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How much walkable urbanism is enough?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/05/13 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, NEO Sustainable Communities

We still hold that the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium has the unenviable task of getting our region to face its demon—unchecked sprawl, fueled by highway expansion. And to acknowledge that our assets—parks within a mile for 90 percent of us and well-built city centers—are the building blocks to our future prosperity.

Great Bennies<br />Sasaki calculates the big benefits of the Euclid Corridor. The firm consulted on the street scape and BRT design. (Photos: Sasaki Associates).<br /><br />Take me to the river<br />Sasaki produced a riverfront revitalization plan for PittsburghGot game<br />Sasaki produced a plan to build a district around Ohio State's Horseshoe.

NEOSCC is driving the agenda not through confrontation but in a creative outlet known as scenario planning. It will pay Boston-area firm Sasaki Associates more than $1 million from its $4 million Sustainable Communities grant to lead as many of the four million residents of our 12-county region as are willing to participate through a highly visual exercise of comparing business-as-usual against snapshots of the future.

For instance, we will see what happens if we choose to invest toward a future where more of us are living in vibrant urban centers. The scenario planners will need to get a handle on the increase in population moving to walkable neighborhoods and how we meet that demand by improving upon places that are inviting this boom or perhaps by retrofitting suburbs. What will the region look like with fewer highway lanes, interchanges and duplicative big box centers. Would $1 or 2 billion invested in brownfield remediation and historic preservation projects like E. 4th Street and complete streets like Euclid Corridor be enough to meet the rising demand for urban living in Northeast Ohio?

We can visualize how a restorative urban agenda—where investments in local food production—slow the creep of paving over farms, wetlands and forests.

It takes the death by a thousand cuts course we’ve been on for the past half century to account and forces us to take a hard look at the choices that led us here.

“This is an inflection point,” NEOSCC director Hunter Morrison told a group at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History last week.

NEOSCC’s scenario planning should be able to galvanize a group of cities or townships around common themes and build social and political capital for change.

“So for example policy changes to Clean Ohio and brownfield cleanup affects any community since 1970 that had heavy industry,” he said. “This is a problem in Northeast Ohio. By working together and magnifying our voice can we have a policy discussion with the Governor? And what can we do to repurpose our industrial land if we cannot figure out how to clean it up? We are fighting ourselves. We will not be able to compete for Jobs Ready sites and put that land back in to productive use.”

Scenario planning takes that question in to account and produces side by side images of how the road not taken stacks up in terms of resource use. It won’t make us feel the impact of living in a food desert, or breathing polluted air or responding to constant floods. But it will make us realize that life is full of choices and regional land-use and transportation are the biggest collective choices.

“This isn’t about us in our little staff office in Akron cooking up a future,” says NEOSCC staffer Joe MacDonald. “It’s about providing information to the region so that they can become engaged and think about what sustainable communities mean for their neighborhood.”

MacDonald and the other planners on staff are starting to help Sasaki gather data on the region. The community engagement is expected to start in April. One goal is to find common values. “What are the qualities of life that we all care about and keeps us here?” he adds.

“We really need to think about what we want and articulate different choices—personal growth and well being, education, nature. You have a baseline of business as usual and an alternative that could be 'maximize dense development' or 'protect Lake Erie'.” Then, Sasaki’s job is to map out how the set of choices looks; how much impact our decisions have.

Let's hope it will be enough to spark a revelation that business as usual is an unsustainable choice. This process—and the images of just how far we're prepared to sprawl in the next 30 years, unless we create the environment for more sustainable land use—is just what we need to shake us from the dream and assurances that everything will turn out all right.

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