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The Towpath Trail: User Connection—Not Size or Shape—Defines a Strong “Sense of Place”

Written by: Michelle Johnson- Director

The definition of “sense of place” is different for everyone. It can be physical, natural, cultural, social, geographic – I’m sure this list goes on and on. Sense of place is a connection with space that triggers different emotional reactions to relationships to place. Jennifer E. Cross categorizes connections to place into six types of relationships: biographical, spiritual, ideological, narrative, commodified, and dependent.[1]

Our emotional connections to places can be so strong that they are almost tangible. What is the first “place” that you think of when you mentally identify your strongest “sense of place”?

I will never forget my first solo experience on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail.

It was December of 2004, one of the snowiest winters we have had in Northeast Ohio in recent years. I had recently gotten engaged to my now-husband, quit my government job in Cincinnati, and moved to the Cleveland area to start our new life together as a young couple. We decided to live adjacent to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park because of the unlimited beauty, hiking, biking and skiing the park had to offer. Within the first week of living here, I discovered my two favorite places in Northeast Ohio – The Westside Market and the Towpath Trail. I was on my first hike during the day without my husband and I bundled up in every article of ski and snow gear I had to take a walk on the Towpath Trail. There was over 4 feet of accumulated snow on the ground. Other than the sound of branches snapping every few minutes giving in to the weight of the enormity of the winter snow, the park was white and silent. About a half of a mile south of the Brandywine Trailhead, I started hearing the loudest crunching of ice and snow breaking ahead. A runner came speeding around the bend.

Multi-use trail

His winter running gear was nothing like I had ever seen before and he was smiling from ear to ear. He stopped dead in his tracks as soon as he saw me, still with the most energetic smile and exclaimed, “Have you seen this place!?!” (The sarcastic reaction in my head was, “Of course I have seen this place; I’m standing right here!”) After saying our hellos, he explained to me that he was in town for business and he had heard about the Towpath Trail, so he brought his running gear this trip. This young man was absolutely loving everything about the Towpath Trail (he didn’t realize he was in a National Park) and he couldn’t understand why people had such a negative perception of Northeast Ohio. This single trail had made him fall in love with Northeast Ohio. What stuck with me from this quick conversation was that this out of town runner referred to the Towpath Trail as a “place”.

Most people think of the Towpath as a trail, specifically a long north/south linear trail. Historically it was a trail that was adjacent to the Ohio & Erie Canal that mules walked along side of and literally towed boats that were filled with people and goods. Now it has been retrofitted by four park districts and become the region’s premier hiking and biking trail. How often, though, do we think of, and more importantly design, linear projects with the notion of ‘sense of place’ in the forefront of our minds? The winter runner’s notion of a trail having a sense of place, so much so that he was stopping people along the way to talk about it and share his amazement, has stuck with me since that day.

This is partly why I love what I do.  We get to create and connect people to better places that can define us individually and as a community. Every day we work with communities on redefining who we are, reconnecting us to each other, moving us forward and reinvesting in what matters.  We get to shape our communities to make them different, historic, breathtaking and authentic. Sometimes that doesn’t translate into a new project. Sometimes it’s just as easy as getting people to get out and explore what is already here – our place – whatever that may be.

Next time you are looking for something to do, or a place to get the kids out of the house, I encourage you to visit that place that makes you want to stop everyone in their tracks and say, “Have you seen this place!?!”  Who knows . . . you might find yourself on the Towpath Trail.

[1] Jennifer E. Cross, What is Sense of Place?, November 2001. Department of Sociology, Colorado State University.


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