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Dr. Amy Acton to lead nonprofit aimed at growing central Ohio’s future with nature

Dr. Amy Acton will lead the newly announced organization, which covers Franklin County’s five major north-south waterways.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A new nonprofit is taking shape in central Ohio that aims to connect people with nature by improving access to the region’s five main waterways.

RAPID 5 stands for Rivers and Parks, Imagination and Design. Dr. Amy Acton will lead the newly announced organization, which covers Franklin County’s five major north-south waterways: Big Darby Creek, Scioto River, Olentangy River, Alum Creek and Big Walnut Park.

“I do see myself as sort of a chief health strategist and really an ambassador of one of the most amazing visions I’ve seen to help the health and well-being of our community,” Dr. Acton said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic brought curfews, business closures and isolation, many turned to the openness and tranquility of the outdoors. That included Dr. Acton herself, who described visiting the area’s Metro Parks when she could, even if it involved executive protection.

“Nature really has profound impacts on our health and well-being, our mental health, our physical health, and, for many of us, it was the one respite,” she said. “And it’s the one thing that we all share in common. You know, these have been tricky times. Certainly, we know it’s been a little bit difficult and a bit polarized, but nature is the one place, parks, and this would be biggest park system in the country that we’re imagining here bringing to bear, is something that we all will share.”

The plan is to create roughly 145 miles of the integrated park system, which would make it the largest in the country. It’s been a team effort spearheaded by the Urban Land Institute Columbus and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

“I was tired of us apologizing for not having an ocean or not having mountains,” said RAPID 5 Chair Keith Myers, the former chair of ULI Columbus. “What we do have in Central Ohio are some amazing stream and river corridors that are equally distributed across Central Ohio, and it just seemed like the time had come to begin to develop and celebrate those and quit apologizing for what we don’t have and embrace what we do.”

RAPID 5 has the goal of improving the region’s economic vitality, social equity and overall well-being by growing the state’s trails and encouraging community members to get outdoors.

Additionally, RAPID 5 hopes to introduce new small businesses that connect visitors with Ohio’s waterways, create new cultural venues for art and music, and new transportation opportunities to make access to the outdoors more attainable, among other ideas.

“The vision here is, if you want to take your family out for the afternoon, you want to walk a mile or two with your kids, or ride their bikes, and maybe have ice cream, maybe you want to just leave your house and leave the car behind and be able to walk to a trail that’s close enough, this will allow you to do that,” said William Murdock, MORPC executive director. “We want to make it accessible, we want to make it fun. We want to make it so everybody can really get out and engage, not just the people who are athletes.”

Research projections show central Ohio’s population will grow to roughly 3 million by 2050, pointing toward what RAPID 5 leaders say is a need for expanded access to its outdoor assets.

“It’s about accessibility to everybody,” Myers said. “I do think that COVID changed things. People connected with outdoor spaces in a way during COVID that they really hadn’t before. We know for sure that Metro Parks attendance was up 30 percent during COVID, so this is an opportunity to take advantage of people’s new awareness of these streams and parks and open spaces to create a regional system that will be accessible to everybody.”

RAPID 5 will work with public and private partners to help guide the vision and make it a reality. Already roughly 85 percent of the project is in public hands.

“I can tell you, once I saw this, I could not unsee it,” Dr. Acton said of the plan. “You can’t imagine Columbus being anything but this, this vision of this healthy, vibrant life that we share together.”

You can learn more about the RAPID 5 Project here.

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