Riverfront Commons: Dream to Vision to Community Transformation

A few simple words from an elementary school teacher have guided me for decades: “Dreams build the future, but only if they are followed by actions.” Most of the great places we enjoy are the result of people turning dreams into actions for others to enjoy. Many of these dreams have been built in the Cincinnati area, where I call home. One such dream that recently has become a reality illustrates the power of capturing the imagination and efforts of a region working together to provide a brighter future for all involved.

What started as an idea for a riverside trail by Southbank Partners, a community and economic development organization, turned into a vision for the 11.5-mile Riverfront Commons. With the Ohio River as a backdrop, the multifaceted walking and biking path unites people from six cities and three counties and brings them together through a park and events open-space system. The evolution of this public connector has led to parks, greenways and event areas within the greater Riverfront Commons, carried forward by the actions of volunteers and community leaders from more than three dozen private and public organizations. This collaborative effort promotes community, economic development and tourism, and fosters quality urban living and connectivity.

Southbank Partners is comprised of six cities, three counties and multiple business leaders throughout Northern Kentucky. The group was formed in 1997 when the decision was made to build the Northern Kentucky Convention Center along the Ohio River in Covington. The cities of Bellevue, Newport and Covington formed the group with the goal of making their communities more vibrant places to live and work—and of making their dreams become realities. Southbank Partners gave the cities critical mass to support key initiatives such as Southbank Shuttle, the Purple People Bridge, Newport on the Levee, the World Peace Bell and many others.

It was in early 2000 that the idea for the Riverfront Commons was born. The walking and biking trail would connect Ludlow on the west to Fort Thomas on the east along the Ohio riverfront. The project brought the Kentucky cities of Ludlow, Dayton and Fort Thomas into the partnership, and initiated the development of an interlocal agreement to collaborate on projects of mutual and regional benefit. Riverfront Commons was one central component of the plan, and one which is proving the value of well-planned and executed recreational and alternative transportation development to enhance the experience of living, playing and working in the Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati region.

The planning process for Riverfront Commons combined a community-based vision with comprehensive open space and recreational design, transportation planning, integrated shoreline engineering and permitting, as well as creative community-backed funding solicitation. Today, with the help of more than $20 million in grants, Riverfront Commons is taking shape. There are almost 4.5 miles of the proposed trail completed, segments totaling another 1.5 miles ready to construct and three new pedestrian bridges connecting new trails to roadway bridges to Cincinnati. New parks valued at more than $10 million are under construction, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified more than $7 million in shoreline stabilization eligible for federal funding. New office, retail, hospitality and residential development also is underway in each of the riverfront cities, illustrating the success of the revitalization.

As Riverfront Commons continues to develop, it is transforming community dreams into regional opportunities to enhance quality of life, protect the shoreline, and conserve and replace the natural habitat, while unifying recreational and economic development assets. Through the inspiration of the many members of the riverfront communities who participated in the vision meetings and planning charrettes, the realization of this connector became bolder and more inclusive, creating cohesive and collaborative riverfront communities.

This blog is the first in a three-part series. In the next installment, I’ll discuss how Southbank Partners communities pulled together to capture the attention of grant-makers and developers, highlighting some of the exciting public and private projects leading the resurgence in Northern Kentucky.

Bruce Rankin

Woolpert Senior Landscape Architect Bruce Rankin, PLA, ASLA, is an award-winning designer with more than 40 years of experience in land planning, site and landscape design.