Columbus, Ohio is a city famous as a state capital, a center of art, and for its massive university—not for its natural features. But in the coming years, it could be. Columbus’ two rivers — the Olentangy and Scioto — merge directly north of downtown Columbus and flow together through the capital, but the impact isn’t particularly noteworthy. The combined rivers don’t have the width of the Ohio River as it runs through Cincinnati or the breathtaking views of Pittsburgh’s three rivers culminating in the golden triangle. As a variety of plans come to fruition, however, the Olentangy and Scioto are becoming the center of an iconic series of parks and natural areas that will reconnect Columbus to its rivers.
Containing the Rivers
Columbus’ civic leaders have often sought to build a city that reflects its capital status. During the City Beautiful era, leaders envisioned a grand civic center linking Ohio’s Statehouse with the Scioto River downtown. The plan did not fully come to fruition — though remnants of the plan exist in the form of the City Hall, Ohio’s Supreme Court, and a former high school — but the project did complete the construction of dams along the city’s rivers. The dams prevented occasional flooding and allowed the Scioto River to be reconfigured into a wide, still pool of water that reflects the skyscrapers of downtown Columbus. The side effects of the new dams, however, was a slow-moving, foul-smelling, and non-navigable river.
Reimagining the Riverfront
Since the initial changes to the Scioto River, the city made impressive improvements to the riverfront in the form of new parks and riverfront promenades. The parks, however, were constructed meters above the waterline because the dammed river was slow-moving, rank, and largely devoid of life. Fortunately, the success of the new riverfront facilities encouraged city leaders and local planners to begin an ambitious new riverfront makeover.
As part of the 2010 downtown Columbus plan produced by local firm MKSK, the city adopted a vision for removing the dams blocking the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers and returning the rivers to a more natural state. With the dams removed, the unnaturally bloated rivers would slim down, freeing up acres of land on both banks. The removal of dams was also proposed as a way to allow the rivers to flow more quickly, promoting a cleaner river that can support fish and wildlife populations. The freed rivers were also predicted to run deeper, creating a navigable stream for kayaks, canoes and other small watercraft.
Releasing the River
In 2013, two low-head dams were finally removed along the Olentangy and Scioto Rivers. This allowed the waters built-up behind each dam to flow freely, uncovering space on the banks of the rivers for new parkland. The first dam to be removed, just south of the massive Ohio State University, slimmed the river significantly, allowing room for new trails and parks that border the university’s campus. Local planners have suggested the new riverfront space will be a popular gathering area for students and staff.
A second dam, just south of downtown Columbus, was removed to allow the natural flow of the Scioto River through the city center. With the dam removed, long-submerged land has reappeared along the bank and the river is now naturally flowing from Ohio State’s campus through downtown Columbus and beyond.
With both dams removed, the city, university and local partners intend to invest millions of dollars to create acres of new parkland along the river. Plans are still evolving, but the new space will finally reunite downtown residents and office workers to the rivers in the heart of Columbus.