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Big questions for regional sustainability

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/14/13 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in NEO Sustainable Communities

As the ‘citizen’ planning effort, VibrantNEO, nears the finish line —and presents this month its vision for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio—ultimate success will rely on answering questions like this:

Resilient and connected places<br />VibrantNEO prioritizes development and conservation

1. How do we discuss sprawl? Can we find common ground that a focus on existing communities makes the region stronger?

Even with recent demand for walkable urbanism and trends like Americans driving less, sprawl is still the dominant paradigm. Why? Is the biggest house and biggest lawn possible—the Supersized life—still attractive or outmoded (hello, Hollywood and Madison Avenue) and due for a makeover?

2. What incentives do we need for developers to build in ways that support walkable urbanism in our cities and suburbs alike?

Opponents of regionalism and sustainability argue that it is not a market-friendly solution. But, data collected by VibrantNEO found that, despite the recent influx to Cleveland (35% increase in residents and 98% vacancy rate downtown), new and affordable housing options in existing areas are predicted to lose pace.

VibrantNEO found the “business as usual” trend pointing in the wrong direction for urban and multi-family housing options—they are predicted to drop due to continued abandonment by 60,000 units to 39% of the region’s supply by 2040. Their recommendation to the 100+ cities, counties, and agencies working on VibrantNEO is consider how we want to capture those interested in living in urban and walkable places. A recommendation is for a package of incentives to increase the supply of walkable urban places to meet the rise in demand.

3. If you were keeping score of the region’s progress, what would you count or measure to keep us moving toward a more sustainable way of living here? Transit accessible jobs? Vehicle miles traveled?

Northern Ohioans really like their cars. A whole lot moved farther from existing areas and got to know and rely heavily on them. The places we built in the last twenty years made it nearly impossible to get around without one. It’s why odometers in the area got such a workout. The daily drive went on and on—from 20 to an average of 25 miles a day from 1990 to 2010. Even as hundreds of thousands of jobs evaporated, we still managed to build new suburbs and fill gas tanks. 82% of people here willingly spend a high percentage (45%) of their income on the big new house and the daily drive. VibrantNEO sets a goal to reduce to 65% of Northeast Ohioans paying the dangerously high combo of Housing + Transportation cost (and bring us in line with peer cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis).

To get us there, electeds and big funders like NOACA could heed the call of thousands of Northeast Ohioans who told VibrantNEO they want a greater range of transportation options. They recommend that 65% of jobs in 2040 are located near transit (with an interim goal of 55% by 2020). It will take setting aside old differences to broaden the base of support so that leaders like Grace Gallucci, who is calling for NOACA to fund more transit, can build a transformative project like the Euclid Coridor. It will take new leaders who want to take transit and who pursue it for a generation taking its foot off the gas pedal. It will take a change at the state which funds transit using pennies on the dollar handily spent on new roads.

VibrantNEO has calculated costs in allowing more sprawl, and created an alternative vision that connects urban places with great transit service.

In order to “Grow Differently,” VibrantNEO calls for a cap on the length we go in building roads to sprawl at 2.75 lane miles for every thousand people added to the area. It also calls for a policy that bike lanes and crosswalks are painted somewhere in the region every time we build or expand a road.

4. What makes the strongest case for regional sustainability? What should we emphasize when we discuss sustainability?

Is it too removed from our daily lives to equate sustainability—such as keeping our lake and rivers clean and air breathable for all time—with acting for the greater good?

Is there a more effective frame when discussing where and how we build in the region? Are people more tuned in to the connection to their health? How about economics? It is well known that we’re not paying the true costs for our current system. For example, how much should we expect to pay for a gallon of gas or to landfill a bag of trash if the costs for cleaning up the environment or for the lives lost in conflicts in far away oil rich places were factored in? Imagine if every product you bought came with a label that listed the environmental damage caused by mining, manufacturing, transporting and disposing of the item. Would that affect your decision?

What are some solutions to our sprawl problem?

We keep the focus on sprawl because VibrantNEO found that land is the predictor for how all seven counties in Northeast Ohio will fare in the next decade.

What are some of the alternatives to sprawl or examples of living on fewer non-renewable resources?

What would move the region collectively toward a new vision? What are the strategies where it counts, i.e. with the funders and policy makers, that focus development primarily in existing areas while protecting our soil, air and water?

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David Beach
7 years ago

Treena raises an important point. There's a lot more work to be done on the legacy pollution problems of old cities. Our friends at Environmental Health Watch have been working on the problem of childhood lead exposure for many years and have a lot of good information. In recent years, however, air pollution has not gotten enough attention.

It should also be said that the suburbs aren't pristine either. The region's biggest air quality problem is vehicle emissions. And there are many suburban areas with lots of traffic.

7 years ago

I'm late to the table on this one, but wanted to add another reason we live in an outer 'burb: pollution.
We lived in the Edgewater neighborhood for a number of years in the early '90's and loved it. Until our kids were diagnosed (and treated) for borderline-high lead levels.
Since our house was 'clean' (no exposed or peeling lead paint, etc.,) we figured it was due to exposure from playing, etc. outside . All those years of leaded gasoline being spewed out by vehicles.
And since we weren't willing to cloister :-) them, we decided to move farther out...to an area that had not had the population (and traffic) and 'dirty' industries.
This is a big issue: I'd love to move back in and be able to park my car, but until there's been a comprehensive program to bioremediate, I won't. Also, the continued existence of polluting companies like Arcelor-Mital would restrict my choice of neighborhoods. I love Tremont but I don't want to be downwind of that company (not that they're the only air polluter, I'm sure.)
The City and it's elected officials maybe need to think and act on this...

