City Quotient: How Columbus ended up with a slimmed-down Scioto

Plus what’s being done about the litter along Columbus freeways

Jeff Darbee
The Scioto River

I am new in town and love the Downtown riverfront. However, I heard the Scioto is a lot narrower than it once was. How did that happen? 

Our river expanded before it contracted. In the early 1900s, the sloping land west of High Street to the river was a slum. Easternmost Franklinton was, too. Inspired by the City Beautiful movement, the 1908 Plan of the city of Columbus proposed a wide mall from the Statehouse westward across the river, with new flanking buildings. 

The plan died in 1912, partly because The Columbus Dispatch opposed it. In 1913, however, floods took out most riverfront development, all the bridges and much of Franklinton. Seeing opportunity, from 1918 to the mid-1960s, the city, along with the state and federal governments, developed the Civic Center we know today. Central High School, now part of COSI, was the first building completed in 1922. As a flood control measure, the Civic Center project walled in the river and widened it to three times its natural width. The wider river behaved better, despite a 1959 Franklinton flood, but, due to downstream dams and upstream pollution, it was often murky, shallow and malodorous. 

Enter plan No. 3, the Scioto Mile project, completed in 2015. Combining public art, green space, multiuse paths and event venues, this project removed a dam and increased the river’s flow. And it returned the river to about its original width. Both old and new walls still flank the river and the grassy banks, and concrete paving was designed to flood without damage in times of high water. 

There seems to be an awful lot of trash and litter along the freeways in Columbus, especially on I-670 from the airport. Is anything being done about this? 

Jay Smith, German Villager and self-described “general curmudgeon,” says, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression, do you?” He’s right. Imagine the impact on first-time visitors from the trash just along I-670 between the airport and Downtown. It’s not that no one is doing anything; it’s that some people are just slobs. 

The city’s Department of Public Service has an umbrella program called “Keep Columbus Beautiful,” and in 2020, the city completed a litter index “to score and catalog the amount of litter on our streets.” Franklin County, the YMCA and the city’s Refuse Collection and Infrastructure Management divisions also have cooperative programs for city streets and state highways. The Ohio Department of Transportation cares for Interstates 70, 71, 270 and 670 and is mightily miffed, too: It spends $4 million annually to clean highways. 

Smith says, “Cleaning it up does nothing to keep it clean. The biggest problem is a lack of enforcement.” True, but it’s hard because so few litterers, like people who speed, are caught in the act. Maybe we need more educational programs—by the city? Businesses? Churches? Chambers of commerce? Anything to make people less likely to trash the city in the first place. 

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to cityquotient@columbusmonthly.com, and the answer might appear in a future column. 

Sources: “Education is the Safeguard of Liberty,” a Historical Analysis of Central High School; Jay Smith, curmudgeon; Columbus Department of Public Service; Brooke Ebersole, ODOT District 6 

This story is from the August 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.