History & Master Plan

History & Master Plan

Historical photograph of a Cincinnati Parks pool

Today’s Cincinnati Parks constitutes more than 5,000 acres, which amounts to approximately 10 percent of the City’s total land area. We’re considered among the best in the nation. As you travel through the city’s greenspaces with this site, you will see ample evidence of the Cincinnati Park Board’s ongoing efforts to preserve the best of the past and carry a long tradition of excellence into the future. But our parks system, like our beautiful riverfront city, grew from humble beginnings.

Cincinnati was formed in 1788, and a donation of land became the city’s first park in 1817. You can still visit it today: downtown’s Piatt Park along Eighth Street between Vine and Elm streets (it’s the park with the only equestrian statue in Cincinnati, that of 9th president William Henry Harrison, who made his home in nearby North Bend, Ohio).

Within a couple of decades Procter and Gamble was founded, and by the mid-19th century Cincinnati was America’s fastest growing city. In 1859 the city began acquiring land for what remains a jewel in the Parks’ crown: Eden Park, created for the purpose of building a new reservoir and which went on to become home to the Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati Art Academy, Playhouse in the Park, Murray Seasongood Pavilion, and Krohn Conservatory.

In 1860 Washington Park was formed on reclaimed cemetery land in today’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood, and then a donation of land brought about Hopkins Park in Mt. Auburn in 1866.

About this time the Cincinnati Red Stockings became America’s first professional baseball team, winning 130 straight games between 1869 and 1870. A winning park, Burnet Woods, was soon created in 1872 on what was a large suburban tract of land, and then within the next decade the University of Cincinnati was established nearby. During the next century, the city would lay groundwork for the parks system that is today nationally renowned by creating a permanent park commission and designating funds for a comprehensive park plan.

Early 20th Century’s Visionary Plan

Historical photograph of Cincinnati Parks

In the new century Cincinnati took the step of forming the Board of Park Commissioners in 1906. By the next year they’d laid the foundation of today’s Cincinnati Parks with the 1907 plan, “A Park System for the City of Cincinnati,” by George Kessler (1862-1923), a landscape architect and native of Germany.

Kessler’s popular design for a pleasure park as a destination for a railroad company in Kansas had brought him other commissions, including Roland Park in Baltimore and Euclid Heights in Cleveland.

After planning the layout of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Kessler was very much in demand, particularly throughout the Midwest. When hired to develop a plan for a Cincinnati park system, Kessler stressed the importance of relieving congestion of crowded conditions and traffic in the city, and the need to secure land before it was developed. His plan promoted the use of hillsides to provide distant views and overlooks and to create desirable residential neighborhoods.

By the early 1920’s, most of the parks recommended in the 1907 plan had been established through an aggressive campaign of land acquisitions. From 1907 through 1925, 70 parks, playgrounds and squares had been established, some with the help of major donations. Landmark parks that came about soon after the Kessler Plan included Mt. Airy Forest, Ault Park and Mt. Storm Park.

From the Great Depression through Today

historical photograph of a band concert in Eden Park

During the Great Depression, Cincinnati Parks benefited tremendously from federal relief programs which were established to put masses of unemployed Americans to work. The fact that park projects were already planned gave the City of Cincinnati an advantage in applying for federal assistance. Celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2008 was the Depression-era addition of Krohn Conservatory in Eden Park, which today serves as a model of innovation in conservation and display of thousands of varieties of international plant species.

As the “New Deal” came to an end with the advent of World War II, Cincinnati’s parks were left with a permanent legacy of attractive amenities. Of the 135 structures existing in Cincinnati parks today, nearly half were produced during the period from 1929 to 1943. During the war, park development slowed, but post-war prosperity and the “baby boom” spurred the growth of parks during the 1950s and 1960s.

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By the 1980s, the parks system had reached maturity and efforts shifted to maintenance of the existing system. In the 1990s, a renewed commitment to conserving and developing our park legacy led to a new planning effort, “Planting the Future – the Cincinnati Parks and Greenways Plan,” approved by City Council in December 1992, and the Cincinnati Parks Foundation was established in 1995 to help finance maintenance of our parks legacy.

