In the past year, thousands of Northeast Ohioans imagined and sketched up how we want this place to look in the future. We participated in the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC) in the hope that it would devise a plan for sustainable growth.
NEOSCC collected plenty of data and provided evidence on why we need to rethink communities to make better use of water, land and infrastructure. Its board represents 100 of the biggest NGOs and governments, so their plan carries weight in how the region collectively develops land and transportation (disclosure: Cleveland Museum of Natural History is a board member).
It’s important to remember that NEOSCC is really all of us. What we want from a place isn’t ‘their’ job, it’s all of ‘ours’ to find and build toward.
NEOSCC concluded that the best policy going forward was to focus on rebuilding existing areas and preserving green space. But what practical measures should we focus on since we’re limited by time, money and political will?
I’ve just returned from Tijuana and San Diego where a plan was also funded by the HUD/EPA/DOT Sustainable Communities consortium. I interviewed urban planners there who said that SANDAG, San Diego’s regional planning agency, was able to forge an agreement between county and city that shifted resources from sprawl toward a smart growth plan.
A decade had passed since the last time I visited San Diego. This time, I noticed a lot more infill development in the city, surrounding its world-class Balboa Park. While San Diego is still sprawling—we were shown the luxury high rises grabbing the southern coastal zone in a traditionally Latino ship building neighborhood—it was said that a collective effort between city and county has produced a markedly different, more walkable city with access to huge amounts of green space (San Diego boasts 40 square meters of public green space per capita).
“SANDAG has a smart growth approach, and was a leader in the re-creation of downtown,” says Dr. Tito Alegria who heads COLEF, an urban planning center at Woodbury University in San Diego. “A convention center, middle class housing, a sports stadium and public transportation have all gone downtown in the last 20 years.”
Could Cleveland and Cuyahoga County—or Akron and Summit County—forge a similar agreement, guided by NEOSCC, that shifts the priorities from building a sprawling region with little choice but to rely on unsustainable car use to building more close-knit, walkable, transit-connected places? A recent report from the Census Bureau shows that Cuyahoga County is losing population at the fastest rate of any county in Ohio. We account for 50% of the state's out migration. Clearly, the region needs a new strategy.
The region’s cultural institutions may be needed in the campaign. They could start asking patrons and followers, what does walkability mean to you? As an aside for those wondering what defines walkability, a recent post from urbandata compared Walk Scores of U.S. cities and put it this way: How many people can walk to a grocery store in five minutes? In New York City, the answer is 72% while only 5% can do so in Indianapolis.
Many in Northeast Ohio have chosen to live in communities that were designed and built before the age of the automobile (which changed urban design, moved daily needs farther apart and made walking, biking and transit less practical). Because we have some traditional (i.e. walkable, transit-connected) communities in Cleveland and the inner-ring suburbs, we tend to think ‘we’re not doing so bad.’ Certainly, a trip to the West reveals that Cleveland has a lot of inherent qualities in its built form that lend itself to driving less. But in the last 60 years, Northeast Ohio’s development pattern has essentially moved the same population out to new places, built over green space at the periphery of the metro area, designed in ways that do not promote walkability.
What NEOSCC and others have revealed is the fiscal (and environmental) impact of continuing this lower-density pattern of land use. They showed how “business as usual” will drive ALL cities and towns into fiscal distress. Instead of ignoring their analysis, at some point it will be incumbent upon city and regional leaders to follow up with plans that detail specific action steps.
For example, in a recent article, “When the comprehensive plan leads nowhere” from Congress for New Urbanism, four plans are hailed for how they combine vision and implementation strategy. (The article also includes seven ways of knowing if your comprehensive plan has become meaningless).
They are winning broad support for vibrant, walkable places and more parks and green space in Somerville, Mass; Nashville, Tennessee; El Paso, Texas; and Raleigh, North Carolina. The common theme: Specify the intentions of the community and then draw them on the map. Somerville selected conserved, enhanced and transformed areas. In El Paso, they have compact urban, drivable suburban and open space zones mapped out. El Paso has set a goal to become the least car-dependent city in the Southwest.
“Effective plans identify the specific steps to be taken after the plan is adopted to implement the plan,” the article concludes. “These can include better methods of selecting capital improvements, new annexation policies and zoning code overhauls.
“Without implementation, a comprehensive plan’s true potential has been wasted.”
It will be up to us as citizens to ask our elected officials in city and county government and at metropolitan planning organizations which make daily decisions affecting the future of the region to consider, how are you making us more sustainable?