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Cleveland on edge of a blue century

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/09/13 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Clean water

The Great Lakes are a powerful container. The Chicago architect Philip Enquist talks about their power to carve and shape what's in our path as it drains through more than 200,000 square miles. He called the mega regional geography "the great blue basin" during a speech last Friday at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Big blue<br />Lake Erie water from the Miller Ferry. Image: Greg Slawson, GC Creative Studio.Green over brown<br />Cincinnati's Sewer District's plan for Lick Run is to daylight the urban tributary and make it the center of a redeveloped neighborhood.Big vision<br />Green building and connections to water figure largely in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's design for a former US Steel operation as a neighborhood south of Chicago. Image: SOM.Make sure your connected<br />Wai'anapanapa Beach (black sand) in Maui, Hawaii. Image: Greg Slawson, GC Creative Studios.

Enquist’s vision for Cleveland has it capitalizing on geography and the interplay between 33.5 million residents stretching from Duluth to Montreal. His hope is to realize a common set of values, from stewardship of natural resources to nurturing a $7 billion water economy.

A partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), one of the world's largest architecture firms, Enquist sketched out some helpful design principles for how to get there. They include thinking of land as a green infiltration system, connecting places with transit and growing more compact and walkable. SOM is designing Southside, a massive former steel mill site into a new ‘green’ neighborhood in Chicago.

He even defined the level of density Cleveland should aim for, and a justification. A density threshold is necessary to fund transit and infrastructure obligations sustainably.

If Cleveland, Akron, Lorain and Youngstown build to New Orleans French Quarter-style density—he figures around 24 dwelling units per acre—then they will absorb the 150,000 residents that the seven-county Northeast Ohio region are projected to add (source: NEOSCC). We’re talking about two or three-story buildings in compact and walkable places, he said. Otherwise, business as usual, most of those units will be built as sprawl.

“We can’t build low-density, 2-or-4-units-per acre,” he insists. “We will eat up the watershed and be dependent on fossil fuel cars to go around. We will put 10,000 square miles of land at risk if we do this.”

Engineering firm Buro Happold has figured out a density scale of 14 units of residential per acre minimum to maintain the infrastructure that a city is building to support a development, he adds.

“To build at that density is an issue critical to our future,” he says.

He also factors density into a drinking water-health metric. “Green infrastructure (which uses landscapes to capture and filter stormwater) is key to our future,” Enquist said. “The problem is, you need a lot of land. So you have to prevent urbanization of stormwater holding systems.”

Reform of land use and zoning will be critical, said moderator and PD reporter, Steven Litt.

We have 400 government entities that are zoning for maximum growth in the low density style, he said. “How do we get local governments to cooperate when we don’t have regional planning in the U.S.? Do we need to change the way we govern ourselves, otherwise, how do we strengthen regional planning in the US?”

“It’s almost impossible the way we fragment,” said GreenCityBlueLake director David Beach. “We have to learn how to scale the leadership and institutions to address the scale of our problems. There’s a mismatch.”

Beach reflected on Equist’s vision of the Great Lakes as a bi-national park. “I liked the way he emphasized that we all live in this biosphere or preserve of global significance.

“I also thought the caller (to WCPN’s Sound of Ideas with Enquist as guest) made an interesting observation,” he continued. “She was from Hawaii and said, ‘Clevelanders see water as a dividing feature while Hawaiians see water as connecting them to everything.’”

The Ohio Lake Erie Commission and Cuyahoga County’s LakeStat are two efforts trying to address this mismatch. The Commission is not only studying the connection between land and water, it is convening stakeholders like farmers and scientists to find solutions, says staffer, Gail Hesse.

LakeStat is an effort to get metrics on the health of the lake, and to promote the offshore wind farm project led by LEEDCo.

“We are a front runner in the race for federal funding,” said Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s Kellie Rotunno. “We’re the only freshwater wind proposal in the mix.”

Much of the panel discussion was devoted to the Sewer District’s ability to leverage its $42 million green infrastructure (GI) projects as a catalyst for redevelopment in Cleveland. How can the Sewer District and the city think of its dozen or so GI projects as large-scale development opportunities—such as Cincinnati’s Lick Run—instead of as isolated landscapes?

While the Sewer District’s first priority is to capture a required 44 million gallons of stormwater, Rotunno admits, “we have a good, solid plan, but it can be greener.”

Equist agreed with Litt that part of the Great Lakes Century could elevate the importance of green infrastructure as a design principle for redeveloping cities.

“Where is Cleveland’s green infrastructure project relative to the rest of the basin?” Litt asked.

“I think it would be good to have benchmarks to help us learn,” Enquist replied.

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David Beach
4 years ago

I think NEORSD staff members believe that Cincinnati's hilly topography and CSO system made it much easier to find a location for a big green infrastructure project like Lick Run. But they are still looking at the potential to do more green infrastructure in Cleveland. They are planning to convene a work group soon to brainstorm possibilities.

Sewer Guy
4 years ago

Does NEORSD still believe that Cleveland does not have a Lick Run waiting for improvement?

Exurbanist
4 years ago

Requiring that new development has to be French Quarter or Back Bay dense is a laudible goal, but I'd settle for using examples from neigborhoods in Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, and Lakewood, which combine high rises along with dense stretches of single-family homes around transit and grid-like streets. I think those examples would be an easier sell.

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