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Sprawl's hidden cost to Cleveland, a costly river clean up

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/23/15 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Transportation choices, Clean water, Connecting to nature

Imagine instead of retiring to a golf community, you had the choice of a small house in a beautiful park located on a reforested lot in Cleveland. Or in a community on a sustainable farm in the Cuyahoga Valley surrounded by forest on all sides. Is it a utopian dream? Or the new American dream?

<br />Soil being dredged from the Cuyahoga RiverConservation development<br />Two developments in Hiram preserve the woods by clustering the homes and placing a conservation easement on the land<br />The carbon intensity of Northeast Ohio (red equals more carbon emissions per household).

Northeast Ohio has tried paving over farmland for the past 25 years. It’s a practice with very real costs.

Some early attempts at how to build a better suburb were attempted in 2002 in Northeast Ohio. A practice known as conservation development was tried by a developer and builder offering cluster homes on smaller lots. Through conservation easements, Rolling Meadows in Hiram, which aimed to preserve much of a 75-acre site, and Village Gate also in Hiram essentially promised to cap development at two cul-de-sac streets surrounded by 200 acres of green space and woods. They laid claim to reduced Infrastructure costs and the preservation of green space raising the value of the homes.

Could they provide insight on how to transition to a less damaging way to live closer to nature? And why hasn’t conservation development become the norm rather than the exception in Northeast Ohio?

There is also a trend in “small house” living taking off in America. The documentary film "Tiny" follows the story of just some of the families and couples building their own 500 sq. ft. (or smaller) dream home, often mounted on wheels. Communities of small homes are sprouting up from Portland, Oregon to Austin, Texas.

Isn’t there greater demand for ways of living lighter on the planet than we see reflected in the housing being built in Northeast Ohio?

We ask because our current way of living puts Ohioans’ annual (2005) carbon footprint at 24.7 tons per person. Compare that to the national average of 19.9 tons. Clearly, our way of living is not sustainable for one planet.

Ultimately, a new vision

Whether we’re talking about small-home trailer parks or cluster homes, the most sustainable option will be to focus regional priorities back into existing communities. Invest where infrastructure exists. This is the recommendation of 100 organizations from the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium.

Building small and connected addresses the bulk of our carbon footprint in Cleveland. Because of our low density, car-dependent lifestyles and because of the preponderance of older homes in the area, housing produces the most carbon (12 metric tonnes a year) followed by transportation at 8 metric tonnes per year per person. All else pales in comparison.

Build it green, and in existing communities

This green communities focus would reduce the local burden on communities such as Maple Heights which are no longer able to operate in the current “go it alone” model. A focus on rebuilding communities comes with the benefits that proximity and density provide. We're talking about supporting more sustainable transportation options, such as biking and transit. That leads to reduced air pollution and improved health because we're not always relying on a car.

For twenty five years we’ve tried the opposite. Building suburbs far away from jobs and communities in green fields and farmlands. It has made us fat. It has raised our burden on the planet. It has created more communities who in turn ask for more resources from a shrinking pie. It has led to loss of population in existing communities (but not so much loss that those who stay still pay for the new roads and duplication of services through their taxes for new suburban areas).

And build for a cleaner, safer Lake

Access to nature was one of the selling points of the exurbs. But too often that nature is scoured away by bulldozers. In addition to creating carbon intensive communities, the environmental damage of sprawl is felt by the existing communities. They are downstream from where the massive subdivisions and golf communities are being built. By opening up land in Medina, Portage and Lorain counties to more driveways, roads and rooftops which were, until recently, protected by forests, the detritus of housing over large expanses of lawn and concrete speeds the loss of soil into watersheds. Where our food was grown, giant new developments are contributing to the dirty streams flowing back through Cleveland. The already silty streams, for example, connected to the mighty Cuyahoga River are made worse by this denuding of the land.

It means Cleveland has to pick up the slack and figure out how to dispose of 200,000 cubic yards of soil that washes into the river annually. Until now, Cleveland has avoided a bill, but that's changing.

The Army Corps. of Engineers was prepared to dredge and spread the silt that washes from farmlands (now subdivisions) into Lake Erie. The alternative, storing it in confined disposal facilities like Dike 14, is starting to get too costly. Last week, the Army Corps agreed to follow Ohio EPA’s call to stop “open lake placement” of silt, citing concerns with moving PCBs from the Industrial Flats into the lake and into our drinking water. But, it’s only a matter of time before the soil dredged from upriver is dumped again in the lake. The Army Corps has said as much. Small watershed groups like the Cuyahoga River AOC have ideas on diverting the soil that end ups at the bottom of the river in Cleveland into beneficial uses. Unless someone can come up with millions of dollars to move, store and treat the soil, it will be another good idea lost to the expediency of quick and cheap—a damaging pattern of building one type of community at the expense of others.

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