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The metro century delayed

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/25/13 @ 12:00pm  |  Posted in Transform

The “metro century” has begun—will someone please tell Northeast Ohio.

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On PBS Newshour last night Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley discussed their book “The Metropolitan Revolution.” The pair from the Brookings Institution hold that cities are, frankly, better positioned than the federal government to control their destiny. Metros consist of networks of people who may not normally cross paths because of political party, but are bound by “caring passionately about their home.”

L.A., New York and Cleveland are “tapping their latent power” to build for an economic recovery, Katz said, referring to the Fund for Our Economic Future and Nortech’s efforts to build clusters of industries around local issues like clean energy and clean water. When L.A. wanted to focus on transit oriented development, it “told the federal government what it needed,” Bradley insists.

Representing two-thirds of the U.S. economy, a metro agenda—with the private sector and with public policy leading to stronger connections and quality places—should be self-evident. Unfortunately, the trend of the last century— building highways and suburbs—still dominates here in Northeast Ohio. Katz and Bradley’s is a hopeful message, but is Northeast Ohio listening?

“Suburban Nation” author Andres Duany insists that centuries don’t always end when the ball drops. The 20th century ended in 2006, he says, when the financial system crashed from the subprime lending fiasco. Similarly, the 21st century won’t start until we work within this new reality.

“We think (The Recession) is going away because we have fracking and enormous wind farms,” says Duany, a founding father of the Congress for New Urbanism. “But it revealed the economic limits of the U.S. The energy will never run out, it’s just not ever going to be cheap.”

“We can turn all of these problems in to a virtue—of porches and ceiling fans and walking to things—if we don’t get infected by the pall," he continues. “We’re in great danger of being infected. Have you noticed that people are giving up—they’re buying bigger trucks and big houses.”

This last point is particularly notable in Northeast Ohio. As strong markets heed the historic market shift to walkable places, Northeast Ohio seems stuck in the last century. The convulsive highway proposal under the guise that it will relieve congestion or building new suburbs off the highway expansions of the 20th century seem to ignore important trends.

Past has stood in for prologue in Northeast Ohio’s regional planning—it has failed to challenge the hegemony of the outmigration pattern. The assumption in current planning efforts is that the pattern of the current century will flow seamlessly from last half-century. It has failed to plan for the emerging trend of capital trickling back in to cities.

“In a region suffering population decline, particularly in the core, identification of inflows are important,” urban researcher, Richey Piiparinen, writes, “if only to understand why it is occurring, so planning methods can follow that encourage the population flow.”

To break the pattern of sprawl, we need a new model of growth.

“When housing and transportation planners use longstanding trends to plan for supply,” Piiparinen explains, “what often occurs is a phenomena called ‘induced demand’ in which supplying a good—be it a widened road or exurban tract housing—can lead to a consumption of that good, if only for a lack of competing alternatives.”

The macro trends that Northeast Ohio will want to discuss, and adopt in the upper echelons of its land and transportation agencies, are outlined in this month’s Congress for New Urbanism news. In “The Driving Boom is Over” CNU writes about the implications for regions in a report that details how the American love affair with cars ended in 2005 (another new century milestone). Unlike the 1980s when driving rebounded from the Oil Crisis, Americans young and old have taken their foot off the pedal, perhaps permanently.

Running counter to the 21st century narrative of less driving and more demand for walkable places is the policy of almost every state department of transportation, Stu Siroka writes in “Our trillion dollar dirty little secret.”

“The bottom line here is that if transportation agencies updated their models to acknowledge that the VMT trend line of the 20th century can no longer be used to predict traffic volumes of the 21st century, many of the planned highway expansion projects now on the books could no longer be justified.”

Indeed, has ODOT or any proponent of the Opportunity Corridor, the I-490 expansion, considered how little to no demand for driving and a preference for walkable urbanism will evaporate demand for living in the far suburbs clamoring for the highway? Among 16 to 34 year olds, transit use is up 40 percent, PIRG found.

“Rising transit popularity supports both transit oriented development and the repopulation of neighborhoods with existing transit service,” CNU concludes. “When Americans expressed a desire to live in the suburbs after World War II, the full force of federal, state and local government was brought to bear to support the Driving Boom and the suburban built environment. In the 21st century, government should lend a hand to Millennials and others who wish to drive less.”

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5 years ago

@Exurbanist, thanks for your comment. We are always on the hunt for new photos to help illustrate our point. That said, we invite our readers to submit their photos, and we'll include them with a photo credit. Photos can be submitted to photos@gcbl.org

You raise some interesting points about what does walkable urbanism look like in Northeast Ohio? It may turn out to be a range of density options, from just dense enough (i.e. 8 units of housing per acre) to support walkable districts and transit to very dense urban centers (i.e. 16 housing units per acre minimum) like you see in downtown Cleveland. In reality, Cleveland will have transitional zones of less density that will need design solutions as well.

5 years ago

First off, you take good pix, but I think it might be time to update your catalogue of photos for walkable urbanism posts. But to the point of your post, I think that many folks have trouble visualizing what walkable urbanism looks like. Is it Tokyo, Lakewood, Shaker Hts, Westlake, etc.? Also, can we still have single family houses with walkable urbanism? If so, how big can the lots be?

5 years ago

A well written post. It's sad that with all of the investment being made in transit in University Circle (i.e., the HealthLine, the new Little Italy Rapid Station, and the new University-Cedar Rapid Station) and with all of the growth in University Circle in the past decade, University Circle, Inc. is still leading the charge for extending the I-490 freeway to University Circle, which not only degrades the living environment for folks visiting and living there with widened roads, but also demonstrates a complete lack of faith in the transit investments being made. If University Circle Inc. and others on the Opportunity Corridor Steering Committee could be a little more forward thinking, they would lead a regional push to expand rail transit to the west of the city via the Westshore corridor and to the south of the city, which would make University Circle more accessible and expand the experience for everyone visiting an area that is already booming and, by all measures, doesn't seem to need a highway to thrive.

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