One hundred and twenty-five years ago, in a series of secretive real estate transactions meant to avoid developers and speculators, John D. Rockefeller quietly secured the last parcels of the Doan Brook urban stream and conveyed them to the city of Cleveland to be held as parkland forever.
Today, the 8-mile Doan Brook, which runs from eastern Shaker Heights through Cleveland Heights and Cleveland’s University Circle, Hough, St. Clair-Superior, and Glenville neighborhoods before joining Lake Erie, is still parkland. Yet as a daylighted (above-ground), urban stream, it faces challenges of pollution and flooding from excess stormwaters emptying into it from surrounding neighborhoods. The nonprofit Doan Brook Watershed Partnership works to support the stream’s health and preservation and invite citizens to get to know and enjoy the waterway.
Brook proponents say all hands are needed to safeguard this vital natural resource, including citizens living in the 12-square-mile watershed area. According to 2020 U.S. Census data, over 45,000 people reside within the watershed, about two-thirds of which is set aside for residential land use.
Doan Brook Watershed Partnership executive director Victoria Mills said the organization educates residents about the watershed through recreation opportunities such as hikes, fishing, and occasional kayaking and canoeing on the Shaker Lakes through its “Take to the Lake” event. It’s all part of the partnership’s efforts to engage residents in both enjoying Doan Brook and understanding its importance.
“Watersheds are fascinating because everything that happens on land is mirrored in our water quality,” Mills said. “This is an ecosystem that sustains us every day.”
Engaging and educating residents
One of Cuyahoga County’s dozen or so “bluestone” streams – waterways that pass along the area’s bedrock foundation – Doan Brook is 15,000 years old. It cuts along busy streets, offering a kind of urban oasis where visitors can enjoy verdant hiking trails filled with birdsong. Watershed wildlife includes a variety of mammals as well as 266 bird species, as documented by the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve. The brook and its surroundings are a key source of food and shelter for these animals as well as an assortment of fish, reptiles, and amphibians.
What separates Doan Brook from other direct Lake Erie tributaries is its relative visibility, Mills said. Whereas most watercourses are fully relegated to below-ground pipes, the stream’s benefits are mostly available to anyone with a good pair of hiking boots. Only about a one-mile stretch through the busiest part of University Circle runs through an underground culvert.
“There’s the waterway itself, plus the parkland blanketing it along its course,” said Mills. “It’s a beautiful setting to connect to.”
Cleveland environmental advocate Roy Larick has been taking folks on educational hikes through Doan Brook since 2014. Although not part of the official Partnership board, Larick partners with the organization because he believes such public engagement activities demonstrate the stream’s central role in Cleveland’s culture, economics, and even individual well-being.
“People in Cleveland don’t consider the city a nature destination,” says Larick, a Euclid resident. “We have the Metroparks, but we don’t think all of our assets have the same value. But we’re changing our relationship with Lake Erie after turning our backs on it. Where I come in is with these smaller tributaries, streams, and watercourses.”
Doan Brook Watershed Partnership’s board of trustees is bolstered by four individuals who represent different neighborhoods. The group is a community resource connecting residents to the green space right in their backyards – and fostering involvement in protecting the brook.
While large-scale projects can have positive environmental impact, it’s really individual action that’s needed to help protect the brook.
“The impacts to the Doan Brook watershed stem from residential, academic, and commercial urban life, as opposed to pollution sources that plague other watersheds such as mining, industry, and agriculture, so we rely on citizens to enact changes in their own spaces,” said Mills. “We need to work with everyone in Doan Brook watershed communities to improve water quality and our habitats.”
Managing runoff and pollution
One of the ways residents, businesses and local governments can protect the Doan Brook is through reducing stormwater runoff and pollutants. Roads, driveways, parking lots, and buildings in developed areas are hard surfaces that prevent rainwater from percolating through soil, leading to increased runoff and, sometimes, unusually large floods near Lower Lake in Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights and further downstream in Cleveland.
Watershed officials estimate the annual runoff has increased threefold since Nathaniel Doan settled his family alongside the brook two centuries ago. Additionally, water flowing over pavement collects any number of harmful pollutants – salt, fertilizers, oils, pet waste, and more.
Polluted waterways and expanses of treeless asphalt disproportionately affect poorer communities, many of them already suffering the adverse impacts of redlining and unequal education and employment opportunities, according to the Doan Brook Watershed website.
Green infrastructure projects promoted by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) are alleviating some of these problems. The sewer district offers grants for vegetative roof systems and other projects meant to reduce stress on the region’s drainage and collection system. Direct work around Doan Brook by NEORSD includes a partnership with Cleveland Museum of Art to protect the stream while restoring the area around it to public use. The project improves water flow and prevents flooding while linking the museum with Wade Park, Rockefeller Park, the Nord Family Greenway, and nearby neighborhoods.
Kristen Buccier, manager of stormwater inspection and maintenance with NEORSD, said the project directly aligns with Doan Brook Watershed Partnership’s mission to protect and restore the waterway.
“This project not only restored the function of the brook, but also provided opportunities for the public to connect with it and enjoy the historically and culturally significant area that surrounds it,” Buccier said in an email.
Because polluted water is a reflection of the watershed’s urban setting, it will also take commitment from concerned citizens to keep their neighborhood streams clean and healthy, said Mills.
At home, residents can add native trees and plants, prevent hazardous substances from entering storm drains, and use rain barrels and other green infrastructure to manage stormwater runoff. The Partnership offers free consultations on stormwater management. Volunteer opportunities at stream plantings and clean-ups – as well as stream monitoring – are also direct ways for citizens to do their part.
“For many volunteers, the ability to take action in their local space is an important way to mitigate the stress of climate news,” Mills said. “Everything we do in daily life can improve or impair watershed quality.”
Larick, the long-time citizen representative, knows it may take generations to restore Doan Brook to a clean, healthy state.
He believes Cleveland’s “hidden gem” is well worth the work it will need to protect a beautiful and beneficial resource. Long-term success for the urban stream would mean softening man-made hardscaped features like paths or walls through de-paving or additional green infrastructure, he says.
Re-naturalizing the floodplain would further improve the local ecology, Larick says. He commends a NEORSD restoration project at Sowinski Park to remove a deteriorated portion of the rock walls that line Doan Brook through Rockefeller Park and add native plants, stream access for visitors, and gradual banks that can better manage flows of excess stormwater.
But keeping the brook healthy is not just about large-scale projects.
“Two hundred years ago, Doan was a healthy, natural feature,” says Larick. “Clevelanders have greatly degraded the stream during this time, but volunteers can add more hands to the restoration effort.”