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Who's tending our vision for a more vibrant future?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/28/12 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in NEO Sustainable Communities

The Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium is trying to come up with a plan that rethinks how and where we develop in a 12-county region so that we can be more vibrant and attractive. Right now, they're researching existing conditions, such as how many roads have been built since 1980, and where are jobs located relative to affordable housing. The big next step is to imagine, What do we want our cities, suburbs and towns to look like in the future?

Maybe we can look at how other cities and regions are doing this, winning awards for their vision of becoming more sustainable. El Paso, Texas is a good example – it won a 2011 EPA National Award for Smart Growth for its vision for turning isolated, car dependent areas in the city into vibrant town centers where people want to live, work, walk and socialize.

El Paso held 30 'design the future' meetings where a thousand residents and business owners imagined and sketched up what they wanted to see. In the end, they chose to move away from car dependent to walk and bike friendly places.

"With walkable neighborhoods, you get a lot of your life back," says Mathew McElroy, El Paso Deputy Director of Planning and Economic Development. "It's about having more time to do the things you want to do as opposed to commuting."

Anchored by a new transit line and cleaning and redeveloping a 600-acre former industrial site 1 mile from downtown and 500 yards from the University of Texas, McElroy says all involved wanted the outcome to be tangible and realistic. "Not another plan that sat on a shelf."

The city broke ground on a Bus-Rapid Transit line-like Cleveland's Euclid Corridor -one year after the plan was published.

The plan is to connect and add vibrancy to three neighborhood centers all connected by the transit line. For example, Remcon Circle-the site of a BRT transfer station and a spread-out shopping area -is slated to be retrofit to a walkable neighborhood with homes, offices, stores, and green spaces.

"For many years this community didn't have a vision. If we implement the ideas in Plan El Paso we'll be the Mecca for smart growth in the Southwest."

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We can also look at Chicago's Sustainable Communities plan. Like Northeast Ohio, it won a federal grant and came up with a vision for how city and suburb can develop more vibrant places. The way Chicago talks about the thorny issue of sprawl is fairly straightforward; it's most likely the blueprint for Northeast Ohio's Sustainable Communities initiative (especially since Chicago's plan impressed enough people in Washington to win funds for implementation).

"The plan recommends supporting local planning through grant programs, infrastructure investments to implement plans, technical assistance, and collaboration between municipalities on shared priorities."

But, making vibrant, walkable places a reality is always sticky. The Chicago area is trying to meet its goals with a second round of Sustainable Communities funds for implementation. They're paying for CMAP, a planning agency, to provide staff planning support through its Local Technical Assistance (LTA) program. Technical support is going on in 70 communities, from inner city neighborhoods turning vacant land into to agriculture and food-based businesses to suburbs drawing up comprehensive plans to include more vibrant, live-work town centers (like what Shaker Heights is doing with Warrensville-Van Aken – this would help cities pay for that kind of plan).

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One way to delve into the issues of how to retrofit our suburbs and cities may be found in San Diego's Regional Quality of Life Dashboard. In fact, it is inspiring our Sustainable Communities Consortium to come up with a similar dashboard. San Diego follows a format-snapshots of current conditions and ideas for an attractive future. It asks provocative questions like, "How are we doing?" followed by a realistic assessment, such as what happened after years of operating as fragmented little cities. It provokes thought (and hopefully conversation) with concrete examples of solutions and graphics that bring dull data to life.

The group that keeps the dashboard up to date each year concluded that, even with sentiment running high, the region should prepare for big changes:

"This year's Dashboard paints a clearer picture than ever before of how interrelated the 16 Quality of Life Indicators truly are-underscoring why integrated solutions are the only way to truly chart a more sustainable future for the region. For example, the electricity blackout of September 2011 resulted in dangerous water pollution that necessitated beach closures and boiled water advisories, a wake-up call for many San Diegans about just how vulnerable and how interlinked our energy and water resources are."

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