If we want to improve our personal and environmental health in 2016 – and make Northeast Ohio a more sustainable place – it’s important to focus on the big, systemic issues that hold our region back. Here are GCBL’s nominations for these key challenges. Let’s all make a New Year’s resolution to address them.
Northeast Ohio’s big issues include:
A 19th century energy system based on fossil fuels
At a time when climate change is the most serious issue facing humanity, our energy system is still largely based on burning carbon-intensive fossil fuels. Other states, such as California, are moving aggressively into the clean-energy future, but Ohio is still propping up the dirty past. This makes us less competitive and less relevant.
At the state level, we need to restore standards for renewable energy and efficiency, and we need to stop believing that extractive industries like fracking are long-term economic solutions. At the local level, we need programs that will help every home and building tap into clean energy, either on-site or from community solar and wind facilities.
There are many ways for cities to accelerate the transition to clean energy -- either by providing incentives or removing unnecessary barriers. In this vein, Cuyahoga County’s Department of Sustainability has developed a Clean Energy Finance Hub. South Euclid utilized a NOPEC grant to implement energy efficiency projects across the city. Shaker Heights residents are encouraging their neighbors to sign up for 100% renewable energy. And Cleveland homeowners have access to discounted solar panels.
The trends are favoring this transition. The federal tax-credit for solar and wind installations was just extended, giving greater certainty to renewable energy financing. The price of renewables has dropped precipitously in recent years, making them competitive with polluting coal-fired electricity in more places. And coal plants have been shutting down as they are forced to account for the costs of carbon pollution that causes climate change and other health and environmental problems.
No regional strategy for promoting development in the best places
We’ve known for years that the region’s sprawling, haphazard development patterns are costly and environmentally destructive. Now there is growing evidence from the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank and the Fund for Our Economic Future that these patterns make it difficult for people to access job opportunities.
Almost two years ago, the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium completed a $4 million analysis that outlined how the region could develop in a more sustainable manner – recommending sensible strategies to focus investment, build on existing assets and communities, and maximize the use of existing infrastructure. What’s happened since then? Almost nothing. We’ve largely spent another two years spending our shrinking pool of public dollars to dig ourselves into a deeper hole.
In 2016, the region finally needs to come together and set priorities for sustainable growth. There are lots of potential projects we can work on together: Where are the best locations to prepare brownfields for industrial redevelopment? Where can we support the next walkable, high-density, mixed-use centers which the real estate market is demanding? How can we develop more convenient transit and rail connections across the region? How can we create the nation’s best regional trails network?
A transportation system that is unbalanced, inequitable, and out of step with emerging preferences
In part because of the land use issues mentioned above, Northeast Ohio continues to build a transportation system primarily for one mode – motor vehicles. Since 1990, the region added 300 highway-lane miles while population growth remained flat. In Cuyahoga County, 87.7% of work trips are now made in a car.
One challenge of this far-flung, auto-centric system is the cost. The region’s transportation agency, NOACA, estimates it will take $1.8 billion to fix the roads in need of repair. At 57.5 cents per mile, driving is costly for people, too.
The current transportation system also does not meet the needs of a large number of people -- young, old, disabled, low income -- who can’t drive. It’s a major cause of air and water pollution. And it contributes to health problems by depriving people of opportunities to get exercise as part of their daily routines.
As a result, local governments are being pressured to provide better transportation options. People want more transit access and more bike facilities. They want to get out of their cars and experience walkable places. The question for communities, then, is how to adapt their transportation infrastructure and policies to help create the healthy alternatives and vibrant, walkable places that people increasingly want.
It’s time to plan, design, fund, and build the multi-modal transportation system of the future.
Lake Erie’s relapse into green slime
Water quality and the health of Lake Erie are top concerns of people in Northeast Ohio. Water is part of our identity, and, as the climate changes, it’s likely to become a bigger competitive advantage for our region. With new stormwater programs, communities are being given an opportunity to learn from the rapidly evolving field of green infrastructure -- techniques to retrofit the developed landscape to increase the infiltration of stormwater, mimic natural hydrology, and restore ecological function.
At home, a rain garden with native plants is a simple but effective step in protecting water quality. Planting and caring for trees is becoming a major emphasis of community health and climate resiliency efforts in Cleveland and suburbs. Indeed, studies have shown that a $2 per capita investment in trees returns $4 per capita in benefits, including cleaner water. So trees are a great investment.
But Lake Erie will not be cleaned up by cities, sewer districts or homeowners alone. One of the biggest water pollution problems -- and the one mostly responsible for the recent algal blooms in the lake -- is agricultural runoff. For too long, industrial agriculture has gotten a free pass from environmental regulation, even though it’s the dominant land use impact in much of the Lake Erie watershed. It’s time to promote a greater shift to sustainable agricultural practices that restore soils and water quality.
Economic indicators that don’t measure real progress
Like most of the world fixated on GDP, Northeast Ohio measures success based on measurements of consumption and growth – population, jobs, aggregate income, etc. However, such measures don’t always provide an accurate accounting of people’s true quality of life, much less whether the growth can be sustained in the future.
At GCBL, we have long been interested in alternative measures of well-being. A few years ago, we worked with ecological economists from Oberlin College and the University of Vermont on a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) for Northeast Ohio. It balanced increases in income and consumption with costs, such as crime, pollution, and loss of natural resources. For the years 1990 to 2005, the GPI found that consumption rose in Northeast Ohio, but overall well-being declined.
Other alternative measures are being developed, such as the Happy Planet Index. Locally, the Fund for Our Economic Future’s “Growth and Opportunity” research has documented the ways that economic growth doesn’t always bring broadly shared opportunity or a higher quality of life.
In the future, we will need such measures to know if we are getter better or just bigger.
What are your big issues?
These are just some of the big, underlying issues facing Northeast Ohio. We could have added a food system that harms the health of people and the environment or a number of legacy issues affecting an older urban area – brownfields, lead poisoning, inefficient buildings, educational inequities, etc.
What would you add? What do you think are the biggest barriers to a more sustainable Northeast Ohio?