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Mid-tier cities like Cleveland will rise again during the urban century

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/10/13 @ 11:45am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

The old narrative about the mobility of Americans driven by big companies is being challenged by an emerging, inter-generational story that says we're moved by "aspirational geographies." In cities, that translates in to living close to the action; a lifestyle measured in feet rather than miles.

Downtown urban center<br />The centers of Cleveland, Akron and other cities are the vibrant hearts of the region.  Villa Carabelli in Little Italy<br />Infill development is restoring well-designed density to Cleveland neighborhoods. Cyclist at Market Square in Ohio City<br />Cities make low-energy, low-mileage lifestyles possible. Tremont stroll<br />Young families are choosing city life in neighborhoods like Tremont in Cleveland.Historic county seat<br />In rural areas, town centers like Chardon are locations for redevelopment. City and country<br />One of the best ways to conserve farmland and natural areas is to build great cities that attract more people.
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Demographers are heralding the death of the suburbs, and predicting that the next three decades will be defined by America's second great urban migration. But will the story run deep enough to include mid-tier cities like Cleveland?

In his book, Reshaping Metropolitan America, Arthur C. Nelson builds a case for a new paradigm.

  • Between 2010 and 2030, single-person households—primarily Boomers—will account for half of the change in households. That's about four times more household change than those with children. Households with children will account for 13% of the total change in households.
  • 86% of America's growth will come from minority groups; Hispanics being the biggest gainers.
  • While 4% of Americans bike or walk to work, that number shot up in the last decade to 35-40% when work or shops are within a mile.

This argues for a regional growth strategy centered on walkable urbanism. Nelson says suburbs will be a liability by 2030.

"There will be little or no demand for homes in exurban or suburban fringe areas of slow growing or stagnating metropolitan areas," he writes. "Current occupants of these homes may need to walk away from them."

This is a bold prediction with broad implications for how regions plan for growth. It's pretty clear global cities like New York and Chicago are magnets, but how deep does the emerging urban migration trend run?

For stagnating regions, Nelson predicts that suburban property will have no market demand and that urban property will have marginal value. He says that too many homes were built in the 2000s.

He shows that demand for some 11 million housing units in the U.S. in the next three decades can be met in existing areas of development. Much of that will come in the form of redeveloping suburbs.

Nelson sees opportunity for cities to capture their share of the market through policy upgrades like zoning reform that promotes more walkable urbanism. (Suburbs can capture growth by knocking down or retrofitting single-story buildings and main roads to be walkable districts).

Northeast Ohio also has a significant Hispanic population. In his study of in and out migration of the six-county Northeast Ohio region, urban researcher Richey Piiparinen noted trends such as where Hispanic families are moving. Parma, Lakewood and the inner-ring suburbs of Cleveland's west side saw the biggest "greenflows" or increases of Hispanics. Cleveland Heights, Tremont, Detroit-Shoreway and downtown Cleveland all had a greenflow of white, college educated young people (just as educated upwardly mobile African-Americans led the biggest outmigration).

Understanding what moves these current 25-35 year olds—and retiring Boomers—should drive policy and development across Northeast Ohio. What will lead to denser suburbs and community building strategies in city centers?

Architect and Cleveland Landmarks Commission Chair, Jennifer Colman, feels that a stronger focus on transit would attract more people to the city.

"It's undeniable that a well-used public transportation system is a key component of flourishing cities," she writes here. "If we as a city had a goal to increase alternate transportation usage, the Lakefront development is a logical choice to further that goal. With the RTA Lakefront line, the Amtrak Station, the proposed pedestrian/bike bridge why couldn't we design the development to be transit-oriented?"

GreenCityBlueLake Director, David Beach, thinks the future is building on our affordability and access to nature.

"What would Cleveland look like if we designed for a low consumption, low carbon future?" Beach says. "How do we live a good life with 90% less carbon? Part of the answer is Cleveland has a public realm that makes an affordable life a fulfilling one."

Bruce Katz in his new book, The Metropolitan Revolution asserts that cities are now more powerful shapers of fortunes and futures than the federal government.

