Meet an Influencer: Community Advocacy and Protecting Local Greenspace

May 1, 2024

A story by Bebe Raupe on local parks advocate Cynthia Duval. This article is also featured in the May 3, 2024, issue of The Ripple.

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Too often people see a problem emerging in their community but think they cannot do anything to prevent it. Not Cynthia Duval.

When she heard six years ago that a new building might be erected in Burnet Woods—one of the nation’s few urban “old-growth forests” remaining—she was galvanized.

There had to be a way to convince the park board that this was a bad idea, given Burnet Woods’ historical significance and its important silvan ecosystem. 

Soon she gathered with about 45 other concerned citizens, many resolute birdwatchers, to form Preserve Burnet Woods, a nonprofit dedicated to sustaining the 89.3-acre park founded in 1874.

Cynthia quickly became the group’s chief spokesperson. Her eloquent refutation of the “need” for the proposed development helped persuade the Cincinnati Board of Park Commissioners to vote against the plan.

At that time, Cynthia was not an activist. Like most of us, she had a challenging career and a passel of life responsibilities. She dreaded public speaking, identifying herself as an introvert. She was not an expert in community policy strategies.

Any of these factors could have kept her on the sidelines. But they didn’t.

Cynthia, a self-described “Type A” personality, says the serene quiet of Burnet Woods had always been a balm for her. When she heard of the building threat, “it was so clear to me that someone needed to take care of this greenspace, to lend it protection,” she says.

An Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist (a credential earned through the Cincinnati Nature Center), Cynthia understood the environmental risks posed by the planned construction. She knew Clifton/University Heights residents living near Burnet Woods needed to defend this natural oasis. She needed to be part of the change she wanted to see. 

In that spirit, Preserve Burnet Woods promised the board it would not walk away once the development threat passed. The group committed to sustained monitoring and improvement of the park, an ongoing effort that has brought volunteers together to remove invasive plants, remove trash, and improve bird habitats.

Following its initial victory, the group was instrumental in keeping another development out of the park. In 2020, when building advocates listened to arguments against the project presented by Cynthia to the park board on behalf of Preserve Burnet Woods, they withdrew their proposal.

But the siege on Burnet Woods did not end there.

Today Preserve Burnet Woods is facing its biggest challenge: a 10,000-square-foot dog park that park commissioners are supporting despite public outcry against it.

The plan has been in the works for three years, Cynthia said, noting the park board is poised to move ahead despite numerous forms of citizen pushback.  

Opponents believe a dog park would create noise and collect dog waste, harm the natural habitat, and consume funding needed for other park priorities. 

If the $450,000 dog park is built, green space will be replaced with plastic grass, which releases per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) as it degrades. These “forever chemicals,” as well as other toxic compounds from the artificial turf, will leach into the watershed, said Cynthia, where they could negatively impact the health of wildlife and humans.

“Turf in a park shouldn’t be toxic,” she notes.

Moreover, Burnet Woods has been designated an Important Bird and Wildlife Area by the National Audubon Society, she said, adding that there is ample research showing the negative impact of concentrated domesticated dog activity on the quality of wildlife habitat.

Apart from environmental risks, Cynthia says neighborhood stakeholders, including Preserve Burnet Woods, are “very disappointed that [the park board] is trying to shoehorn this project into a community with a clear and vocal majority in opposition.”

While non-government funding for the dog park is being raised, Preserve Burnet Woods continues to fight the development, Cynthia says, gathering signatures on petitions and staging public protests. 

“We will continue to fight until the bulldozers come,” she says, noting the group is now considering litigation because “we are running out of runway to settle this peacefully.”

Fighting to protect Burent Woods from developers and seeming government disinterest in public concerns has become nearly a second full-time job for Cynthia.

While Preserve Burnet Woods counts many scientific experts among its members, Cynthia keeps on top of pertinent research, investigates means of protecting the mixed mesophytic forest, and keenly follows city political machinations.

“We cannot let down,” says Cynthia. “Burnet Woods is the heart and lungs of this area, a natural sanctuary in the middle of concrete.”

It provides carbon mitigation, a safe space for migrating birds, boundless forms of education, and a spot for people to slow down and reconnect with the natural world, she says.

As Cynthia said following a recent Preserve Burnet Woods protest in front of Cincinnati City Hall, “Perseverance is our superpower.”