Northeast Ohio needs a new city delivery system, I wrote last time, if we hope to improve our health, economy and climate. So what is an alternative vision to the model we have now where highways and roads have created a strange dependency and substitution for economic development?
The Green Network plan announced by Germany’s second-largest city, Hamburg, is the type of visionary economic development plan that Cleveland could explore. Hamburg is re-envisioning a more sustainable future by building a 17,000-acre system of greenways interlaced with bike paths, parks and transit lines leading into the city center, where cars will no longer be allowed to go.
Hamburg, a port city, is thinking about the effects of sea-level rise from climate change, and is pursuing this transformation to be carbon neutral by 2030. It joins Copenhagen in Denmark as Europe’s major cities banning cars from the center and enhancing life for its citizens by prioritizing bikes (Copenhagen is building a network of “bike superhighways”). And by seeing parks and recreation as essential to its future.
“It will offer people opportunities to hike, swim, do water sports, enjoy picnics, restaurants, experience calms and watch nature right in the city," said a city spokeswoman.
Hamburg’s planned Green Network will cover some 40 percent of the city’s entire area and will connect parks, recreational areas, playgrounds cemeteries and gardens with a comprehensive network of green paths. In 15 to 20 years it will be possible to explore the city exclusively by bike or on foot.
How do we move Cleveland toward similar thinking? It starts by seeing our most valuable resource, Lake Erie, as the “true north” for all of our development decisions. The billion dollar annual fishing and tourism economy of Lake Erie is only the first line in the ledger of what the lake produces for our local economy. It also provides land around it with greater value. It is a significant source of oxygen, drinking water, means of freight, and provider of habitat for fish and migrating birds.
Economic development leads with highways—or extensions like Opportunity Corridor— when we calculate the economic value of bricks-and-mortar investments separate from the environment in which they operate.
What cities like Hamburg and Copenhagen provide is a model for how cities ignore their environment at their own peril. Cities must acknowledge just how climate change will radically alter both natural and man made systems.
Climate scientists have models showing Lake Erie and tributary rivers rising and falling unpredictably in the coming century. Conversations like Downtown Cleveland Alliance’s downtown redevelopment plan, the Cleveland Metroparks' around the future of the waterfront, and Joe Baur’s tips for living car free in Cleveland (like EcoCity Cleveland's Car Free in Cleveland before it)—could help shift our thinking—from the “tragedy of the commons” where individual actors hold more of our attention to a infinitely more productive center from which all decisions must be made.
Northeast Ohio's slow decline calls for a radically transformative vision. We suggest one that radiates from the lake and rivers which form an essential nexus, a green lungs and heart to pump more people living closer to the land and water, and, like Hamburg, redefines a city as not just a place to be but to thrive.