The Other Emerald Necklace: Exploring Cleveland by Bike

Bostonians might be surprised to learn that we are not the only ones with an “Emerald Necklace”. The City of Cleveland, Ohio boasts a ring of parks with the same name. Intrigued, my wife Ann Marie and I set out to discover how Cleveland’s Emerald Necklace matched up with the original. Exploring Cleveland by bike seemed like the best way to go about it.

 Photo: Jim O'Connell

The Cleveland Metroparks were established in 1917 as an extension of a smaller number of central city parks. The Metroparks encircle the outskirts of the city in a circumference eight to twelve miles from downtown. By size, the Metroparks are more comparable to Charles Eliot’s Metropolitan Park System, which circles around Greater Boston, than they are to Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace.

Cleveland’s Metroparks adopted the name “Emerald Necklace” to honor the inspiration of Olmsted’s Boston park system. In Cleveland, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., made recommendations for the original Metroparks plan, but contributed nothing documented afterwards. The driving force was William Stinchcomb, who served as Director of the Metroparks 1917-1957. Stinchcomb not only provided the overall vision for the park system, but also acquired, designed, and maintained the parkland.

Cleveland’s Emerald Necklace includes a long, lean, 56-mile greenway path that follows the Rocky River and Chagrin River Valleys. In some places, the Emerald Necklace is simply a quarter-mile-wide green space with a two-lane parkway and parallel paved shared-use trail. At several points, the path connects into much larger parks with picnic groves and hiking paths. The parkways maintain a verdant impression because they run along the bottom of river valleys and are separated from residential and commercial development. The bike trail is a remarkable recreational amenity; but it is not useful for commuting because of its remoteness from most neighborhoods. If you don’t bring your own bike, there are no rental facilities along the Emerald Necklace, which curbs bike riding for most visitors.

Photo: Jim O'Connell

On its southern edge, the Emerald Necklace is bisected by Ohio’s Towpath Trail. The Towpath Trail runs 80+ miles from Lake Erie south along the Cuyahoga River and the former Ohio & Erie Canal, and through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Fortunately, rental bikes are available in the national park. On our bikes, Ann Marie and I pedaled past the rushing river, little 19th-century towns, crumbling rocks, and forest glades. Like the Necklace, the Towpath Trail is a terrific recreational resource, but would not be considered an everyday transportation route.

On our final day we opted for a more urban bike experience, joining a two-hour bike tour around downtown with Cleveland Bike Tours. Since rain was threatening, we were the only ones on the tour, so we received the full attention of our guide Joe Christensen. The 5-mile bike tour took us past the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Public Square, the expansive City Beautiful-Era Cleveland Mall civic center, and the stadiums of the Browns, Indians, and Cavaliers. Since it was Saturday, the streets were quiet and the biking leisurely.

Our experience in Cleveland was enhanced by meeting with Kelly Coffman, Senior Strategic Planner, of Cleveland Metroparks, and National Park Service Rivers & Trails planners Andrea Irland and Rory Robinson. They expressed great enthusiasm for the progress that Cleveland has been making as a bicycle community and hope for increased appreciation for the “Emerald Necklace” and its bike and walking trails.

Overall we were pleased with our biking experience in Cleveland, but also surprised that “People for Bikes” website ranked Cleveland #14, with the City receiving high marks for safety, bike infrastructure, and public engagement.

The City has just started to lay out separated bike lanes on its grid of wide streets. And the nascent shared biked system—UH Bikes—has 250+ bikes at 30+ stations, which falls short of Boston’s Blue Bikes, with 1,800 bikes and 200+ stations. The UH Bikes are mostly limited to the downtown and University Circle area. If Cleveland can continue to push aggressively for the bicycle as transportation, I think they can grow into their ranking.

Jim O’Connell teaches in the City Planning-Urban Affairs Program at Boston University and is the author of the Hub’s Metropolis: Greater Boston’s Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth.