Creative Fusion: Designing for Access and Sustainability


Douglas Paige | Cleveland

Lukas Kronawitter | Germany


Cleveland Institute of Art


The Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion’s projects in 2019 dare to confront Northeast Ohioans with one of the most embarrassing episodes in our region’s history, in the hope that we heed its warnings for our own era.

June 22 marks the half-centennial anniversary of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire. In the national imagination, the river fire remains tightly bound to many Americans’ idea of Cleveland. During FRONT Triennial and the 2016 Republican National Convention, artistic and political writers around the country made the fire their go-to illustration of Cleveland’s grittiness, and their go-to punchline.

But even the national press’ most acerbic wisecracks did not acknowledge that the ’69 fire was only the last chapter of a long, shameful story. In the century before 1969, at least thirteen fires lit up the Cuyahoga. The ’69 blaze was not even the largest or most costly blaze (that infamy goes to a 1952 inferno). It was, however, the only the one to attract the attention of Time magazine and its millions of readers. National revulsion at Ohio’s flammable water was one impetus behind a slew of Nixon-era environmental actions, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and 1972 Clean Water Act.

Over subsequent decades, the river did improve. The state’s EPA recently cleared Ohioans to eat fish from the Cuyahoga, albeit only once per month. However, there is more to a waterway’s health than the absence of industrial waste. Invasive species like zebra mussels and Asian carp can devastate indigenous plants and animals. Excessive nitrogen runoff can cause toxic algae blooms, like those which have terrorized Toledo in recent years. And clean water doesn’t do the public any good if the pipes carrying it slough off lead.

Designers Douglas Paige (Cleveland) and Lukas Kronawitter (Germany) undertook a six-month collaboration between January and June to develop concepts for sustainable bulkheads—the barriers that define the edge of the river as they line its banks. Paige is a professor of industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He was crucial to the University of Akron’s establishment of an Integrated Bioscience PhD program. Paige’s work employs “biomimicry,” the imitation of biological structures and processes in artificial designs. Kronawitter is an architect and planner based out of Berlin, Germany. He has served as global programs coordinator for the CIEE Global Architecture and Design program, and as director of Terreform ONE, a nonprofit urban sustainability consultancy. He literally wrote the book on Water Sensitive Urban Design.

Existing bulkheads along the Cuyhahoga River are mostly steel, like these at Hart Crane Park near the Columbus Road lift bridge.

Though Paige and Kronawitter had not worked together before, biomimicry design culture is a small world. Through a German colleague, Paige extended an invitation to Kronawitter, which the latter accepted. Though Kronawitter has overseen projects in New York, he had never been to Ohio before. Especially after hearing 2016 US presidential candidates’ rhetoric about Appalachia and the Rust Belt, Kronawitter was swept up in renewed international attention towards the Midwest.

“The election really put it under the magnifying glass,” Kronawitter said. “It’s a very interesting region that maybe demands more attention than it receives.”

Paige and Kronawitter have focused on designing better bulkheads, barriers intended to retain the shape and depth of waterways. Local bulkheads include the concrete and metal walls which define the contours of the Cuyahoga as it runs through the Flats, and the shoreside piles of boulders at Lakewood Park and Edgewater Park.

Paige identified three stakeholders in river construction projects: commerce, the community, and the environment. Bulkhead design has traditionally tilted sharply in the direction of just one of these interested parties: commerce. Rivers are deepened to accommodate huge container ships, and maintained to permit those vessels to make their wide turns.

Kronawitter explains that in nature, rivers are typically sheathed for several hundred meters by a riparian zone. The riparian is inhabited by plants and animals specifically adapted to both live near rivers and maintain their home waterway. Animals that live and hunt in rivers circulate nutrients throughout their habitats, and riparian trees put down root systems that decrease soil erosion and flooding. However, Kronawitter says that in artificial canals and docks, the barrier between land and water is more abrupt—only between two and fifteen meters. And designers generally do not concern themselves with wildlife, or even non-commercial use of rivers by the local population.

The Creative Fusion collaboration is a conceptual project. Kronawitter and Paige’s ideas would require additional input from engineers—and also buy-in from a community—before they would be ready to be implemented. However, the two designers hope their work will prompt further discussion about how rivers can both be preserved and made accessible to those who live on their banks. Emphasizing that he does not have a particular stretch of river in mind, Kronawitter said that he hopes parts of the Cuyahoga might one day be opened to swimmers. Making rivers a site of recreation would deepen residents’ appreciation and investment in waterways.

“As a public amenity, it’s fun to swim in water. But we need a clear connection to nature,” Kronawitter said. Especially under the threat of climate change, we can’t continue to think of rivers as just “a convenient place to put waste.”

Appropriately, Paige and Kronawitter’s collaboration is itself a community endeavor. CIA students are assisting with research as well as the creation of explanatory materials and to-scale models. And the work-in-progress will be viewable during Cuyahoga50 celebrations at Rivergate Park. Creative Fusion and more than 200 other organizations are participating in Cuyahoga50 events, which range from volunteering opportunities to student art shows, historic lectures, and a “Blazing Paddles” river race for kayakers and canoeists. Paige and Kronawitter plan to host a discussion in mid-June about their designs, biomimicry, and other sustainability topics. The hope is that public engagement will create more interest in eco-conscious building and design.

“It’s a very long project, and could develop further,” Paige said. “Reaching out to the community, we’re trying to understand needs, and about what a solution should involve.”