Bigger Darby: A Landscape Approach for a Coherent & Resilient Watershed


Nathaniel Carvin, Associate ASLA; Tyler Chandler, Student ASLA; Wesley Cogan, Student ASLA; Michael Davis, Student ASLA; Alyssa Garcia, Student ASLA; Brock Heller, Student ASLA; Alexander Kelley, Student ASLA; Timothy Perkins, Student ASLA; Blake Rea, Associate ASLA; Marit Vaessin, Student ASLA; Christopher Watkins, Student ASLA; McKenzie Wilhelm, Associate ASLA; Haley Wolfe, Student ASLA | Undergraduate / Graduate | Faculty Advisors: Sarah Cowles, Nick Glase | The Ohio State University | Columbus, OH


Bigger Darby examines the scenic and ecologically intact Big Darby Creek in Central Ohio and investigates the ways in the skills and design tactics of landscape architects can contribute to a conventional watershed planning project. Through the insertion of small-scale management practices, within existing landscape patterns, Bigger Darby works to create a more robust watershed, strengthened as a Bigger, more visually cohesive landscape.


Watershed planning addresses environmental issues such as flooding, habitat degradation, and water quality. Until recently, watershed protection had been hampered by the fact that watersheds span multiple jurisdictions with confl icting regulations. In recent decades, more regions and municipalities are adopting watershed planning models to shape development and environmental goals. Yet despite this enthusiasm, many plans instituted decades ago are now struggling to maintain public interest and support. Although reasons for declining support can be far reaching, a common challenge lies in the fact that most watershed planning work is abstract and not immediately visible in the landscape. Bigger Darby seeks to change this dynamic and explores how a watershed master planning can garner public interest by overtly reinforcing the cultural identity and structure in the landscape.

Located just 15 minutes west of downtown Columbus, the Big Darby Watershed area is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the Midwest; home to 38 state and federally listed endangered species. Here the western suburbs of Columbus interface with the dominant agriculture of Western Ohio. Landscape structure in the region is defi ned by the atypical parcels of the Virginia Military Grid, organized as a rich patchwork of typologies including farmland, riparian corridors, wetlands, woodlots, old fi elds, restored prairie, savannah, strip development, cluster development, and single family subdivisions. Key characteristics of the site today are the riparian edges (Big Darby Creek and the much more urbanized Hell Branch Run), the open character of the farmland defi ned by hedgerows, ditches, and fi eld lines, and ‘islands’ of recent development that have begun to encroach on the landscape.

In the 80’s and 90’s, Big and Little Darby creeks were designated as State and National Scenic Rivers, protections that greatly restricted new development within the region. In 2006, the Big Darby Accord Watershed Master Plan (EDAW 2006) was introduced to provide a pathway for development while protecting the watershed. As typical of most watershed master plans, the Accord advocates for tiered conservation strategies, acquisition of sensitive areas, enhancement of ecological zones, and introduces a tool kit of standard Best Management Practices, or BMPs.

Overall, the Accord plan generally overlooks the site’s rich matrix of land-use patterns in favor of ‘coarse’ grain habitat corridors. Furthermore, a significant contingency in the Master Plan is the creation of Big Darby Town Center, a 5,000 unit mixed use urban-core that divides the landscape and imports a generic New Urbanist style Town Plan (Urban Design Associates, 2010).

Recent development within the accord region has also missed opportunities to utilize unique structures within of the site and instead has interjected generic landscape approaches such as suburban subdivisions, stormwater BMPs, and new MetroParks that greenwash former agricultural and industrial sites.

Now in its 8th year, the Accord deserves to be lauded for progress and protections; however, despite these important steps, the landscape character of Big Darby continues to be eroded by generic suburban practices. Without strengthening the coherence of the landscape, Big Darby may fail to garner signifi cant interest and support, and continue to erode its unique characteristics. Without a strong landscape character, Big Darby may fail to maintain a healthy watershed.

History of the Big Darby region showcases a landscape that is a product of practices and policy, rather than an outcome of specifi c design or planning. Whether it is the Virginia Military surveying technique that defines the territory’s regional geometry, or the farmers who planted hedgerows, woodlots, and allees, we see that the landscape has been implemented at the scale of parcels and farmsteads.

With this observation in mind, studies for improving visual coherence of landscape began as simple intesifi cations and field treatments. New practices grew in scope to become what we referred to as Bigger Management Practices (BIG-MPs): management practices that include the added requirement of reinforcing landscape character in addition to solving for ecological, watershed, or farming issues. Using diverse implementation strategies that could be realized through a range of public-private partnerships, BIG-MP’s were tested at 1:200 scale for their potential to shape and defi ne the greater landscape as well as accomplish a series of priorities for a Bigger Darby, including (1) riparian reinforcement, (2) preserving the open fields, (3) enclosing development with forestry, (4) providing recreational access, and (5) developing a stronger ‘sense of place.’

With studio teams addressing multiple scales including the neighborhood / farm (1:1000), transect (1:3000), and regional (1:10,000), physical modeling tested possible outcomes of specific BIG-MPs combinations when inserted into the landscape. From strategic over-planting along a rural road to encourage reforestation of subdivisions, widening of hedgerows to include bike paths, or the creation of riparian wetlands, when looked at regionally it became clear that small practices could accomplish larger aims. Ultimately our teams arrived at a unified ‘landscape-based master plan’ for Bigger Darby that was shaped by the deployment of nine BIG-MPs.

By comparison, the Landscape Plan maintains many important aspects of the Accord including major ecological corridors and Big Darby Town Center. However, in contrast to the Accord, where coarsely shaped corridors of forest become dominant new structures, at Bigger Darby we’ve distributed forest to reinforce existing landscape edges while relegating more land to fi elds and managed prairies. Furthermore, at Big Darby Town Center we worked to carefully integrate the Town within its context, shifting the urban core eastward to maintain openness in landscape and to encapsulate the Town within an existing development ‘island.’

While the Big Darby Accord Watershed Master Plan has been largely directed by the tools of GIS science, planning, and landscape ecology, Bigger Darby postulates what landscape architecture and a landscape-based understanding of site can contribute to watershed master planning. Partly a realizable solution, partly a speculative visualization, Bigger Darby articulates a path forward for Big Darby and other unique American landscapes. In a broader sense, Bigger Darby advocates for landscape architects, and their facility with visible design strategies, to take a more signifi cant role in watershed planning.

"Incredible work! It's amazing to think that undergrads could do a team project at this level. It really makes a statement about the range of the way we teach."

- 2014 Awards Jury



Tammy Monnin