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Get the public to green cities

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/13/12 @ 10:21am

As the city of Cleveland Heights engages its citizens this week in the act of updating its zoning code to be more "sustainable", we compile this list of ways cities can walk the talk on sustainable development, revitalization and improving its neighborhoods.

1. Zoning should set the stage for sustainable development-encouraging building types (mixed-use), walkable streets (with maximum set backs, shorter blocks, lots of intersections), and plentiful transportation options (density or units per acre, well-designed public transit stations and lots of bike parking).

Zoning can set the ground rules for new urbanism to occur. Cities looking to 'green' their zoning like Cleveland Heights could do a lot to promote a green lifestyle with a zoning classification that promotes good urban form or with a pedestrian/mixed-use overlay district (which the city of Cleveland has in its zoning).

Comprehensive plans. Cities like El Paso, TX are winning awards for comprehensive plans that encourage 'town centers'. Cities that want to expand green building to a large extent, like El Paso, are adopting LEED for Neighborhood Development and SmartCode, national standards that can be used in tandem with zoning, Kaid Benfield writes in Sustainable Cities.

Zoning for higher density can be the most cost effective move a city can make, as Peter Katz explained to an active transportation and communities conference in Cleveland.

2. Cleveland Heights started its green zoning process by hiring a Chicago firm to audit its code and suggest changes. Among the bright spots, city council is weighing, should it jettison minimum parking requirements, and whether it requires all new developments to have bike parking. Knowing that there will always be a safe, dry, visible and plentiful place to lock up in a commercial district is a common concern among Cleveland Heights cyclists that I know. The city might consider taking this requirement to its logical conclusion, and develop a bike parking design guideline. It could strongly encourage developers to follow the guideline. And it may consider the growth in cycling by zoning for expansion of bike parking as its own entity, for example, auxiliary spaces in buildings that are reserved for bike parking.

3. How does a city interested in green living find the right mix of density and livability? As Michael Kaiser states, "Density is not livability, and livability is more than shops and cafes". Kaiser writes about the lack of two-and-three bedroom apartments and condos in his Seattle neighborhood. It is driving out young families and those who would invest longer term. Mobility and housing choice are two important factors in Cleveland, too.

How does zoning play a role? It needs to be like Goldilocks-keenly aware of what is 'just right'. Too much density turns off some good prospects but not enough can lack impact. Kaiser writes about a study where residents living above the fourth floor of a tower building use the street less. It may take less density-think the 'low rises' around Shaker Square (pictured)-to support a great town center in Cleveland.

On the other hand, the replacement of the Cedar Center strip mall in South Euclid was hailed in the planning stages as mixed-use. But without the zoning to back it up, the developer is dropping in a bunch of single-serve buildings and, sadly, residential doesn't look to be in the picture.

4. This next one has less to do directly with zoning, and more with how a city's decisions are affected by their region's choices. In their groundbreaking book, Retrofitting Suburbia, Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson recommend that cities start with a greyfield audit, a tool to encourage infill development. They cite the example of nonprofit Long Island Index, which had all of the vacant land, surface parking lots and unprotected open space mapped within a half-mile radius of 156 village downtowns and rail stations. It was an eye-opening exercise. They showed how all of the proposed development on Long Island could fit in less than half of the 8,300 acres in town.

5. How can a city hope to turn a liability like vacant land into "an opportunity to repair and reconnect," as Jones and Williamson write?

A city can plan for a post-Recession reality where they build on or near existing transit service. A great local example is the Ohio City Market District, where the W. 25th Rapid Station could be the site of a long sought after transit-oriented development. Reusing thin, narrow parcels of land along the Red Line may sound far fetched-so was plowing under the six-acre lawn around Riverview public housing tower for the Ohio City Farm. Ohio City's idea to spin off the West Side Market and the local business energy on W. 25th is catching fire-from Charter One's small business grants to Enterprise announcing this week that Ohio City won a urban revitalization competition $25,000 grant.

Some cities are removing defunct properties to restore buried creeks and green passageways. In University Heights, for example, a Jewish day school moving out to a greenfield in Beachwood is prompting the city to ask its citizens, should we buy the building and 6.8 acres-the last green space in the city-and convert it to a park? Meanwhile, Cleveland Heights is faced with South Euclid's greenfield big box development poaching its Wal-Mart. In previous posts, I suggest the city work with the developer to knock it down and make it "the green heart and lungs" in a new town center. Retrofitting Suburbia has some other ideas-reuse a big box for a school. Can you even imagine the Severance Wal-Mart  adapted into one of Cleveland Heights' new schools that its contemplating building? Would it be worth it if it catalyzed change from obsolete shopping center to a 'third place' where social engagement is the new currency that drives community building?

With the help of the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, strategic rehabilitation like Re-Imagine Greater Cleveland and the Neighborhood Stabilization programs, and regional efforts like the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, more cities in Northeast Ohio could expect to follow the lead of the city of South Euclid in coordinating a strategy to use NSP funds to target neighborhoods with green rehabs and community gardens.

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