On any given day as you commute north toward downtown Cleveland or travel south to the airport or Akron, it's easy to miss the essence of the Cuyahoga River Valley beneath the bustling highways. But a group of businesspeople and government officials haven't missed it; they see the valley as a rich resource and potential wellspring for change. The Cuyahoga Valley Initiative, spearheaded by the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, is a kind of roadmap for creating a place that defines our economy, our recreation, our residences and even our food. ideastream's Shula Neuman has been exploring the valley for our series Making Change: Reinventing our Economy, and has the first of a three-part story.
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You might not think the Cuyahoga River Valley is such a beautiful place. After all, it's not a river that beckons you to splash around in it; when viewed from downtown Cleveland its shores resemble industrial wastelands. But to Paul Alsenas, director of planning for Cuyahoga County, it's an amazing place - not so much for what it has now, but for what it can become.
Paul Alsenas: Part of the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative future is about trying to bring this back as a river that can serve both the industrial and economic needs of the area. But more importantly is to start to begin to understand the ecological and natural functions that the river provides. And the future of this place will be a river that is healthy; a river that is good for the fish as well as industry.
Alsenas' enthusiasm is infectious. Traveling through the valley from downtown Cleveland south, the vision becomes clearer... and exciting. When you think of the variety of roles rivers play - industrial, recreational and ecological - the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative seems to offer innumerable opportunities.
Paul Alsenas: We're standing at what's called Tremont Ridge, right in front of the University Inn and just south of the bridge that caries I-71, I-90 traffic across the river to downtown.
Down below are smaller bridges, the navigation channel, railroad tracks and piles of limestone, sand and bulk. Alsenas points to the interstate bridge, which stands more than 100 feet above the river. It's gray, rusty, steel girders support the deck where the cars zip by. The bridge is slated for reconstruction and Alsenas says that presents an opportunity.
Paul Alsenas: We have a decision in front of us. We have a decision to be sustainable or we have a decision to do things the old way. We could just on in and replace a million square feet of bridge deck the traditional way and have this bridge serve us for another forty years or we can put on a new pair of glasses and think about the world class opportunity we have here to do something dramatically different.
For starters, Alsenas says, why not build a cable-stay bridge to replace the current structure - with cables swooping up to supporting towers high in the sky and the deck further below, allowing for a better view of downtown Cleveland's skyline. Alsenas says, using the vision of the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative the bridge could be re-routed to meet up with the innerbelt further south - eliminating the barrier between downtown, the Post Office and Tri-C. Alsenas says the initiative is about finding opportunities for creativity and innovation.
Paul Alsenas: We are a city of innovation. That is our history, but the innovation we're talking about is basic innovation that can be done by civil engineers, teachers, biologists, artists. So now you're doing a solution to a product or a service need that comes from many directions. That's what this Cuyahoga Valley Initiative is: it's a tremendous opportunity to be transformational.
Further down the valley, Alsenas provides another example of what the valley would look like once the initiative moves from concept to reality.
Paul Alsenas: We're now standing on the banks of the Cuyahoga River of what is now known as the turning basin, which is off to the left. This is the spot where big oar carriers can go up river, deposit the taconite and the limestone and other products for steel making and then they can sort of back in and do a u-turn and then go back out to the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. So it's called a turning basin.
This area, just south of the I-490 bridge on the east side of the river, is where John D. Rockefeller first set up his empire. An open meadow on the east bank of the turning basin is bracketed by a tangle of railroad tracks. Various factories and industrial offices are located here and you can see ISG's major works a bit to the south. Alsenas says the proximity of these businesses present the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative's most revolutionary opportunity, something called "industrial symbiosis." Alsenas says industrial symbiosis works like natural ecology.
Paul Alsenas: An ecology of industry where nutrients flow from one form of life to another and make it tremendously efficient and so therefore we have a competitive advantage. The Cuyahoga Valley Initiative is not just about sustainability; it's also whole systems thinking, it's also competitive strategy.
Waste from one company - a chemical by-product perhaps - is used by a neighboring company to create its product. And that company's product is then sold to yet another company within the valley - and so on. Alsenas says the turning basin is a "regenerative zone," a starting point for putting the concepts behind the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative to the test. The companies located there are already finding ways to re-use their resources - at the same time, efforts to create recreational opportunities, connect neighborhoods and restore the natural environment are also underway. Alsenas says the outcome of these efforts in the regenerative zone point to the potential the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative has to improve the entire region's well-being. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.