Trotwood is an unlucky suburb of Dayton, Ohio. With a population of around 25,000, it was once the region’s main retail and entertainment destination. The city had one of the region’s first enclosed malls, shopping malls, big-box retailers, and a 5,500-seat arena.
But changing demographics and economic changes have led the city into a steep decline. Today it is a commercial wasteland of closed storefronts, and the arena has long been demolished. Even a Dollar General recently announced its closure.
But Trotwood has another asset to rely on as he plots his comeback: Wolf Creek, a ribbon of water that meanders through the city to join the Great Miami River in Dayton.
An old railway line along the creek has been turned into a bike path, and on warm spring days, cyclists pedal in the shade of sycamores. Yet Wolf Creek often goes unnoticed by those who live nearby.
“A lot of residents walk through it every day but don’t realize it’s there,” said Chad Downing, executive director of Trotwood Community Improvement Corp., which is leading the city’s redevelopment.
Like many small towns and villages across the country, Trotwood had turned its back on its creek, dismissing it as irrelevant and an occasional nuisance. But developers have recently realized the value of even the most minor waterways in attracting customers and commerce.
For decades, urban renewal in big cities has focused on river banks, and small towns now recognize that streams can provide the same opportunities. Officials in Mason City, Iowa, for example, have a goal of redeveloping the area around Willow Creek, and the city council of Meadville, Pennsylvania recently commissioned a study to see how it could develop the area around French Creek. In Gahanna, Ohio, city leaders embraced Big Walnut Creek with a variety of mixed-use developments as part of a creekside master plan.
But the creeks can also pose flood risks, compounded by the fact that climate change is bringing increasingly extreme weather events, making long-term development a trick of the wheel. Rivers generally rise slower and keep areas submerged longer, but streams, streams, and small rivers create different challenges. Streams that most of the year aren’t deep enough to reach an adult’s ankles can suddenly turn into torrents that can sweep away cars, tear homes from their foundations and leave a trail of destruction.
Climate change weighs on Downing as he helps plan Trotwood’s return. The city is trying to redevelop its downtown into a denser, walkable environment that embraces the creek. One of the cornerstones will be a 20-acre parcel bordering Wolf Creek, which Downing envisions as a mixed-use development.
“But how do we make sure we don’t create a flooding situation that will have to be dealt with in the future?” he said.
Steep banks line Wolf Creek, and water hasn’t crossed them in recent memory, but that doesn’t mean one day it might not. Downing is more aware that the decisions he makes now could resonate in his lifetime, he said, so Trotwood will creatively but cautiously embrace Wolf Creek.
Climate change will cause more frequent extreme events involving small waterways, said Seth Binau, director of science and operations at the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio. He explained that a warmer atmosphere is laden with moisture, which creates heavier amounts of water channeled into streams that are easily overwhelmed.
Increasing commercial development compounds the problem by creating impermeable surfaces, which force more water into streams, causing them to rise faster and further.
Developers should avoid building anywhere in a stream’s floodplain for 500 years, said Bill Becker, a climate change expert and former Department of Energy official who has worked with communities and developers. to assess the risks of stream development.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency publishes maps depicting 100-year and 500-year flood levels, but Becker said even those maps don’t go far enough. There’s an inherent tension, he said, because people are drawn to water and developers are likely to follow suit.
“And developers love creek land because it’s often cheap,” said Becker, author of “The Creeks Will Rise,” which details how people and creeks can co-exist.
And as communities turn to their streams for redevelopment, these assets come at a price due to the increased risk of extreme weather.
“The past is no longer a prologue,” Becker said, adding that just because a creek didn’t overflow beyond its banks doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen.
Cities considering creek development should proceed with caution, said Kevin Wright, director and chief operations and strategy officer at Yard & Co., an urban growth firm in Cincinnati.
“100-year floods become decennial events; floods are happening more often,” he said.
Yard & Co. has helped many towns develop their creeks and small rivers in a “flood safe” way, including helping Trotwood write a plan to make better use of Wolf Creek. In Loveland, Ohio, about an hour south of Trotwood, the company helped city officials create a plan for developing land along the Little Miami River by adhering to a strict lowland plan floodable.
One of the ways to embrace a creek is not to fight it, Wright said. Developers have to accept that some land is going to be submerged, but it may still have value.
“We like the idea of building structures and facilities that can be submerged for a short time and not be destroyed,” he said.
Wright cites amphitheatres, bike paths, tennis courts, and concrete benches as examples of structures that can withstand water for a while, but still add commercial value to an area. Developers should embrace these types of conveniences.
Food trucks and other structures that can be towed to higher ground during a flood are also constructive ways to use land around a creek, he said. Land use that can be quickly released creates trade without creating fixed risks.
Wright said towns like Trotwood could benefit commercially from their creeks even if they kept them at a distance. Opening up a creek edge and making it accessible to existing downtown infrastructure so people can walk with it would enhance existing commercial developments like strip malls.
“Trotwood will never be Chicago, but even if the creek simply becomes a convenience for existing residents there, it will bring indirect economic benefits,” he said.