What Cleveland and Northeast Ohio need to be sustainable is a better system than our current one for delivering what I’ll call authentic places. Currently, developers and their agents hold more of the cards than cities and citizens and therefore call more of the shots on how and where to build.
For the most part, developers, the construction trades, and transportation agencies have ossified into a machine that churns out cities like manufactories turn out products. The design and delivery system for cities and suburbs looks like its driven by profit motive and consumption, not placemaking. By that I mean, what’s been built in the U.S. in the last 60 years looks like its about maximum space. The design criteria seems to be how much shelf or closet space can you deliver. What we build has always been a reflection of our values. Are we moving away from that when our built form feels like size is the antidote for quality, connected places?
The city delivery system that the current model replaced built the great cities of the world. The big U.S. cities of the East and Midwest are still places where people clamor to live. The built environment in cities is complex; you might get lost before it leads you somewhere. Experience isn’t programmed, so devices and screens have to come down and face time is required.
But, the contemporary delivery system for cities is not about replacing a part in an elegant machine that it is worn from use. It’s about replicating a whole, but simple format. It feels like we’re building spaces for the perfect soundtrack, lighting and video to make the customer at a fast food restaurant feel like a rock star.
This essay is not merely about pining for the past; it’s meant to question the sustainability of abandoning a city that was built to last centuries but fell into decay when our current city delivery system poured an obsessive amount of resources into suburbs.
The Anglo-American Suburb, as its been called, has been analyzed again and again for what its copy-paste forms express, for the sanguinity of paving over rich farmland, and for the hubris that we are capable of replacing what worked in the past with a utopian ideal where everyone would be happy in their cars, wide roads and exclusive enclaves of wealth.
Instead, what we got was bland design, high environmental costs, and forfeit the legacy investment in the city.
But, instead of abandoning the suburbs when they cycle out of fashion, some urban planners are starting a new movement to retrofit them in ways that invite in the best of what urban living has to offer. (Google search: Retrofitting Suburbia). Do the suburbs and the city share enough common heritage, enough memory of how we live in both that they can create a new form, a new place that blends aspects of both?
Is it possible to retrofit Cleveland’s suburbs to make them more walkable and less car dependent? There are some examples, like Shaker Heights’ $44 million project to remake the Van Aken/Chagrin Road area into a pedestrian friendly development with a better transit hub for the train and bus and narrower roads to calm car traffic. Or Twinsburg, an exurb that hired Congress for New Urbanism to design a walkable town center.
The aspiration expressed in re-making the suburbs to have a physical and cultural center is a positive trend. More of us live in cities than at any other time in human history, so how we design our communities to promote more low carbon lifestyles is essential to slowing green house gas emissions from our largest sources—buildings and cars.
In case you’re wondering what a more sustainable community will look like, two pictures above provide examples of how to build environments that do and do not offer transportation options. The first is Koningsplein in Amsterdam, Holland which I include because of how its design sends strong signals that invite cyclists and transit riders and pedestrians to safely share the space. The other is a typical urban main road in Northeast Ohio. It is designed primarily to move cars at maximum speed, and so the signal it sends is pedestrians (seniors, kids, or disabled), cyclists and transit riders you are not welcome here. Northeast Ohio needs to build more Koningspleins if it wants to meet the challenge of climate change and provide the spaces for urban living that young, educated, skilled workers who will make us competitive again desire.
Cleveland and (mostly its inner ring) suburbs have some examples of places that are comfortable to leave the car and move around on foot or on bike. Gordon Square, W. 25th, Professor Avenue, Shaker Square, Waterloo, downtown Cleveland, Coventry Road and Madison Avenue, for example. The diversity of uses and proximity of urban space in our existing urban areas will be better positioned to support lower carbon lives—with an influx of more residents. Evidence of this is in a report from University of California Berkeley which mapped the carbon coming from Northeast Ohio and found the outer suburbs’ carbon footprint far exceeds the city on a per capita basis.
Thankfully, anchoring institutions and businesses have provided a counterbalance to sprawl by invested in legacy cities during the last half-century; it's difficult to imagine the revitalization that downtown Cleveland and cultural districts like University Circle are currently experiencing without their continual presence and investment. Think about the knowledge and resources that have accumulated in building Northeast Ohio, and what that brainpower and valuable real estate in the center represents.
We may finally reach a time where we can see clearly in this new/old direction. We know how to reform the city delivery system because its how our cities were built before the last 60 years. We can build authentic places for the necessity of building culture, supporting economies of makers, artists, and the ideas that come from exploring the spaces that are shaped by groups of people with diverse backgrounds; the sights and smells of food, for example, when you transition from one ethnic neighborhood to another and the conversations you hear. This is the cultural wealth of cities.
Cleveland has the physical attributes of a city where new immigrants should be welcome to redefine whole neighborhoods. Why Cleveland hasn’t seen a constant influx of immigrant cultural wealth is a mystery only to those who see how much a churn of populations and those who bring new energy means, maybe to other cities. No major American city has been able to thrive without this important turn over of and mixing of cultures.
We should be inviting that fusion—kimchi pierogies, Southeast Asian urban farmers, vegan soul food trucks parked near a densely canopied forest in the city fueling young tech workers playing bike polo, or something like that.
How do we get there from here? A new Cleveland story is as good a place to start as any. We’re an incredible place to make art or start a business. We have a compelling narrative for our future residents—who want an authentic urban experience—so let’s start expecting better. Better than the repeated forms of suburban blandness that we are told is just what the market wants. The market is a Cleveland that produces the next Superman, the next Michael Simon, the next Dana Schutz, the next Bone Thugz n Harmony, the next urban farmer you haven’t heard of yet but who’s going to feed his community.