CASE STUDY: Implementing a Sustainability Strategy to Revitalize and Enhance Resiliency of an Urban Great Lakes Waterfront in Toledo, OH

Case Study
Implementing a Sustainability Strategy to Revitalize and Enhance Resiliency of an Urban Great Lakes Waterfront in Toledo, OH

Toledo, OH

2012 – ongoing

Toledo, Ohio has traveled a typical Rust Belt trajectory – booming industrial economy, environmental decline, economic downturn, and contraction. The city’s next chapter is a less certain one, and Toledo wants to get it right by rebuilding in a sensible, sustainable way and reconnecting its citizens and industries to its waterfront. While making strides in that direction, the city and surrounding region found that they needed a coherent story to describe where they’d been, and where they were going. By forming the Toledo-Lucas County Sustainably Commission in 2012 and articulating that vision in the “Greater Toledo: Going Beyond Green Regional Sustainability Plan” in 2014, the community found themselves in a better position to compete for funds and share their experiences in managing toward a “triple bottom line,” an approach that is responsive to natural, social, and economic needs.

One important priority that emerged from that plan was around water quality (access to clean water for commerce, recreation, and drinking) as well as water quantity (dealing with pervasive and recurring flooding issues). Toledo’s green infrastructure efforts directly relate to the community’s working waterfront as water quality affects diverse waterfront uses and users. A key manifestation of the Commission’s commitment to this priority is the city-led Green Infrastructure Task Force, which is already implementing on-the-ground green infrastructure projects that benefit myriad waterfront uses. One such project is occurring in Cullen Park, the westernmost access point to Lake Erie, which offers a public boat launch facility and a variety of recreational uses that contribute to the local economy, including fishing access, pocket beaches, and migratory bird viewing. This is one of two City of Toledo projects for which the U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes Shorelines Cities Green Infrastructure Grants Program recently awarded the city $500,000.


Toledo’s approach of employing green infrastructure to improve issues of water quality and quantity along its waterfront, as well as in some more inland neighborhoods, is highly transferable to other geographies. The City of Toledo is seeking ways to transfer lessons within the massive Maumee watershed, of which it is a part, and has participated in various forums to share its story. The model of creating a Green Infrastructure Task Force to identify, seek resources for, and implement on-the-ground green infrastructure projects is already being replicated in the Great Lakes region by Duluth, Minnesota.

Best Practices

A champion always helps. Toledo‘s leadership, including Michael Bell during his term as mayor, really believed in the value of applying a sustainability lens to Toledo’s rebuilding efforts and served as a catalyst. Tim Murphy, former Commissioner of Environmental Services, also was a key driving force. Early on in the Sustainability Commission’s work, they focused on issues that resulted from community member engagement; water was a high priority and they focused on it as a core strategy, including the establishment of the Green Infrastructure Task Force. One of the Green Infrastructure Task Force’s first undertakings was to work on a green infrastructure portfolio standard, a plan that will, in their own words, “expand the use of more natural ways to manage water that runs off our streets and other paved areas” by starting small and then ramping up with green infrastructure implementation. The community also worked with the Digital Coast Partnership, including NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management and the Association of State Floodplain Managers, to study their flooding issues and the role green infrastructure might play in addressing them. This process created context for understanding flood problem areas and impacts, which can be critical in placing the right solution in the right place. Poorly considered implementation can in some cases exacerbate the underlying issues that were meant to be allayed. Finally, in 2014, a harmful algal bloom produced a cytotoxin that made the city’s water source undrinkable for several days; due to its early work and readiness, the city was able to capitalize on this crisis to build further momentum for their plans to address water quality and quantity.

Full Case Study Description

Toledo is a city of just under 300,000 residents on the mouth of the Maumee River where it meets Lake Erie. The city has taken an economic hit in recent years, and according to the 2010 census, Toledo was the nation’s eighth most impoverished city. The community is committed to rebuilding itself, but wants to do it in a deliberate and sustainable way. Toledo is facing a number of current challenges related to an evolving economic recovery, the desire to rebuild sustainably, and ongoing issues related to water quality and quantity. In particular, Toledo has a wide suite of waterfront uses that are inextricably linked to a healthy environment, including fishing, sightseeing, and bird watching. Birdwatching, in particular, has become an economically significant activity for the greater Toledo area, where coastal environments provide critical migratory bird stopover habitat and attract viewers from all over the nation. These activities add an estimated $30 million annually to the local economy and have spurred new access points and amenities along the waterfront, including viewing tours by boat, kayaking, and new boardwalks. Restaurants, shops, water taxis, marinas, and other amenities for residents and tourists round out the non-industrial uses of the city’s waterfront, while a major port, manufacturing, and energy production remain key waterfront industries. In 2014, the National Museum of the Great Lakes opened, serving as a testament to the region’s historic relationship with the waterfront while serving itself as a new centerpiece of next-generation waterfront use in Toledo.