Good King Wenceslas
7 years ago

Sue - You raise some interesting points. I would respond by pointing out that the newer communities have been unable to replicate the neighborhood feel of the inner-ring and the city. One of my joys as a child was being able to explore my community on my bike, biking to ball games, friends' houses, the ice cream parlor, the library, etc. Raising kids in one of these newer cul-de-sacked developments is profoundly depressing to me. Not only for the selfish reason that I would be responsible for driving them to all of the locations I just described but also because I would be depriving them of their own mobility and ability to explore. After all, there are only so many times that you can bike around the cul-de-sac before suffering from severe boredom. Also, by living in an older community I get the satisfaction that I'm acting responsibly socially and toward the environment. Best of luck with your search!

Exurban Wonder
7 years ago


Marc did an excellent job responding to your post. I would just add that I hope that we can agree that parents who can choose where they send their kids to school have made what they believe to be the best choice for their children. We must move beyond this tacky argument that "I love my kids, so I send them to ____________ School District," as a justification for living in one of the outer burbs. That argument wrongly implies that people that choose to send their kids to inner-ring suburban or city school districts somehow just love their children less or don't love their children at all. It also fails to take into account that maybe, just maybe, the state's method of grading schools doesn't take into account what some parents might look for in a school when deciding how and where to educate their children (e.g., diversity, AP classes (a large percentage of "Excellent" schools have zero AP classes), median ACT scores (a large percentage of "Excellent" schools have median ACT scores below the national average), and depth of curriculum). I hope this helps.

7 years ago

Sue -- thanks for your comments. There is probably something to the four reasons you list for those who decide to live in the suburbs instead of the city. Schools may be an issue for the slice of the population that needs them. But then there are reports that young people are delaying marriage and not starting families. The median age of a Clevelander is 33, and that follows with the trend of cities being younger places than suburbs. Should the city plan for growing younger and for a future with fewer children? There's also a possibility that retirees will tire of yard care and want a change of scenery that favors walkable urban places. Should cities and suburbs start thinking about where Baby Boomers want to live when they retire and encourage development that provides more walkable, vibrant, mixed-use places as an option?

As someone who purchased a 100-year-old home but who was raised in a new home, I have come to appreciate that maintaining an older home is a big responsibility. Having really big windows, thick crown molding, hardwood floors and fine architectural details is the trade off to our spending time and resources being stewards of this old house. Sometimes we wonder how we'll do it, but we like knowing that preserving an old home is one of the greenest acts we can take in our lifetime. It's not for everyone. That said, I don't agree with your assertion that there are no older homes with major upgrades. I've seen more than a few century homes that have stunning modern kitchens and baths. Also, some people like choosing how to update their home with the latest thinking in green building (we have more and constantly better choices in how we retrofit our old home to be more energy efficient, for example).

One last point that I probably wasn't making too clearly in the post. There's a feeling that living in the suburbs is cheaper. Research from a group in Chicago, Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), found that the savings of buying a home for less in a suburb is often eaten up by the added cost in transportation since many new suburbs are further away from centers of employment and are built in a way that makes transit not viable. CNT's Housing + Transportation Index found that a vast majority of suburbanites in Northeast Ohio are spending 45% of their income on a combination of housing and transportation. The H+T index shows that communities well served by transit and designed for alternative forms of transportation like biking and walking are more affordable. Unfortunately, transit is not financially viable in most suburbs today because there isn't enough housing density to support it. Suburbs that want to have more transportation options should consider what they can do to improve population density -- there is a threshold of residential units per acre that makes a much stronger case for transit agencies to add service there.

7 years ago

Good post, but I think it overlooks the four most influential variables as to why people move outside the inner ring: 1) Schools for their kids 2) Crime 3) Access to shopping and markets / retail (there is hardly any in Cleveland proper) 4) (and probably most importantly) Decent homes that don't require a near-complete overhaul to be livable.
My husband and I have been looking at real estate listings for well over two years on the east side to be closer to his work to minimize a commute. His job is not in the city center. We cannot find a home in the city or the inner rings to move into. If a property is sufficient in square footage (I need a home office) and would like a yard to grow vegetables or location, it needs everything: a new roof, a new kitchen, a remodeled bath with updated plumbing, a waterproofed basement, refinished floors, re-landscaping. Foreclosed homes especially have been gutted of anything worth keeping. Suburbs like Shaker or Bratenahl have very high taxes. Compare the expense of this to starting fresh in a new space with land for gardening and lower taxes, and many people see the math works out in favor of starting with a new home. I don't know anyone that likes to drive. But the more I research, I'm beginning to think the better way to get people to use alternate transportation is to bring the trains to them, not expect them to move in, especially when more jobs and corporate headquarters are east.

The Progressive Blindspot
7 years ago

Alternative to sprawl: living in the City of Cleveland or one of its inner-ring suburbs. Don't like old? Buy or build a new house or condo. Query whether someone can really be progressive if he or she is living in Sprawlville?

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