The Syracuse Creekwalk: A Case Study in Reconnecting to our Waterfront Heritage

By Owen Kerney, Assistant Director of the Syracuse-Onondaga Planning Agency

The Syracuse Creekwalk near Franklin Square

The Syracuse Creekwalk near Franklin Square

The Elevating Erie project is, among other things, focused on reconnecting our community to the Erie Canal. The Canal’s legacy is worth celebrating; it will serve as the foundation on which future design and investment along the Erie Boulevard corridor rests. This strategy, reconnection to “abandoned”, ignored, or underutilized waterbodies has been a successful approach in our community and should provide confidence that the Elevating Erie project too has great potential. The efforts by the City of Syracuse to reclaim the Onondaga Creek corridor as a recreational resource and trail system provide an excellent example of the transformative power of public investment in neglected waterways.

Owen Kerney, Assistant Director, Syracuse-Onondaga Planning Agency

Owen Kerney, Assistant Director, Syracuse-Onondaga Planning Agency

Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake led to the establishment of the City of Syracuse in 1847. The City’s early salt industry and subsequent manufacturing industry developed along the Lake and Creek in the 19th century, but over time the Lake and the Creek became dumping grounds for the wastes associated with the City’s rapid growth. These circumstances adversely affected water quality, and the use of these waterbodies as a recreational amenity was restricted during much of the 20th century.

Although Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake were neglected for many years, community interest in their economic, environmental and recreational potential increased.  During the last 20 years, the Creek and Lake were the focus of considerable public discussion. The clean-up, restoration, and reestablishment of public access and use of these underutilized waterbodies was identified as an opportunity to greatly improve quality of life in our community.

The Creek as a community asset gained considerable momentum with the construction of two minor sections of the Syracuse Creekwalk in Franklin Square in 1989 and along the Syracuse Inner Harbor in the late 1990s. While these isolated sections of the Syracuse Creekwalk went unconnected for two decades, the City recognized an opportunity to establish an urban recreational trail to connect our job centers, neighborhoods, park spaces and waterfronts.

The design of the Syracuse Creekwalk began in 2000.  The 2.6 mile Creekwalk connects the Armory Square neighborhood of downtown Syracuse to the southern shoreline of Onondaga Lake. The City also worked closely with Onondaga County using their Save the Rain program to include multiple green infrastructure features along the Creekwalk. The use of these green infrastructure technologies were an important shift toward a sustainable facility and their use is in stark contrast to the decades of environmental neglect along the Creek. 

The project was completed in 2011 and is an outstanding amenity that provides all residents and visitors a unique opportunity to experience the City of Syracuse. The Syracuse Creekwalk has transformed a longstanding City liability into an exceptional public amenity by creative thinking, successfully integrating extensive public comments, using distinctive urban design, and incorporating new technology to create a public space the City is proud display.

The Elevating Erie Ideas competition produced a range of thoughtful, imaginative, and big ideas that the community now has an opportunity to review and offer their own ideas at: I encourage people to do so, because big ideas like reconnecting to underutilized waterways has earned strong community support and produced transformative projects here in Syracuse, and Elevating Erie is next!

Owen Kerney currently serves as an Assistant Director in the Syracuse – Onondaga County Planning Agency. He leads the City’s Planning Division, which focuses on urban planning and design, historic preservation, public art, and sustainability initiatives to promote and enhance the livability and prosperity of the City of Syracuse.

Owen develops and manages planning and capital projects for the City including the City’s Comprehensive Plan 2040, the ReZone Syracuse project, the Syracuse Connective Corridor, the Elevating Erie initiative, brownfield redevelopment and multiple State and Federal grant projects.

He lives in Syracuse with his wife Melanie and their three children.