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An uninterrupted chain of sprawl from Cleveland to Kent

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/01/13 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transform

I went to see the next wave of suburban sprawl in Northeast Ohio over the weekend.

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The rolling hills and lush valleyland near Tinker’s Creek in Portage County are a long drive on the speedway from Cleveland. The Frost Road exit from I-480 is at once as close and as far away from the scene that must have greeted Moses Cleaveland when he stood here hundreds of years ago.

In the 1990s, the same pattern of the past 40 years started developing here. The highway was extended, trees felled, wetlands filled and cul-de-sac roads paved. Neo-traditional homes started filling in the forest land between Hudson and Streetsboro.

We turn on to a road built without sidewalks. A tributary to Tinker’s Creek runs under the road in a pipe. I can see the tributary flowing freely at the edge of where homes mark out five-acre lots of landscaped beds and lawn. Pools of suburban living at the edge of a once-vast wood.

We are less then an hour's drive from Cleveland, staring at the model of achievement of the last century. Living in the forest is one man’s American Dream, but sadly, the dream is spoiled by his paving the way for so many others like him.

Along the way, the speedway is a hardened artery of aggression. The culture of the road is fast and furious and amped up. We are passed by three motorcyclists popping wheelies at 70 mph, witnessed by a white SUV tailgating us who turns out to be Highway Patrol. Supersized pickup trucks sport buxom silver silhouettes. We get passed within an inch of our bumper by a red sports car who honks with agitation for driving the speed limit.

The urban highway system in Northeast Ohio feels as gaudy, ridiculous and without consequence as a quick trip to Las Vegas. It is designed to deliver speed, and that speed in America has produced aggression. The highway is where we can almost count on bad behavior—a simulation of the kind of violence you see in football—that is routinely laughed off as just part of the game.

Now I’m staring up a huge mound of black mulch, engaging in a conversation with my Baby Boomer cousin about her move to a condo in the suburbs. I wonder if the headline grabbing predictions about her generation building and now leaving the burbs for a walkable community will materialize? With a mall across a busy, six-lane road, her Walk Score would be OK. I ask her to consider what kind of Boomer will lead the way? Someone who is confident they will find or create a community wherever they are, she answers.

I know another Boomer who sold her house and moved to a condo because she is single, has an active social life, tired of yard work and not having lots of cultural amenities near by. Still, I wonder how many in Northeast Ohio will participate in the big sell off, what with all the inertia, loss of property value, and low demand for the suburbs?

The following day, we’re waiting in line to have breakfast at Lucky’s Cafe in Tremont. Mely Barragan and Daniel Ruanova, married artist/collaborators from Tijuana who just completed a three-month residency at Zygote Press, are sharing how rich Cleveland feels in natural and human capital. The pair have taken up residence in Beijing, where they live and work in a former industrial part of town, supporting each other’s endeavors as artists and cultural ambassadors of a project, TJ in China. The wealth of The Forest City is unimaginable in Beijing and TJ, and so are the detached single family homes with lawns in the city. The tidy and colorful homes on narrow Starkweather Avenue strike them as a sign of Cleveland’s appeal to families. “This is a place of real people,” Daniel observes. Later when we burn trimmings from the trees around our Cleveland Heights property, he remarks, “this is a million-dollar day for a Chinese.”

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David Beach
4 years ago

Yes, some people prefer new housing, and most of the new housing is in outlying areas. As market preferences shift toward urban lifestyles, we will need to build a lot more new housing in cities to meet the demand.

And there's no problem with living a low-impact life in the suburbs. It's great if your personal situation allows it. I just think that, overall, more people will find opportunities for low-impact lives in vibrant cities where density clusters opportunities and amenities close together.

McMansion House
4 years ago

Isn't also just a matter of preference? Some folks prefer new housing or a condo, and that just isn't available in Cleveland or the inner-ring and the more affordable prices offered in outlying areas.

Also, what's the problem with living in a low carbon impact suburban condo with an OK walkscore that is reasonably close to a suburban job?

David Beach
4 years ago

On the question of a condo in the suburbs vs. big house in the city, I would say that it's important to look at the overall environmental impact of living in the two places. That would include energy use of the homes, transportation impacts of the two locations (you might drive more at the suburban location), land use impacts, and other consumption issues. A good way to get a better understanding of your impact is to work through a carbon footprint calculator, which estimates the impact of various parts of your life. The Cleveland Carbon Fund website (www.clevelandcarbonfund.org) has a good calculator. Also, the Live section of our GCBL website (www.gcbl.org/live/the-big-picture) attempts to provide an overview of the issues.

The key is to do what you can to achieve the smallest overall environmental footprint possible. This is really hard to do in our mega-consuming society.

McMansion House
4 years ago

Isn't a condo in the suburbs more green than a house with a yard in Cleveland Heights?

David Beach
4 years ago

I agree that WalkScore can sometimes give silly results that don't take local conditions into account. That is the limitation of a ranking system that relies on national data. And it's why most national rankings ("The 10 best cities...") are so infuriating.
But, in general, I think WalkScore has done a great job sensitizing people to the density of land uses as one important measure of walkability.

McMansion House
4 years ago

WalkScore is a joke. It fails to account for the quality and ease of the walk and only looks at the as-the-crow-flies distance. There are plenty examples of that flaw online.

Also, I live .2 miles from the Rapid and either walk to the Rapid or take an easy bike ride to work each day and, yet, according to WalkScore I live in a "Car-Dependent" location. What nonsense.

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