What is the bottom line for Vibrant NEO 2040: A vision, framework and action products for our future? We spent some time with the encyclopedic, final report compiled by the $4 million Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC) and discovered, it has a lot to offer the region, including a vision for a more sustainable future.
The 219-page, coffee table-size book (or pdf divided into eight, downloadable chapters) captures a three-year journey across 12 counties taken by 100 organizations and elected officials in search of, “what course is Northeast Ohio on? What future do we want? And what choices do we need to make it real?”
What NEOSCC found was a region perhaps rightsizing in its post-industrial condition, but also reeling from decades of job loss and self-inflicted wounds, including a preponderance of highway building leading to sprawl and disinvestment in core areas.
When it comes to a region-wide snapshot, the report leaves little doubt that Northeast Ohio is pursuing an unhealthy path. For example, we are not improving in important indicators like protecting natural resources—less than 5% of farmland in the region is protected—and we’re not going far enough to protect investments, such as building stock in legacy cities of Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown.
The report is a little like a stress test; and the results are not sugar coated. Sasaki, national experts in community plans, predicts we’ll continue to hollow out our urban areas, with an estimated 18 homes lost to abandonment per day for the next 30 years. Sprawl development will pave over the equivalent of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park by 2040.
The surprise news is not so much that sprawl undermines, but that it also underperforms investments in walkable, urban places.
“While new development does generate additional tax revenue, the dispersed development patterns found in the Trend and Grow the Same Scenarios generate less revenue on a per-acre basis than the mixed-use and compact development patterns found in the Do Things Differently and Grow Differently scenarios,” the report concludes in Outward Migration (page 56).
Bottom line, when calibrating for the future, Northeast Ohio has a hard choice to make. If it wants to remain economically competitive and environmentally sustainable, the region needs a new plan. One possible course correction centers on protecting natural capital and making established communities stronger through reinvestment.
But the plan falls short in figuring out how to change. Targets, like 50% of the region’s homes should be urban or multi-family, read more like aspirations and are not tied directly to actions. Even the call to cap new road building at 2.75 lane miles per 1,000 new residents would be stronger with a hard target for reducing vehicle miles traveled. (The report cites the Denver region’s 10% reduction which they tie to a plan that reduces car travel demand).
On the bright side, NEOSCC’s statistically valid surveys find that most people (92%) agree that a shared vision for a sustainable Northeast Ohio is needed. In Our Region’s Shared Concerns (p. 13), Young Leaders are more upbeat and optimistic about shifting focus—to a robust transit system, reusing vacant buildings and big sustainability initiatives like the Oberlin Project.
Counter to the Trend, Doing Things Differently strikes an optimistic tone; it suggests that a meme has been planted that Northeast Ohio already has amazing assets. What is needed is a way to identify how and for what to pull together.
For example, new forms of public transportation. On page 64, the report envisions “commuter rail (that) connects communities along Lake Erie and south from Cleveland down to Canton. Express bus and bus-rapid transit connect many of the smaller communities around the Cleveland, Akron, and Canton metro areas and a commuter bus line extends from Akron to Youngstown and Warren.
“These routes connect current job and population centers and serve as anchors for future compact, transit-oriented development (TOD).”
To ramp up transit service, the report offers targets like Jobs Within 5 or 10 Minute Walk of Frequent Transit. While that number is 49.6% today, the Trend line points to an erosion of the effectiveness of public transit to reach jobs as they move further away, to the point where only 40.8% of jobs are predicted to be close to transit by 2040. To achieve even a modest gain of 50% will mean acting on a different set of priorities.
What will we will need to do, practically speaking?
The path forward will require new forms of regional collaboration.
“The Consortium believes that, by viewing systems through both a regional and local lens and encouraging associated communities of practice among local governments and non-profit organizations, Northeast Ohio can improve efficiency across all sectors, lessen the burden on government, and improve the region’s ability to compete in the emerging global economy. Simply put, collaboration is key to both resilience and growth.”
The list of recommendations is long, and not particularly well ordered by priority or effectiveness (one minor knock against the report). Vibrant NEO instead offers them by the key actors, their complexity and the proposed impact.
For TOD and better public transit, it calls for “regional action and coordination on transit development, but local government policy, codified in zoning ordinances, will ultimately lead the implementation to support transit, especially around high capacity stations.”
Transit needs to have adequate ridership for service to be successful, Sasaki writes, so housing density around high-capacity lines needs to come through zoning and master plans that ensure development reaches targets like a minimum of 7 units per acre in residential areas to make transit effective.
In addition, the region’s funding agencies like NOACA and AMATs need more support in building up transit-oriented development plans such as those for W. 25th Street and Uptown in University Circle.
Transit also works better when policy addresses the wide-angle conditions, like how much parking a city is providing for. An easy answer may be: Implement a Tiered Approach to Local Parking Ordinances (p. 145):
“Parking management strategies that focus on reducing the minimum required parking introduce a greater range of choice in communities.”
Development where high-transit service exists could cap parking to avoid degrading the pedestrian environment with seas of asphalt. In addition, flexible zoning, such as pedestrian overlay zones which prohibit parking in between sidewalk and building, add to the appeal and efficiency of walking and transit.
Other recommendations worth mentioning include a regional database of vacant land with site location ability like Indianapolis has, or an adaptive reuse program that streamlines the building recycling process and offers incentives such as expedited permitting modeled after one in Phoenix.
Why trouble ourselves to change? As great an effort as it will take to forge cooperation and understanding for more compact development linked by transit, the outcomes, in particular, conservation and value creation, change quite dramatically from the trend of sprawling, auto-dependent Northeast Ohio to one with noticeably larger areas of reinvestment, a patchwork of reuse particularly on Cleveland’s east side, and in between the region’s urban centers corridors of green space surrounding new regional transit. The NEOSCC initiative held up a mirror and gave us a long look at the difference between what is and what may no longer be sustainable; we owe it to ourselves to build consensus around one or two of the recommendations and make it the cornerstone of a new sustainability initiative that engages the whole region.