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10 big things Northeast Ohio can do in 2017 to be more sustainable

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/20/17 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Transform

Here is GreenCityBlueLake's analysis of the sustainability priorities and actions that Northeast Ohio can follow to get ahead in 2017.

Vacant to green<br />Underutilized land behind public housing in Ohio City became a massive urban farm. A model for more urban farming on vacant land in Cleveland. Image: Donna Turner Ruhlman. Movin out<br />Eaton Corporation moved its headquarters from the city to the suburbs exacerbating job sprawl and inequitable access in Northeast Ohio.Way to go!<br />Cleveland should complete its 70 mile bikeways plan in 2017 if it keeps on the pace it set in 2016 when it painted 16 miles of bike lanes.

1. Implement the recommendations of the Vibrant NEO study for a more sustainable region.

Northeast Ohio has consistently under performed in a vital sustainability area: We are building more auto-dependent than walkable, vibrant and transit-connected places.

The region invested $4.25 million into VibrantNEO 2040—perhaps the largest planning effort undertaken in Northeast Ohio’s history—to bring an unprecedented group of local experts from 100 organizations and thousands of citizens together. In an alternative / future scenario, the region would start developing more sustainably.

Big plans often fail, though, when they lack action steps. “At some point, it will be incumbent upon city and regional leaders to show up with plans that detail specific action steps,” we wrote in 2014.

That hasn’t happened. Yet.

The VibrantNEO vision is to build a future that is resilient, equitable and reduces our impact on the environment. The region could start incentivizing deals to redevelop in existing places; and design them to be transit, bike and pedestrian inclusive. The plan includes an expansion of green space and the creative reuse of vacant property.

2. For our major economic development organizations, make urban redevelopment a priority.

VibrantNEO isn’t alone in studying the root causes of an unsustainable Northeast Ohio. Influential groups from The Fund for Our Economic Future to The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland have also explored how sprawl attributes to a racial and economically segregated region. They uncovered who is affected by job sprawl—when companies jump on incentives, like highway interchanges, to relocate jobs away from where people can get to them, especially on transit.

Greater Cleveland RTA’s scant bus/rail system gets riders to only 1 in 4 jobs within a 90-minute one-way transit trip. It could be why the metro area has the second highest poverty concentration in the USA.

We recently looked at 64 projects that received major development subsidies and found that half were in areas that don’t link to transit. On top of that, many projects routinely provide structured parking—even in transit accessible places—diminishing what is inherently sustainable about areas in Cleveland that are admirably walkable and where transit service exists.

We wrote in our report: “Given the importance of access, it's vital that public policy support economic development in good locations—that is, locations that are close to population density and are well served by public transit.”

3. Increase state funding for transit

Transit access improves a city’s economic competitiveness, especially for lower income populations like Cleveland’s. Yet, Ohio elected officials have been slow to internalize this. In the past decade, the state slashed the line item for transit in its transportation budget from $43 to $7 million. Meanwhile, the need hasn’t disappeared (only the service).

Ohio studied the problem and concluded, “there is a definite rise in the need for convenient, affordable public transportation to jobs, medical appointments, shopping and recreational activities. Our transit agencies are struggling to fund this existing service, let alone meet the increased demand.”

The most immediate step the state must make is to close the funding gap that transit agencies will suffer from the $500 million Medicaid tax change going into effect this July. Cleveland.com this week reported that Governor Kasich has made no promise to secure the future of all 64 transit agencies in Ohio. Greater Cleveland RTA would lose $4.5 million this year and $18 million next year and for the unforeseeable future—forcing even deeper cuts to service than those made in 2016.

Looking to help? Get involved with advocacy efforts to strengthen the commitment to public transit, including: Policy Matters Ohio, Clevelanders for Public Transit, Greater Ohio, Ohio for Transportation Equity, Sierra Club’s statewide Transportation Policy, All Aboard Ohio and national groups like the Transit Center.

