Meet the woman who oversees planning, design of Five Rivers MetroParks, ‘I live to be outside’

Nature is the prescription for what ails us.

“No matter what’s happening in your life, nature always offers joy and solace, adventure and security,” said Carrie Scarff, chief of planning and projects for Five Rivers MetroParks.

Scarff says she thrives outdoors and during the pandemic many of us realized we flourish in nature too.

What can the outdoors teach us about ourselves? Our Daytonian of the Week tells us in her own words.

You are the Chief of Planning & Projects for Five Rivers MetroParks. Describe what you do in your job and an example of a recent project.

With the help a lot of a talented and dedicated colleagues, I oversee planning, design, construction, land protection and geographic information systems (GIS). So we develop the master plans, site plans and strategic plans for MetroParks. We design and build new stuff, like the RiverScape River Run; we fix broken stuff like the Cox Tree Tower. We continue to protect open space, particularly along our rivers because it’s so valuable to ensure clean water and quality animal habitats. The project that has me most excited recently is the Dayton Riverfront Plan. MetroParks partnered with eight of my favorite local agencies to develop a plan for the four waterways that converge in downtown. These waterways travel through such diverse neighborhoods of Dayton that we were able to envision vibrant, exciting parks along the Great Miami, Mad, Stillwater Rivers and Wolf Creek, all converging in downtown Dayton. Hearing what the public wanted to see along those waterways and then creating the plans was so invigorating. And now developing the strategy to implement the plans has been a great challenge that I’ve enjoyed tackling with my peers in the partner agencies.

During the pandemic Five Rivers MetroParks saw park attendance climb 8% in 2020. What do you hope the community appreciated about the park system?

Actually, accounting for the fact that we didn’t have our events and festivals, park drop in attendance jumped 25%. Twenty-five percent! That’s amazing.

When I think about those stressful first weeks and months of the pandemic, the weather was starting to get warm, and we were all so excited to break out of winter—and then our lives shut down. But the parks were open. Nature was open. Picnicking with our families, hiking with our friends—it was one of the few things we could do. And that time we spent in nature was both energizing and soothing. And so that’s what I hope people appreciate and remember—no matter what’s happening in your life, nature always offers joy and solace, adventure and security. The serenity of nature, when you’re immersed, is a short path back to your individual essence. As isolated as we were, as endless as the pandemic loomed, nature reminded me that I was a part of something bigger, and so I could feel connected to others, and I was also assured the pandemic would end, that life would resume again.

What is the biggest misconception people have about spending time outdoors?

I suppose that it’s scary. Or uncomfortable. I think those things about being indoors—very scary in there. Quite uncomfortable.

I grew up outside, running through fields and creeks and barns, like so many of us did who are my age and older. So now as an adult, I live to be outside. But that kind of childhood is becoming a rare experience now. Kids growing up now spend, on average, over seven and a half hours a day in front of a screen. How much time do they average outside a day? Seven minutes. SEVEN MINUTES. It’s not only sad, it’s damaging to children’s physical, mental and emotional health. It affects their imagination, their ability to collaborate and so many other things. We love what we know and we protect what we love. As we head into the greatest challenge Humankind has ever faced, climate change, how will the leaders of tomorrow respond if they haven’t learned to love nature? It’s so important that we take our children outside. Get out into the MetroParks. If you have reservations about the outdoors, we promise to take care of you. You could discover amazing things—about nature and about yourself.

What’s your favorite part of the park system and why?

I love how you phased this question—not what’s my favorite park, but what’s my favorite part of the system. I love the quality of the natural habitats that MetroParks has re-created, particularly in the Twin Valley. In this very urban county, we have thousands of acres of forest, prairie and wetland rich enough to attract bobcats, bears, otters, beavers and bald eagles. All those little (some big) guys live right here among us. Our environment couldn’t support those animals 50 years ago. They weren’t here. But we preserved and enriched over 16,000 acres along our river corridors to give these animals the space they need for food, shelter and mating. And they came back. We can all be proud of that because MetroParks couldn’t have done it without the support of the people of Montgomery County.

How does spending time outdoors impact your life?

Is it cliché and hyperbole to say it is my life? Yes, it is. Don’t print that.

I have my wife, my family and my friends, and the only other thing I need to be supremely happy is a place to roam outdoors. I’m at home outside. I feel challenged and fulfilled; I have more ambition and imagination. I’m fortunate that we have land in Hillsboro—a little cabin on a creek with woods and prairies and fields, so I have my place to roam. My wife, Aimee Noel, says I make up projects to do so I can be outside. And I can waste time there as well—watching birds. In the spring, I throw away nearly every morning watching half-ounce bandits do everything they can to keep me from getting a good look at them.

As I said, I grew up outdoors, and I take after my dad and brother and generations of ancestors. We were farmers and nurserymen. All of them lived their lives and ambitions outside, and so out there I feel connected to nature and to my family. Being outside is where I thrive.