As a way of articulating the city’s past and visioning its future, the City of Toledo undertook comprehensive sustainability planning. Community leaders served as initial advocates and champions for this work. Both Michael Bell, former mayor, and Tim Murphy, former Commissioner of Environmental Services, helped bring a sustainability perspective to Toledo’s rebuilding efforts. The Sustainability Commission engaged community members early in their work. Water was a high priority for the community and, as a result, they focused on it as a core strategy, including establishment of a Green Infrastructure Task Force.

Goals and Priorities
Green infrastructure relates and contributes to two of the goals articulated in the “Greater Toledo: Going Beyond Green Regional Sustainability Plan”:

  • Water Quality and Supply: “Effectively manage the region’s watersheds, incorporating regional, national, and international best practices to improve water quality throughout the region” by restoring 150,000 miles of rivers, conserving clean water, and supporting green infrastructure.
  • Land and Natural Resource Use: “Networks of conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government agencies and home owners/private land owners collectively work to conserve, restore, and interconnect habitats and ecosystems between public and private lands,” with key actions including conserving 6,000 acres of land, building high quality recreational spaces, and protecting a vital ecosystem, the Oak Openings.

In addition to these natural system goals, green infrastructure also ties in with the two other legs of the “triple bottom line” three-legged stool: economic and social concerns. Understanding the economics of flooding impacts, who pays for those impacts, and what green infrastructure practices might be most cost-effective were among the topics addressed in a recent pilot assessment conducted by the City of Toledo, NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management, Eastern Research Group, and the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

Green infrastructure also “benefits our waterways because it’s inviting; people want to see green open spaces,” says Patekka Pope Bannister, Toledo’s Chief of Water Resources; a related goal is “bringing people back to the waterfront.” Implementing green infrastructure has also been found to help foster connection with water, which may not have previously existed even when living very near the waterfront; citizens now view neighborhood green infrastructure projects, such as rain gardens and permeable alleys, as “their contribution to water quality.”

Challenges and Issues
Following a number of foreclosures leaving vacant lots in the city and turnover of former industrial sites along the river leaving brownfields ripe for repurposing, the city has a number of land-use decisions ahead of them. Equally pressing and not unrelated, the city is concerned about water quantify and quality. Lucas County, in which Toledo sits, had 100-year flood events in 2006, 2008, and 2011. Then, Toledo had a “crisis” that amplified both the need and the opportunity to address its water quality and quantity issues: in August 2014, a harmful algal bloom created microcystin at levels that made Lake Erie water undrinkable, leaving more than 500,000 residents in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan without water for drinking, cooking, or bathing over a summer weekend.

Through multiple efforts, the community is exploring the feasibility of applying green infrastructure as a solution to some of these problems. Their path forward has important implications for working waterfront uses, both in terms of maintaining sufficient water quality to support diverse water-dependent uses as well as reducing coastal flooding, which has repeatedly led to standing water in waterfront structures and streets.

Despite widespread use and enjoyment of Toledo’s waterfront, access to the waterfront remains a challenge. Although there are nearly 170 public access points, many are small, tucked away, and difficult to identify. In one high-profile example, struggles over access are currently playing out regarding the potential relocation of a hospital corporate headquarters to the waterfront, which would occupy a key abandoned development and provide economic benefits, but also impact a city park. Even private access to the water is limited; there are only 24 marinas in Lucas County, 15 of which are in the City of Toledo. By comparison, neighboring Ottawa County has 112 marinas. Implementing green infrastructure practices on public and private properties might help increase opportunities for access (for example, through protected lands) as well as improving the quality of access sites (for example, through porous pavement), as it is doing in Cullen Park as described below.

Actions and Approaches
Green infrastructure is seen as a cross-over tool that uses natural systems to provide social and economic benefits. Cullen Park is Ohio’s westernmost and Toledo’s only direct access point to Lake Erie, and the city recently was awarded $500,000 for green infrastructure implementation at this and one other site. The Park offers a public boat launch facility and hosts a variety of water-dependent recreational uses that contribute to the local economy, including fishing access, pocket beaches, and migratory bird viewing. The project’s work plan calls for a series of best practices to be implemented, including: 1) porous pavement (allowing storm water from impervious surface to be routed through the pervious portions and into constructed filters and/or root systems of nearby plants), 2) vegetated sand filter strips (attenuating pollutants from storm water, including phosphorus, fecal coliform bacteria, and suspended solids), and 3) vernal pools (ephemeral habitats for insects and amphibians, and water retention at key peak times). Collectively, these practices are anticipated to provide 645,000 gallons of retention capacity. Interpretive signage at the park will help users understand the project’s goals and benefits, which include water quality improvements and specifically address some of the “beneficial use impairments” within the Maumee Area of Concern, such as degraded aesthetics and fish and wildlife populations. These improvements also complement several access improvements at the park.

