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Building ourselves into bankruptcy

David Beach  |  05/08/13 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, NEO Sustainable Communities

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.

Sprawl costs us all<br />Low-density development in new locations drives up the overall cost of maintaining the region. Fiscally unsustainable<br />In 2010, the 12 counties of Northeast Ohio were almost balancing spending and revenue. However, all counties will be running deficits in 2040 if current trends continue. (Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium)Costly infrastructure of sprawl development<br />One reason for the increasing cost of local government is the  burden of extending infrastructure to new development in rural areas. (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.

Suburban bubble

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.

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David Greene
7 years ago

Every mayor in the state should have this information. This should also be sent to Greater Ohio group in Columbus.

Vince Adamus
7 years ago

Nice post, David. This makes intuitive sense, even if people don't always think about it. Ten people maintaining ten miles of roads get by more cheaply than ten people doing the same for 20 miles of roads (dispersed population). Having someone quantify this for us will be very helpful.

David Beach
7 years ago

The real estate market of a metro region needs to serve the tastes of all kinds of households. While downtown might not be right for you, other people do find it nice and convenient. I guess an important point is that America has been building lots of burbs with single-family houses, but now there are many diverse households with many different visions of the American Dream.

7 years ago

What about property or income taxes. I wouldn't pay to live in downtown when my money would get me something much nicer or more convieniant out in the burbs.

David Beach
7 years ago

Walkable urbanism generally refers to places that enable you to satisfy many of your needs within a convenient walking radius. To enable that, the places have relatively high density, a diversity of land uses, and streets designed to encourage walking, biking and transit.

Good examples in Northeast Ohio would be Shaker Square, Ohio City, the Coventry neighborhood of Cleveland Heights and downtown Lakewood. I happen to live at Shaker Square, and I like being able to walk to all the stores, restaurants, coffee shop, movie theater, farmers market, Rapid Station, etc. Sometimes I can go for days without driving my car.

The new lifestyle centers, such as Crocker Park and Legacy Village, are interesting. Their popularity shows that people are hungry for well-designed, walkable environments with lots of things to do. But, fundamentally, they are designed to be regional destinations to which most people drive. Crocker Park is a little better, since it has a few housing units, but I would not call it a real neighborhood.

It's certainly possible for a new development to be a good example of walkable urbanism. While not perfect, First & Main in Hudson is an attempt to mix commercial, civic and residential uses while integrating into the existing street grid of a historic town center.

Considering the Heights
7 years ago

I am struggling to understand this concept of walkable urbanism - even after reading the link. What are the type five examples of walkable urbanism in NEO? What about them makes them the best? How do Crocker Park and Legacy Village rate?

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