You are the vice-president of the board of the Gem City Market. When the doors open, how do you hope the market will enhance the community? What can the community do to ensure the market is successful?

Shop there! Three times a week! (324 Salem Avenue!) And become a member! When the Gem City Market opens, we will have cracked one of the largest food deserts in the nation. Grocery stores fled lower income and particularly Black neighborhoods in Dayton until there were no more. Neighbors, some who didn’t have cars, had to travel miles, often an hour by bus to get their groceries. So a remarkable group of people decided that the only way to ensure a grocery stay in the community was for the community to own it. Brilliant! The Gem City Market has grown up out of the community’s talent and devotion. They raised this Market like a village child, and it will give back like a prodigy. It will be the center of the community—the café, the community room, the teaching kitchen. And it’s such a beautiful store.

I also want to say that I have spent my career collaborating and developing—ideas, visions, projects. The teams have always been based on expertise—get the best people you can in the room, not too many of them because that’s chaos, and make things happen. Being involved with the Gem City Market, I learned a whole new way to make a vision come to fruition. The people who led this effort—and I’m not just talking about the handful at the core, I’m talking about the scores of people in the West Dayton community who stepped up to be leaders for this project—taught me the magic of opening opportunity to everyone and through their collective contributions, making a dream reality. Being on the Board of the Gem City Market has been a remarkable growth experience for me. I realized I’d be smart to check my ways at the door and learn a completely different way of creating. I’m so appreciative of everyone who has taught me.

We’ve all had a chance to reflect during the pandemic. What have you found to be positive during this time?

Affirming that I love my wife, the small joys we share, and spending time with her. (Lots and lots of time.) That I like myself and enjoy spending time alone—it was a good thing to come to terms with. And because I’ve lost so much time with my family and friends in the last year, I’ve so appreciated the facets of being with people—the ones I love and all the other ones, too—that create joy.

Here’s another thing I’ve thought about, and I’ll go out on a limb and say it right out loud. The pandemic season, of course, aligned with election season—contentious, frightening, angry, times. My wife and I, city-liberals, have our cabin in Hillsboro—very conservative country. We travel down among the people who are supposed to be the cause of our anger and fear, yet our neighbors in Hillsboro are among the finest people I’ve ever met—high character and generous hearts. These are the people we’re supposedly fighting in this civil war? I don’t buy it. There are real reasons we’re a nation in turmoil, but it’s not because of the quality of the people on either side. Those fine folks in Hillsboro give me refreshing strength and perspective.

What are you looking forward to most as our lives move toward normal?

Having friends over for dinner and hanging out with them on the couch, shoulder to shoulder. Simple pleasures. Aimee and I keep a calendar on our table at home so that we can keep track of what we’re doing. In the years before the pandemic, the calendar was nearly full every week. I found 2020′s calendar a few weeks ago. January and February were packed; so was the first half of March. The second half, everything was X’d out; April, X’d out. After that, nothing. I want a full calendar. I miss walking and riding our bikes all over downtown to live our lives. I miss running into people on the streets. And I miss gathering with my neighbors in McPherson Town. And travel. And…

What inspires you about Dayton?

Dayton is such a small, friendly town—everyone is so supportive of each other. Remember 10 years ago when Daytonians had a reputation of being ashamed of where they were from? That’s disappeared—gone. People are excited about Dayton, involved, can’t wait for the next thing to happen; can’t wait to make the next thing happen.

A few years ago, for the Dayton Riverfront Plan, we had big-time consultants in town from Boston. We partners—MetroParks, the City of Dayton, Montgomery County, the Downtown Dayton Partnership, Miami Conservancy District, MVRPC, CityWide, and RTA—took them on a bus trip to tour our riverfronts. We were working hard, but having so much fun, and at the end of the trip, driving through downtown, John Gower shouted, “Pull over! Let’s show them the Arcade!” We all piled out of the bus and one of the consultants stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and said, “You guys have so much fun together!” People don’t get along like that in other cities. That’s what inspires me about Dayton—we do great things, having so much fun, together.

What would your perfect Dayton date be?

I’d get presents. Then we paddle down the Mad River, stop at the RiverScape River Run and watch the surfers from the new terrace, under the shade sails that are coming this summer. When we get hungry, we walk into downtown to Lucky’s or Lily’s or Table 33—or even Corner Kitchen because they found a way to reopen (I can dream)—to one of the restaurants where we feel so at home. After dinner, we catch a great movie at the Neon. Then jump on the Flyer. It rained while we were in the movie, so the Dragons are only in the 7th, and the gate attendants let us in to watch the last couple innings. On the way out of the game, we stop at Winan’s for dark chocolate covered graham crackers. Then we walk back to the river, get in our kayaks and paddle home under a big moon.

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