4. State energy policy—support the recent Kasich veto and maintain state requirements for energy efficiency and renewables

Governor Kasich did stick to his pledge and vetoed the legislature’s attempt to kill the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency mandates, which were widely praised by industry; they helped spur investments by companies like Whirlpool and Honda in renewables, giving a boost to the state’s economy supporting wind and solar jobs. In rejecting the bill that would have permanently frozen the renewables mandate, Kasich cited the "energy generation options...most prized by the companies poised to create many jobs in Ohio in the coming years, such as high technology firms." He was referring to companies such as Amazon and Google, the Plain Dealer reported.

Those opposed to clean energy refer to it as “an ideology.” But, in reality, it is the fastest growing part of the energy sector. More level-headed groups like The Ohio Conservative Energy Forum will need to hear from renewable energy supporters as state leaders begin a debate about state energy policy this year.

5. Successfully implement the TIGER grant projects for trail connectivity

Even as federal funds for transportation alternatives were cut by Congress, the TIGER grant program launched by the Obama Administration was a bright point. Impact projects like rebuilding the Cleveland Cedar-University and Little Italy Rapid stations were paid for by competitive TIGER grants. Last year, the Cleveland Metroparks caught another TIGER grant by the tail: $8 million will continue the momentum that they started with their urban bike trail network in the Flats.

It will be interesting to watch if key connector trails like the Redline Greenway and the trickiest section of the Flats trail (which will weave behind the development on the West Bank and connect to Whiskey Island / Wendy Park via a new bridge over the Cuyahoga River) will come to fruition. It will also be interesting to see how the Metroparks handles its parking at destination sites like Rivergate Park. Will it take biking and transit connectivity into account when considering its typical parking allotment?

6. Climate—keep working at the local level to reduce carbon emissions, making cities laboratories of change when the federal government backs away from the climate issue

Cities are where the majority of the world’s population lives, and it is in cities that people come together, ideas collide and innovation results. One of those ideas born in cities is to build and live in new more ecological ways that reflect the desire of its populace to address climate change. Cleveland, for example, showed leadership in creating its Climate Action Plan and then using it to drive down carbon emissions from its municipal operation.

Cities are where hope goes to work. A large cohort of young people are moving to cities and are choosing density, transit, vegetarianism, and are bootstrapping sustainable businesses. Density and transit use are a big reason cities have much lower carbon footprints than suburbs.

Portland, Montreal, Minneapolis, Denver—cities are adding density while maintaining green space. Cleveland's vacant land is an opportunity to invite nature back in while it plans the future. The city’s economic development strategy could employ people in repurposing vacant property in a green economy of growing food and generating energy. This is the way Cleveland becomes a leader in re-building as an ecological city.

7. Keep expanding bike facilities to make cycling safe and convenient

This (2017) is the year Cleveland will finish its 70-mile “Bike Ways” Plan which it set out to build in 2014. The city deserves credit—it should meet its goal—if it stays on the pace it set in 2016 when it painted 16 miles of bike lanes. In 2016, the city striped bike facilities on Fleet Avenue (which got the full Complete and Green Street treatment), Lorain Avenue (not the Near West Side, where a protected bike lane is planned), Lakeshore Boulevard (the section between stately Bratenahl and City of Euclid, which also added sharrows on Lakeshore), Community College Avenue and E. 22nd Street (providing a better bike connection between Cleveland State and Tri-C Metro and St. Vincent Hospital) among others.

What’s next? Since 2014, cities are universally building on-street bike networks. Witness Detroit, which committed to 150 miles of bike lanes. One area where Cleveland is falling behind —a plan to build a protected bike lane. After some great planning from Ohio City, Inc. the city has allowed the Lorain Avenue protected bike lane to linger (after insisting that it can only be the gold standard set by Indianapolis with the Cultural Trail).

2017 will be the year the feasibility study for the Midway greenway/protected bike lane is completed. The city could show its intent to make biking a lasting form of transportation and take green streets to the next level. Needs include a dedicated funding stream for bike facilities and more verve in getting ideas like the Midway up and running (even if it is the pilot projects of three sections selected by the public at meetings last year).

8. Keep expanding public access to the lakefront—follow up on the judge’s ideas

Clevelanders have long dreamt of one day walking, unimpeded, from downtown to the water’s edge. Cleveland deserves the lakefront access Chicago has built—with millions of residents walking to its beaches, frolicking in the water, running and biking on its miles of paths and enjoying a respite from the city without having to ever leave it.

