Columbus Commons – The Latest Effort to Bring Parkland To The City

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Downtown Columbus has a new park at the site of the demolished City Center Mall. WOSU Commentator Ed Lentz traces the history of parks in Columbus.
Downtown Columbus has a new park at the site of the demolished City Center Mall. WOSU Commentator Ed Lentz traces the history of parks in Columbus.

I am one of those people who happen to think that just about any time is a good time to visit downtown Columbus. As the central place in central Ohio, Columbus has – for almost 200 years – been the focus of state power and authority and a major center of transport and trade.

It has also been the place where people have come simply to have a good time. Even with the rise of suburbia, many people still do. And even more people will be coming as the city approaches its two hundredth anniversary in 2012.

One of the places they will be visiting in larger and larger numbers is a major public park called Columbus Commons. Built on the site of the former Columbus City Center shopping mall, amenities at the park include food facilities, an outside library, music and other performances and a full-sized carousel. By 2012, a major concert venue at the north end of the park will be completed as well. It promises to be quite a place and a welcome addition to the than 215 parks administered by the city Department of Recreation and Parks.

All of these fine parks and their long history of service might lead one to believe that the capital city has always had public parks. And in this one would only be partially correct and only then by a little convolution.

Columbus was founded in 1812 and for most of its early history – for 40 years in fact – it had no public parks. In 1851 Dr. Lincoln Goodale gave the city its first park – Goodale Park – on the north side of downtown. The curious might inquire – what did people do for parks until Dr. Goodale decided to be generous?

The short answer would be -initially, not much at all.

People living in Columbus faced many challenges in carving a new home from the vast forest that covered much of central Ohio. But finding a place away from the noise and bustle of the village was not all that hard. All one had to do was walk out the back door of a house and in a few minutes all the peace and privacy one could ever want was at hand – with an occasional interruption by passing bears, wolves and buffalo.

With the coming of the National Road and Ohio Canal, Columbus became a bigger, more bustling sort of place and people began to feel the need of a place like a park. Without any parks around, the residents of Columbus used the next best thing – places that looked like parks.

The people of Columbus were fortunate in that the Ohio General assembly had designated the capital city as the place to locate major facilities for people who against their will or because of it were wards of the state. Large institutions like the Deaf School, the Blind School, and the Penitentiary were built here. And all of them had spacious grounds.

So on a pleasant day in May 150 years ago, one might find more than a few families enjoying a picnic lunch on the lawn of the Lunatic Asylum or on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse. These places were purported to “belong to the people.” So at least some of the people decided to put their belongings to good use.

But by the late 1840′s, a movement was sweeping across America that valued green space as a check to the growing size and power of the industrial city. This movement had advocates as diverse as Henry David Thoreau and Edgar Allen Poe. It expressed itself in Columbus in the abandonment of the Old North Graveyard for Green Lawn Cemetery and in the grateful acceptance of Goodale Park by the city. This was only the beginning. Over the next century and a half, Columbus grew and became the largest city in land area in the state. And its park system grew as well.

And with the arrival of Columbus Commons it continues to grow. I don’t know about you, but to me a carousel beats a bear in the woods any old day.