Sustainability is not a straight line. Progress sometimes feels as random as a coin flip.
Tails, and you get Opportunity Corridor. Ohio freezing its renewable energy policy. Cleveland losing a grant to build an off-shore wind farm. The sprawl forecast from VibrantNEO.
Heads for Sustainable Cleveland 2019, and its long list of spin off projects. The growth of downtown and urban neighborhoods. The region’s recent brain gain.
How do we know if Northeast Ohio is making progress?
Aside from the established measures of progress—GDP and job growth—what other yardsticks of progress does Cleveland and the region, need?
One sustainability yardstick devised in 1994 by John Elkington expanded on the business concept of profits. Elkington coined the phrase, “triple bottom line,” to express a concern that business weigh decisions not only for economic but also environmental and social returns.
Sustainability advocates have since worked to expand the triple-bottom line decision making idea into the civic arena. If a city or region put their plans and projects through a triple-bottom line analysis, how would the environmental and social impacts of, say, a new, limited access, high-speed road like Opportunity Corridor be accounted? How would a city put into practice a triple-bottom line approach to economic development?
When Cleveland talks about sustainability, its emphasis is on building a green economy. The mayor rightly looks at what investments will raise the most up the economic ladder, and generate tax revenues to offer services like recycling pick ups or police and fire protection.
But, for the first time in decades, Cleveland has more educated residents moving in who don’t perhaps define the city as deficient. A study just out from Center for Population Dynamics at CSU found that Cleveland and Pittsburgh have “growth without growth”—they’re shrinking but growing stronger. Tens of thousands of new residents have moved into the area bringing with them 4-year degrees and higher incomes, senior researcher Richey Piiparinen found. At the same time, Cleveland is “exporting” less educated workers in the service industry to places like Columbus (in part because their growth in consumption is fueling more service industry jobs).
We may not be used to hearing good news about Cleveland, but a countertrend of getting smaller and smarter will have implications for how the city plans for the future. Many of the new residents are Millennials who are driving about one-third fewer miles than their parents. How, for example, should it inform Cleveland’s decision when big pots of money get dumped on its door. Like road money: $50 million gets divvied up between Cleveland and its outer counties every year. As Cleveland thinks about how it will continue to attract talent at some point it must ask whether it builds more high-speed roads for the comfort of cars or more comfortable spaces for people?
Cleveland deputy planning director, Freddie Collier expressed at this week’s Complete Streets design manual discussion that transportation is about building more of the “front door amenities” to attract talent not only downtown but stretching that vision into the neighborhoods. What Collier hopes for is to leverage the city’s funds into something transformational where people live.
“We can’t be satisfied with a ‘one and done’ scenario, either,” added Cleveland transportation planner, Art Schmidt. “We can do more than one special project and ride on those coattails. We want to continue to be innovative.”
Critics point out that projects such as Opportunity Corridor are not about innovation. Design cues are taken from a decades-old manual at ODOT which values the speed of cars rather than more “state of the art” thinking around placemaking. University Circle, Inc. president Chris Ronayne told Cleveland.com that he wants Opportunity Corridor fast tracked, but has also expressed concern that the road will pump tens of thousands of new cars into an already small district.
The counter measure would be to invest the equivalent, $300 million, into managing the demand for more transportation on Cleveland’s east side and University Circle. UCI deserves credit for opening this conversation. How can its investments produce triple-bottom line places, and more brain gain within its borders. As a University Circle employee and participant in that process, it is encouraging that UCI wants to set the bar high for a multi-modal options with a transportation management association (TMA) in University Circle. It will be essential to manage traffic and parking demand, especially in the post-Opportunity Corridor environment.
It must translate into doing more than studying the problem (we’re really good at studying things in Cleveland). Could a TMA become the sharp end of a coalition between UCI, Cleveland, RTA and NOACA which marshalls the resources to build proposed public transit extensions to (and in) University Circle? How about launching a bike share program between University Circle, downtown and the Near West Side?
Our sincere hope is that Opportunity Corridor is the last new road that Cleveland will feel the need to build. That the outcry against the project will signal the end of the highway building-as-economic development era. Cleveland is a different—in some ways, smarter— place than it was sixty years ago when cities were offered “free” highways from Washington (90% federal + 10% state funding).
We hope that Cleveland takes the words of former Milwaukee mayor and co-founder of Congress for New Urbanism, John Norquist, to heart. Norquist writes in Street Design: The Secret to Great Cities and Towns about why cities like Buffalo are tearing down highways.
“Americans make huge mistakes, but we also correct them.”
He likens the highway to the rivers that the Army Corps of Engineers once buried in pipes. “Now we know that draining wetlands and ‘channelizing’ streams not only damaged the environment but increase the likelihood of pollution and flooding downstream. As it entered the 21st century, the Corps has begun the process of undoing the damage that many of its 20th century projects caused...
“In a similar way, traffic engineers are learning that urban street grids can distribute urban traffic more efficiently than superhighways.”
There are plenty of people who live and work and think like Norquist in Cleveland. Opportunity Corridor is a reflection not of their values, but of the pressure to build something significant; it reflects a point of view that land in this part of the city is only as good as its access to the highway—the counter trend can be seen in new acreage of urban farms at Kinsman and E. 55th which are expanding the definition of economic development by keeping the impact local, and building an economy that is sustainable (its about reuse, providing food security, and not relying on moving more people in and out of the city in cars).
So, Cleveland, where do we go from here?