Implementation of green infrastructure at Cullen Park provides an example of the types of co-benefits that can be gained by such projects. Particularly, implementation at Cullen Park supports waterfront uses both directly (through access and amenity) and indirectly (through water quality improvements). Toledo wants to build up waterfront areas that have been left vacant, and is doing so in part by working with commercial landowners to actively consider green infrastructure approaches and other linkages to adjacent waterways as they move forward with site remediation and clean-up of waterfront parcels for redevelopment.

The City of Toledo has participated in several efforts that have enhanced their capacity to implement green infrastructure specifically, and to make sustainable choices generally as the City revitalizes its waterfront and economy. The formation of the Toledo-Lucas County Sustainability Commission and, out of that, the Green Infrastructure Task Force helps bring players together to understand, implement, and advocate for green infrastructure. The city’s recent $500,000 grant for on-the-ground implementation at two sites also marks a key milestone in advancing green infrastructure within the community. Efforts at Cullen Park support waterfront uses both directly (through access and amenity) and indirectly (through water quality improvements).

The city and the private sector are making strides elsewhere, too, through active partnerships to redevelop waterfront areas that have been left vacant. These activities include brownfield clean-up to prepare the sites, ongoing work to establish connections to adjacent waterways, participation in certification programs that promote sustainable waterfront use, and collaborations with corporations to implement green infrastructure practices. Together, these activities can make the waterfront a more attractive place for industries to invest. With the support of some of the city’s larger industries, it’s also believed that green infrastructure will be viewed as something that’s “acceptable” within the community, laying the foundation for further expansion.

Next Steps
The City of Toledo has made great progress in implementing green infrastructure in their community. The challenge now, as articulated by David Fowler of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, is to move from “boutique” projects to full-scale, holistic implementation of green infrastructure. One approach is to create “regionalizing policies” across the city and county that will help to remove barriers and uncertainty around green infrastructure implementation. Another is continuing and expanding partnerships with corporations to redevelop waterfront areas, and capitalize on aesthetic and water quality improvements from green infrastructure projects as a way to promote further industrial investment in these areas. Toledo is perched at the mouth of the Maumee River, which drains a massive, primarily agricultural watershed. While action in Toledo contributes to solving issues with water quality and quantity that impact the community and Lake Erie, upstream action is also needed. Toledo wants to share its story with neighboring communities, and to help others implement green infrastructure. Locally, there is a perception that “people see [green infrastructure projects] as things that happen on the East coast or the West coast, and we can show them that we have examples here,” says Pope Bannister.

Key Partners

  • City of Toledo
  • Lucas County
  • Toledo-Lucas County Sustainability Commission
  • Toledo-Lucas County Green Infrastructure Task Force
  • American Rivers
  • Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments

Patekka Pope Bannister, Chief of Water Resources
City of Toledo, Division of Environmental Services
348 S. Erie St.
Toledo, Ohio 43604
(419) 936-3774

Melissa Greene, Sustainability Coordinator
Board of Lucas County Commissioners
One Government Center, Suite 800
Toledo, OH 43604
(419) 213-4530

Katie Rousseau, Director, Clean Water Supply – Great Lakes
American Rivers
348 S. Erie Street
Toledo, OH 43604
(419) 936-3759

Additional Information
City of Toledo, “City of Toledo Green Infrastructure: Street Retrofit in the Silver Creek Watershed and Maumee River Best Management Practices at Cullen Park.”

NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management, “Economic Assessment of Green Infrastructure Strategies for Climate Change Adaptation: Pilot Studies in the Great Lakes Region.”

Toledo-Lucas County “Going Beyond Green” Initiative.

U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes Shoreline Cities Green Infrastructure Grants Program.


Toledo-Lucas County Sustainability Commission. “Greater Toledo: Going Beyond Green Regional Sustainability Plan.”

U.S. EPA. Press Release: Northern Ohio Receives Four EPA Great Lakes Shoreline Cities Green Infrastructure Grants.!OpenDocument

Last updated 28-Oct-15


  • Northeast

Geographic Scope

  • City

Governance Structure

  • Issues
  • Economic development
  • Regulatory factors
  • Loss or preservation of heritage (cultural, maritime, etc.)

ToolsWaterfront Uses

  • Public access (docks/wharfs/beach/park)
  • Waterborne passenger transportation (ferries, water taxis, cruise ship facilities, etc.)
  • Water-dependent industrial, including powerplants
  • Commerical fishing
  • Fish processing
  • Charter fishing
  • Charter boat tours (general sightseeing, whale watch, etc.)

Digital Coast Snapshots
Flood Exposure
Wetland Benefits
Coastal & Maritime Jobs