As the ‘citizen’ planning effort, VibrantNEO, nears the finish line —and presents this month its vision for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio—ultimate success will rely on answering questions like this:
1. How do we discuss sprawl? Can we find common ground that a focus on existing communities makes the region stronger?
Even with recent demand for walkable urbanism and trends like Americans driving less, sprawl is still the dominant paradigm. Why? Is the biggest house and biggest lawn possible—the Supersized life—still attractive or outmoded (hello, Hollywood and Madison Avenue) and due for a makeover?
2. What incentives do we need for developers to build in ways that support walkable urbanism in our cities and suburbs alike?
Opponents of regionalism and sustainability argue that it is not a market-friendly solution. But, data collected by VibrantNEO found that, despite the recent influx to Cleveland (35% increase in residents and 98% vacancy rate downtown), new and affordable housing options in existing areas are predicted to lose pace.
VibrantNEO found the “business as usual” trend pointing in the wrong direction for urban and multi-family housing options—they are predicted to drop due to continued abandonment by 60,000 units to 39% of the region’s supply by 2040. Their recommendation to the 100+ cities, counties, and agencies working on VibrantNEO is consider how we want to capture those interested in living in urban and walkable places. A recommendation is for a package of incentives to increase the supply of walkable urban places to meet the rise in demand.
3. If you were keeping score of the region’s progress, what would you count or measure to keep us moving toward a more sustainable way of living here? Transit accessible jobs? Vehicle miles traveled?
Northern Ohioans really like their cars. A whole lot moved farther from existing areas and got to know and rely heavily on them. The places we built in the last twenty years made it nearly impossible to get around without one. It’s why odometers in the area got such a workout. The daily drive went on and on—from 20 to an average of 25 miles a day from 1990 to 2010. Even as hundreds of thousands of jobs evaporated, we still managed to build new suburbs and fill gas tanks. 82% of people here willingly spend a high percentage (45%) of their income on the big new house and the daily drive. VibrantNEO sets a goal to reduce to 65% of Northeast Ohioans paying the dangerously high combo of Housing + Transportation cost (and bring us in line with peer cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis).
To get us there, electeds and big funders like NOACA could heed the call of thousands of Northeast Ohioans who told VibrantNEO they want a greater range of transportation options. They recommend that 65% of jobs in 2040 are located near transit (with an interim goal of 55% by 2020). It will take setting aside old differences to broaden the base of support so that leaders like Grace Gallucci, who is calling for NOACA to fund more transit, can build a transformative project like the Euclid Coridor. It will take new leaders who want to take transit and who pursue it for a generation taking its foot off the gas pedal. It will take a change at the state which funds transit using pennies on the dollar handily spent on new roads.
VibrantNEO has calculated costs in allowing more sprawl, and created an alternative vision that connects urban places with great transit service.
In order to “Grow Differently,” VibrantNEO calls for a cap on the length we go in building roads to sprawl at 2.75 lane miles for every thousand people added to the area. It also calls for a policy that bike lanes and crosswalks are painted somewhere in the region every time we build or expand a road.
4. What makes the strongest case for regional sustainability? What should we emphasize when we discuss sustainability?
Is it too removed from our daily lives to equate sustainability—such as keeping our lake and rivers clean and air breathable for all time—with acting for the greater good?
Is there a more effective frame when discussing where and how we build in the region? Are people more tuned in to the connection to their health? How about economics? It is well known that we’re not paying the true costs for our current system. For example, how much should we expect to pay for a gallon of gas or to landfill a bag of trash if the costs for cleaning up the environment or for the lives lost in conflicts in far away oil rich places were factored in? Imagine if every product you bought came with a label that listed the environmental damage caused by mining, manufacturing, transporting and disposing of the item. Would that affect your decision?
What are some solutions to our sprawl problem?
We keep the focus on sprawl because VibrantNEO found that land is the predictor for how all seven counties in Northeast Ohio will fare in the next decade.
What are some of the alternatives to sprawl or examples of living on fewer non-renewable resources?
What would move the region collectively toward a new vision? What are the strategies where it counts, i.e. with the funders and policy makers, that focus development primarily in existing areas while protecting our soil, air and water?