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Is NEO slow to change?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/26/14 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Transform

Lately, I’ve given considerable thought to why change appears to be glacially slow in Northeast Ohio when compared to how individuals think or even the outside world views us. How is it that we can see a constant stream of Facebook posts hailing Cleveland as the greatest place to live, meanwhile Northeast Ohio seems stuck debating, studying, waiting?

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Is Northeast Ohio stuck or is it moving ahead, and if so, at what rate is our capacity to change?

“I have no question in my mind for those who think we’re moving too slow—we’re moving,” says Cleveland Planning Director, Fred Collier. “Cleveland is in a great position. The Jackson Administration is committed to moving (because of) health and equity.”

Why, then, do advocates feel that cities—which we are to think of as more nimble and less dysfunctional than our national government—are such slow actors?

“In order to change the culture,” Collier says, “you have to change the policies and that’s a difficult prospect because you’ve choked the system with what’s there.”

Collier’s thoughts echo what Center for Neighborhood Technology president Scott Bernstein said during a recent appearance in Cleveland. Bernstein, who worked with the Strickland Administration on an urban sustainability plan, suggested that Northeast Ohio is stuck in a state that is unwilling to advance or even stay the course, such as its recent reversal on renewable energy, even when a consensus has been reached.

“Oregon’s Governor said to me, ‘we’re stuck with maintaining the assets we have. Then there’s the stuff we’re turned on about: Complete Streets, the smart grid. How do we do that?’”

Bernstein suggests that cities and regions start investing in the sustainable future on the premise that waiting will cost more in the long term.

“Do we bottle rain storms or do we capture it where it falls? Do we build more power plants and move electrons around? It’s not a good idea if traffic is decreasing to invest more in it.

“Do investments produce consumption or productivity?” Bernstein adds. “It’s not an easy choice. We’re stuck, but to change the status quo from a small number of large investments to a large number of small investments we need to invest in smart ways that are going to produce the most distributed benefits.”

On the bright side, Bernstein’s comments were immediately followed by Grace Gallucci, Executive Director of NOACA, the region’s transportation agency, announcing that they were asking ODOT to reallocate $30 million from highways to fix Northeast Ohio’s existing, crumbling roads. Gallucci also said that ODOT needs to stop holding millions of dollars that were set aside for improving passenger rail between Cleveland and Toledo hostage.

Once ODOT’s grip on Northeast Ohio’s money is loosened, the region’s transportation agency wants to leverage it with bonds that would be sold in a new partnership with the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority and start rebuilding—Cleveland’s Amtrak station, a world-class transit system, hundreds of miles of bike lanes.

The problem of realizing the sustainable transportation system of the future today runs deeper than the question, can we bring more equity back into our funding streams? Do we have enough ‘pliable minds‘ is an idea floating around these days. Thomas Jefferson is maligned, but also credited with being malleable like clay. Writes Merrill D. Peterson:

“Jefferson was the great opportunist of his time and of all our history. Nor is it ill for the country that he was so. His marvelous strength with the people lay in the fact that he was in close sympathy with their ideas, hopes, aspirations, and his pliable mind...enabled him to carry forward the real purposes of the Nation.”

Can we stay open minded long enough, listen to the important data and trends and then carry through with a new agenda? For example, Bernstein presented data that showed an anemic 0.3% rise in driving miles in Northeast Ohio. Yet, a scan of Ohio’s plans for transportation spending reveals a pipeline filled with billions in new highways and expanded roads to places that highways have created demand for more driving. 

Government can be notoriously slow to respond to cultural shifts, except, it seems, in other places. California’s governor “fast tracked” protected cycle lanes this week. Boston has already met its 20% by 2020 carbon reduction goal, we were told at the Cleveland sustainability summit.

The narrative about Northeast Ohio is that a culture of protectionism, closed door policy on immigration, missing ladders out of poverty and lack, until recently, of college degree holders have held us down.

What’s our new story going to be? Richey Piiparinen at the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University has discovered an important micro-trend—Northeast Ohio has a brain gain going on within the larger outmigration story.

There is evidence that a new generation is moving in to Cleveland and certain suburbs. How do we build on that? We see evidence that a new generation values solid, old buildings, making things, and acting in ways that are healthier for themselves and the environment. Cleveland has seen a 250% increase in biking as a nation takes its foot off of the gas pedal. The city has responded, says Collier, by adding $1 million a year to its capital budget for bike lanes with a goal of painting 80 miles of lanes by 2017.

“What we’re seeing is a different value proposition being proposed,” Collier said. “I want to be healthier. I want to walk to work. I’m concerned about climate change. How does my lifestyle have to be altered to make that happen?"

Not just in Cleveland, but Columbus and Cincinnati, too, are seeing a resurgence in this new value proposition. Why then does it feel like Ohio’s leaders are ignoring this trend? Are elected leaders and public sector employees clearing the space for the sustainable metro areas of the future in our state?

Piiparinen says another problem lies in Cleveland figuring out how to transition from what he calls being a producer instead of a consumer city. He says we’re still investing as a city and region in shiny baubles like big hotels and highways; we’re acting like we’re the 6th largest city. I think he’s saying that a producer city focuses on economic growth from within. It builds on its legacy—mines its knowledge economy—and from there a place-based strategy will grow organically. Cleveland has an amazing legacy. As a diverse place, as a place to raise a family, as a place that offered what families want close by.

When supernova-hot neighborhood Ohio City says it will focus its efforts on families, according to its new community development director Tom McNair, that is a sign that smaller groups like CDCs can also play a leadership role. How will Ohio City, Inc.—and more neighborhoods that look just like it—place the family at the center of the community and economic development agenda? How will that be expressed in bricks and mortar and at “the street” level where schools, parks, t-ball leagues, kids having community garden battles and riding bikes together on a protected bike lane on Lorain Avenue capitalize for the gain of the whole region?

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David Beach
3 years ago

There are two issues here: the overall pace of change and the type of choices being made. I agree that many recent choices are building for the past, not the future (the Opportunity Corridor being a prime example). But I wonder if Northeast Ohio really has a slower velocity of change. There's a common perception that this is true -- true of the Midwest in general. But has anyone seen actual data on varying rates of change?

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