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NEO's big engines of sustainability for 2012

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/05/12 @ 3:29pm

From Cleveland's Complete Streets policy to the Regional Sewer District's Stormwater Program, we're watching how the big trends in sustainability are taking shape this year. Success will be measured to a large degree by how well regional planners and policy makers pivot from agreeing to use these new tools to making something real with them.

Below we break down what's at stake and offer a glimpse at best practices with an eye towards true sustainability and positive outcomes.

Cleveland's Green and Complete Streets Policy

When it was creating the ordinance, the mayor's office informed city council and the group of advocates working on sustainable transportation that it wouldn't budge on setting a $1 million cap on Complete and Green Streets. So the first area to watch as ordinance moves to policy is how to work innovatively within that confined space? Also important is to keep close tabs on the city's oversight committee-will it adopt ALL of the latest thinking around urban street design as it hammers out details of its new design manual, metrics, and pilot projects? We hope so.

The next important area to watch is how well integrated into city operations this policy becomes?

In that regard, we like what we're hearing out of Dallas, which seems to be turning its policy into a full-fledged program. The city launched a Complete Streets web site where they will post documents from their oversight committee-kudos for a real commitment to transparency. Through its "Complete Streets Vision" Dallas wants to actively demonstrate how a few inexpensive treatments to roads and vacant storefronts can improve the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, seniors, transit users and inject some much needed vitality into its neighborhoods. The city deserves credit for tying a local effort working on Better Blocks (which are a mashup of pop up shops and road diets) together with plans to redesign a number of city thoroughfares as Complete Streets. Dallas is also hosting several workshops that will explain to the public what complete streets are-which, we assume, will inform the work of creating a new urban streets design manual.

GCBL was part of the process working on Cleveland's legislation with the SC2019 Sustainable Transportation Action Team (STAT) and the Office of Sustainability. As the oversight committee is being formed-with representatives from STAT and the Office of Sustainability at the table-a close eye is needed to make this a strong policy. Complete and Green Streets policy has the potential to turn Cleveland into a national leader in this area. One indication that the Jackson Administration is serious about livability, choice neighborhoods and expanding mobility will come as the committee, headed by the city Public Works Director, adopts a strong set of metrics (as the business sector knows, if you don't a way to measure your gains, success will be ever elusive).

The West Shoreway and Lakefront recreation trail

What seems like another city of Cleveland versus ODOT battle is in fact a top tier regional sustainability story (or, it should be). The city deciding to un-fund an 8-mile bike and pedestrian trail along the lakefront-a major piece of the West Shoreway highway-to- boulevard project-should set off alarm bells in the cities connected to the Ohio and Erie Canal. The whole region benefits from the 1 million visitors to the Towpath-all ships will rise with a big city connection. The lakefront trail is a regional amenity that not only connects Towpath tourists to hot in Cleveland neighborhoods on the near west side but it begins to reshape the region's fortunes in ways that Chicago realized-by offering residents and visitors direct access to the lake and its beaches.

By the way, Cleveland isn't the only city that wants to tear down the wall that highway builders in the 1950s put between them and a Great Lake. Buffalo has plans to tear down a highway at its lakefront-with the help of Senator Chuck Schumer who wants Congress to fund $10 million of the project's expenses. And Seattle is moving forward on plans for a rejuvenated waterfront as it demolishes the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated freeway that cuts through the city center.

Regional Stormwater initiative

Damage from floods is a regional concern, but our region's low density pattern of development is exacerbating the problem-and placing a crimp in the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District's solution which is to pay for green infrastructure by charging a fee to property owners for their impervious surfaces. While twelve communities that are in the District are suing over whether the agency has the right to charge a fee, their complaint really centers on who pays for sprawl? Do the older communities which are downstream from new boomburgs in Avon, Strongsville, Streetsboro and Aurora-some of which are not in the District but are adding impervious surfaces and to the flooding problem with more big box and cul-de-sac development ? pay for more than their fair share? This is a true test for regionalism ? beyond the judge's decision, how much can cities at or near the center pay for the impacts of sprawl? Will the inner ring agree to spread the costs to its residents in the name of a collective good?

Sustainable Communities regional planning initiative

Northeast Ohio is poised to finally leverage investments in transportation and affordable housing with more sustainable choices in land use through its $4 million Sustainable Communities Initiative planning grant. It's a massive challenge made harder because the initiative is being led primarily by Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) who have moved slowly to get their own house in order ? refusing to revisit policies and funding priorities that have placed highways and interchange development at the forefront for the past 25 years. (The unsustainable transportation spending has brought ODOT to the verge of collapse-you know things are bad when the Ohio General Assembly agrees to audit ODOT). Will the Sustainable Communities initiative capitalize on this generational shift from sprawl to smart growth? Will the leaders of the MPOs and their city members see the shift taking place in time to modulate their priorities? If MPOs and cities want to get serious about making existing areas stronger, the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities initiative will make an air tight case for zoning reform (from large lot to mixed use) and for more multi-modal transportation connecting multifamily, mixed-income housing in something new for our many post-war suburbs-walkable town centers.

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