"As federal government becomes less energetic, city governments become more so," David Brooks writes about Katz's book in The New York Times. Cities are more nimble and responsive and tie their needs to local concerns above party affiliation.

With Washington paralyzed in partisanship, cities hold more sway over the future shape of our lives.

This second-wave urbanism is a historic shift that will fundamentally alter the economy, similar to how it is changing the social order. Observers call the shift an inverted pyramid, because for the first time old and young people are not the tip but the base.

"In an era when the nuclear two-parent family was the key demographic unit, it made sense to think of American as a suburban economy with common needs," Brooks writes. "The young, the old and the single make up a huge slice of the population, and they flock to density."

There's solid economic footing for even New Economy titans to shift from suburban office parks to urban center, Brooks writes. The Fed found that patents increase as companies cluster, and "intellectual spillover that drives innovation drops off as companies more more than a mile apart."

The scale could be on par with the 20th century's great urban migration if cities respond to market demand and build in locations and in densities that support the company moving downtown and provide amenities that families need in the neighborhoods.

In fact, its already happening on such a scale in global cities like Chicago that it could create a spill over effect for second-tier cities like Cleveland. Piiparinen's theory is that a recent influx of population to downtown Cleveland and "walkable urban" places like Lakewood and Cleveland Heights are being led by kids raised in the suburbs here who go off to college in global cities and return looking for an urban life.

It has implications for economic development in Cleveland, Piiparinen says, especially if it wants to retain the portion of the transplants who are raising children (the group most likely to move out).

Cleveland has the bones in lots of good single-family housing stock for raising families, so, unlike the global cities which may get a bigger slice of the DINKS, Cleveland needs to think about the amenities that families care most about.

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Last of the Blackberries
4 years ago

I would also point out that the idea expressed in the blogpost that the urban migration is being led by youngsters who attended college in global cities and then return wanting to maintain an urban experience within Cleveland is not something new. Urban places like Lakewood and Cleveland Heights, and more recently Ohio City and Tremont, have been popular with twentysomethings fresh out of college for quite a while. But many of those folks have only viewed (and continue to view) those places as a temporary stop on the way to Sprawville. We will know that things are moving in a more urban direction when those folks decide to remain in the city or those communities when they decide that those are the best places to raise their children and stopping viewing the move to the fringe suburbs as some natural progression on the road to adulthood. I hope that Piiparinen's theory is correct and I don't want to come across as negative, but I don't think we're there, yet, or, sadly, even close.

Jonathan Simon
4 years ago

I grew up in the suburbs and moved to Downtown Cleveland, then when it was time to settle down I moved to West Park, because it is a great neighborhood where you can still be in Cleveland and raise a family with access to decent schools and a strong community.

But the city faces huge challenges in retaining young families, most homes for sale in West Park are on the market because the owners' kids have reached an age where the parents can't afford to send them to public school.

Many families are taking their entertainment and retail dollars outside of the city to go to movie theaters, family restaurants, and other attractions in the nearby suburbs.

We cannot build an economy on bars and nightlife - to be a sustainable, intergenerational city we need to attract and develop family-friendly amenities within the city proper.

We must make sure that the city is able to provide the quality services - from road maintenance to public safety to public parks - that rival those offered in suburban communities to mix the best parts of the suburbs with the best parts of the city and create truly sustainable neighborhoods.

Renters will come to downtown because of reasonable rents and fun attractions - the challenge will be to retain homeowners who will ask whether their income taxes, property taxes and various fees are being spent wisely enough to provide them with the quality of service that they are paying for.

Until we refocus our efforts on providing great services and maintaining family-friendly infrastructure, we will run the risk of never being more than temporary stop for young professionals on their way to becoming suburban families.

Last of the Blackberries
4 years ago

Which communities are encompassed by the term "exurban or suburban fringe areas" in Greater Cleveland? And, speaking of retroffiting, what's the status of Shaker Heights' retrofit of the crummie Van Aken strip mall?

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