it has been maintained and improved for more than 30 years by the Rotary Club of Cleveland. A new and promising plan by the Rotary and others would convert this unused but attractive space into a new public greenway and trail connecting five diverse Cleveland neighborhoods.

“Once the green space becomes open, Clevelanders would be able to walk or bike from W. 65th all the way downtown in green parkland, providing a cool, contiguous green experience in the center of the city," explains Sam McNulty, entrepreneur and avid biker.

Photos Bob Perkoski
- Image of Perk Plaza before restoration courtesy of LAND studio
- Public Square future rendering by James Corner Field Operations

Joe Baur
Joe Baur

About the Author: Joe Baur

Joe Baur is an author, writer and filmmaker who has worked for a variety of local and national publications including Matador Network, Yahoo! Travel, National Geographic and BBC Travel. In addition to freelance writing, he is the author of Best Hikes Near Cleveland and director of numerous travelogues from across the globe. You'll currently find him working in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, because spending the first year of marriage where others vacation seemed like a good idea.