The more we keep building communities like we have in the past 20 years, the poorer we will get. That’s what will happen if current trends continue, according to a recent analysis by the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium.
The Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC) unveiled a sobering look at the 12-county region’s possible future at a series of public workshops last week. The regional planning group released a “business as usual scenario” that takes the development trends of the past two decades and projects what the region will be like if those trends continue to 2040.
The overall picture is no surprise. If the trends don’t change, the region’s population and employment will grow only a small amount. Meanwhile, new development will continue to spread out in suburban communities, which will contribute to the abandonment of the region’s historic urban centers.
Costs of sprawl affect us all
We’ve been talking and writing about these troubling patterns of outmigration for many years. What’s new about the NEOSCC scenario is that it quantifies the costs of these trends – and shows how the entire region will be impacted.
For example, the scenario estimates that 10.5 percent of the region’s housing stock (174,900 units) will be abandoned by 2040. That is the equivalent of 18 units per day. Older cities throughout the region will bear the costs of deteriorating neighborhoods, disrupted social fabric, and demolition. The demolition costs alone could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Then there will be the costs of extending and maintaining new infrastructure to serve a more dispersed population. The region will require 3,700 more lane miles of roads. That’s like building a road from Cleveland to Panama.
If you combine the region’s stagnant overall job growth and the increasing costs of abandonment and infrastructure, you get a region where every county is in fiscal trouble. Costs will exceed revenues in all 12 counties, even ones that seem prosperous today. Indeed the most fiscally strong county in 2040 will be weaker than the weakest county today.
This is telling us that the low-density, land-consuming, city-abandoning, infrastructure-expanding, automobile-dominating, energy-consuming pattern of development we have known is unsustainable. We need to find a better way to build communities in the future.
At the recent public workshops, most participants understood this immediately. When asked to show on maps where they wanted the region’s future residential and commercial development to be located, most voted to allocate nearly all of it to existing, older cities in the form of redevelopment. Even conservative Tea Party members (who showed up to challenge the legitimacy of the NEOSCC process) could agree that redeveloping places where there is existing infrastructure makes sense, if you want to hold down the overall cost of government.
The search for a more sustainable alternative will be the focus of the next phase of NEOSCC’s scenario planning. The consortium, which involves scores of planning agencies, local governments and nonprofit organizations from across the region, will create a number of potential alternative futures – along with the cost implications of each – and present them at public engagement workshops July 29–August 2.
My vote is to encourage the development of “walkable urbanism“ -- vibrant places where everyone from Millennials to aging Baby Boomers can find affordable, walkable, environmentally-friendly places to live and work. Northeast Ohio currently does not have enough of such places to meet shifting market demand. It’s a huge opportunity to strengthen the whole region.