But we weren’t necessarily finished with our creative endeavors. In the 21st century one of our most exciting park additions came about with creation of the Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park in 2003 on the downtown riverfront. Also, an ambitious plan for the Cincinnati Riverfront Park broke ground in 2008. With the ribbon cutting of Phase 1 of the John G. & Phyllis W. Smale Riverfront Park on May 18, 2012 which included the Schmidlapp Stage and Event Lawn, The Walnut Street Grand Staircase and interactive fountain, the Main Street Fountain, the Black Brigade Monument, an interactive Labyrinth, the new Cincinnati Bike and Visitor’s Center and the Moerlein Lager House.

In addition, in 2011 Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point, Yeatman’s Cove, the Serpentine Wall, the Public Landing and the Showboat Majestic were all transferred by Cincinnati City Council to the Board of Park Commissioners, creating an over 2 mile stretch of Cincinnati Parks along the Ohio River.

Today, the Cincinnati Park Board manages the City of Cincinnati’s parklands, and our management vision states that the city’s parks should be clean, safe, reliable, green and beautiful. The 5,000-plus acres of city parklands consist of five regional parks, 70 neighborhood parks, 34 natural areas, five neighborhood nature centers, 30 sites managed by the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, five parkways, 16 scenic overlooks and 65 miles of hiking and bridle trails.

Specialized park property includes the Cincinnati Zoo, Pioneer Cemetery, Victory Parkway Fields, Krohn Conservatory and Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park. Park Board responsibilities extend to managing the City’s non-park natural resources, including Urban Forestry’s 80,000 street trees, and select highway green spaces and neighborhood gateways. Cincinnati Parks offers outstanding outdoor settings and unique facilities for leisure activities, nature education, floral exhibits, social functions and more.

In September 2007, after two years of planning and broad-based community participation, Cincinnati City Council adopted the “Cincinnati Parks 2007 Centennial Master Plan” in order to carry our vision for continued creativity and vitality in our city’s parks system into the future. The plan is a blueprint for Cincinnati Parks for the next 20 to 30 years.

Based on the 1992 comprehensive Parks Master Plan “Planting the Future”, and coming on the 100th anniversary of the first Parks Plan by George Kessler in 1907, the new plan outlines goals for city parks and city development, and describes strategies and funding mechanisms to ensure those goals happen. The plan addresses capital improvements, operations and services and envisions an extended park system of linked greenways and parkways.

Public participation in plan development was sought through a citywide survey, numerous focus groups, a series of town meetings and two citizen steering committees which helped guide the planning process. The planning team assessed other park systems and sought out best practices, reviewed pertinent research, communicated with various park partners and stakeholders, and incorporated Regional Park and environmental initiatives – all to formulate a forward-thinking, realistic and comprehensive approach to the enhancement and conservation of Cincinnati’s parks and public greenspace.

As a result, Cincinnatians can look forward to new bike trails and greenway corridors, expansion of the parkway system, preservation of river and stream corridors and hillsides and improvements to neighborhood parks and regional parks. In response to the trend of more citizens moving into the city’s core, concentration of park improvements in the downtown and basin area and in the Uptown area are too, considered key. All of these improvements will come about with new staff positions to sustain park operations and new funding avenues, including designating a portion of existing general fund tax support for parks. We’ll seek increased sponsorships for programs and facilities; a limited number of new and enhanced rental facilities will also provide revenue, along with new parks restaurants and cafes.

As they stand today, Cincinnati Parks offer outstanding outdoor settings and unique facilities for leisure activities, nature education, floral exhibits, social functions, and more. The way we see it, they’re only going to get better. As you use this site to find new parks to explore, remember: visiting Cincinnati parks is a long-held tradition for our citizens.

Future of Parks

The Centennial Master Plan is the City’s blueprint for the conservation, restoration and enhancement of the Cincinnati park system. It was adopted 100 years after the first park master plan, the Kessler Plan, of 1907. The plan guides the administration, management and improvement of parks by the Board of Park Commissioners and it was approved in the Fall of 2007 as a decision-making guide by the City Planning Commission and by City Council. It represents a broad-based community consensus on the future of the park system.