Its been 13 years since Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell organized a massive plan to rethink how the city connects with its lakefront. And so it was a revelation when the city + partners, including the Campus District, revived the vision of a park on the (east) lakefront last year. Momentum and timing are better now—with the Cleveland Metroparks successfully taking over Edgewater Beach and ODOT decommissioning the West Shoreway.

As Cleveland Probate Judge and the appointing authority for trustees of the Cleveland Metroparks, Anthony J. Russo, proposed in the Plain Dealer, “parks and trails could possibly be incorporated into the existing Cleveland Metroparks, offering continuity and management expertise. This type of lakefront development would take Cleveland one more notch up the ladder as a beautiful and world-class destination.”

Some outstanding issues to resolve in Russo’s vision of a grand flaneur from Public Square to University Circle via a lakefront park:

  • Open Public Square to transit so that everyone can participate equally.
  • Re-evaluate the $30 million pedestrian bridge from the Mall to the lakefront - is there better ROI in improving the pedestrian experience to the lakefront (perhaps on E. 9th Street)?
  • Do a serious study of the adaptive reuse of the former FirstEnergy Lake Shore power plant
  • Improve the water quality in the Doan Brook so that it doesn’t smell like an open sewer: make it the focus of a major green infrastructure project and make the brook natural through Rockefeller Park.

9. Ensure that the NOACA long range plan has a significant mode shift goal

Our current transportation system didn’t happen by accident. It was well planned over the past 50 years by an army of public agencies, engineers, and contractors. They were all following a broad, public consensus to develop an American landscape that maximized mobility by automobile. This consensus assumed that nearly all people would travel around Northeast Ohio by car – now and in the future. And it assumed that the endless expansion of mobility by car was good for our quality of life and good for the economy, especially because so much of the economy was related to the auto and oil industries.

The transportation planning process reflected these assumptions. On the surface, they sound rational. But what if we don’t like the current trends? What if they aren’t sustainable and produce social, health and environmental costs that society and many individuals can no longer afford?

The answer is to start planning intentionally for a more balanced mix of transportation modes. A key measurement of a balanced, sustainable transportation system—perhaps the most important one—is the mode split, or the distribution of trips by motor vehicles, transit, bikes, walking, etc. And one of the most important transportation policy changes we can make in Northeast Ohio is to get NOACA to adopt a goal to shift modes. While the agency has adopted general language about the need to build a more multi-modal transportation system, it has never set a real goal—a goal that holds the agency accountable and actually determines the mix of transportation projects that are planned and funded. NOACA’s Long Range Transportation Plan (due in 2017) is the appropriate place to set a specific mode shift goal.

10. Plan for the 50th anniversary of the famous Cuyahoga River fire, which is coming soon in 2019

GreenCityBlueLake founding Executive Director, David Beach said in this video from 2009 at the first Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Sustainability Summit, which drew 500 people to Public Auditorium: 

“Cities are these wonderful but fragile organisms. They are living things...Cleveland’s had its ups and downs. But if we commit to following through for the next ten years of our lives on the ideas expressed here, the city is going to be an amazing place. We are going to come out, put the burning river to rest and be the most amazing, sustainable city in the U.S. and the world.”

We are two years away from the closing celebration of the city’s 10-year sustainability initiative. There has been a lot of progress made—and charted (see the dashboard and annual reports on the sustainablecleveland.org site).

Beach was one of the early framers of 2019, the 50th anniversary of the most famous episode of the Cuyahoga River catching fire from pollution, as an opportunity to act in new, more sustainable ways on the individual and community scale.

In 2019, he said, the national media may turn its attention to Cleveland and ask, what has happened, how much has changed in the national environmental movement that was launched by this fire, and how has Cleveland contributed?”

While this list focuses primarily on environmental issues, remember that sustainability has three aspects—people, planet, and profit. This recognizes a healthy, lasting society needs to build all forms of capital—social, natural, and economic. So our sustainability priorities should include programs to address growing economic inequality. A good start would be to boost the minimum wage in Ohio.

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