Blog › The big issues: Northeast Ohio's sustainability challenges for 2016 and beyond


The big issues: Northeast Ohio's sustainability challenges for 2016 and beyond

David Beach  |  01/27/16 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Transform

If we want to improve our personal and environmental health in 2016 – and make Northeast Ohio a more sustainable place – it’s important to focus on the big, systemic issues that hold our region back. Here are GCBL’s nominations for these key challenges. Let’s all make a New Year’s resolution to address them.

Solar on every roof<br />The transition to clean energy is inevitable. We need to move faster in Ohio. (Photo of solar installation in Cleveland Heights courtesy of AAT Solar)Taking care of existing assets<br />There have been many good recommendations for promoting more sustainable patterns of development in Northeast Ohio, such as the recent scenario-based planning work of the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. Less cars, more fun<br />It's time to plan and build a multi-modal transportation system that works for all and creates great places.  From fields to lake<br />To protect Lake Erie, we will need a more sustainable agricultural system, not just greater investments in urban sewer infrastructure.

Northeast Ohio’s big issues include:

A 19th century energy system based on fossil fuels

At a time when climate change is the most serious issue facing humanity, our energy system is still largely based on burning carbon-intensive fossil fuels. Other states, such as California, are moving aggressively into the clean-energy future, but Ohio is still propping up the dirty past. This makes us less competitive and less relevant.

At the state level, we need to restore standards for renewable energy and efficiency, and we need to stop believing that extractive industries like fracking are long-term economic solutions. At the local level, we need programs that will help every home and building tap into clean energy, either on-site or from community solar and wind facilities.

There are many ways for cities to accelerate the transition to clean energy -- either by providing incentives or removing unnecessary barriers. In this vein, Cuyahoga County’s Department of Sustainability has developed a Clean Energy Finance Hub. South Euclid utilized a NOPEC grant to implement energy efficiency projects across the city. Shaker Heights residents are encouraging their neighbors to sign up for 100% renewable energy. And Cleveland homeowners have access to discounted solar panels.

The trends are favoring this transition. The federal tax-credit for solar and wind installations was just extended, giving greater certainty to renewable energy financing. The price of renewables has dropped precipitously in recent years, making them competitive with polluting coal-fired electricity in more places. And coal plants have been shutting down as they are forced to account for the costs of carbon pollution that causes climate change and other health and environmental problems.

No regional strategy for promoting development in the best places

We’ve known for years that the region’s sprawling, haphazard development patterns are costly and environmentally destructive. Now there is growing evidence from the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank and the Fund for Our Economic Future that these patterns make it difficult for people to access job opportunities.

Almost two years ago, the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium completed a $4 million analysis that outlined how the region could develop in a more sustainable manner – recommending sensible strategies to focus investment, build on existing assets and communities, and maximize the use of existing infrastructure. What’s happened since then? Almost nothing. We’ve largely spent another two years spending our shrinking pool of public dollars to dig ourselves into a deeper hole.

In 2016, the region finally needs to come together and set priorities for sustainable growth. There are lots of potential projects we can work on together: Where are the best locations to prepare brownfields for industrial redevelopment? Where can we support the next walkable, high-density, mixed-use centers which the real estate market is demanding? How can we develop more convenient transit and rail connections across the region? How can we create the nation’s best regional trails network?

A transportation system that is unbalanced, inequitable, and out of step with emerging preferences

In part because of the land use issues mentioned above, Northeast Ohio continues to build a transportation system primarily for one mode – motor vehicles. Since 1990, the region added 300 highway-lane miles while population growth remained flat. In Cuyahoga County, 87.7% of work trips are now made in a car.

One challenge of this far-flung, auto-centric system is the cost. The region’s transportation agency, NOACA, estimates it will take $1.8 billion to fix the roads in need of repair. At 57.5 cents per mile, driving is costly for people, too.

The current transportation system also does not meet the needs of a large number of people -- young, old, disabled, low income -- who can’t drive. It’s a major cause of air and water pollution. And it contributes to health problems by depriving people of opportunities to get exercise as part of their daily routines.

As a result, local governments are being pressured to provide better transportation options. People want more transit access and more bike facilities. They want to get out of their cars and experience walkable places. The question for communities, then, is how to adapt their transportation infrastructure and policies to help create the healthy alternatives and vibrant, walkable places that people increasingly want.

It’s time to plan, design, fund, and build the multi-modal transportation system of the future.

Lake Erie’s relapse into green slime

Water quality and the health of Lake Erie are top concerns of people in Northeast Ohio. Water is part of our identity, and, as the climate changes, it’s likely to become a bigger competitive advantage for our region. With new stormwater programs, communities are being given an opportunity to learn from the rapidly evolving field of green infrastructure -- techniques to retrofit the developed landscape to increase the infiltration of stormwater, mimic natural hydrology, and restore ecological function.

At home, a rain garden with native plants is a simple but effective step in protecting water quality. Planting and caring for trees is becoming a major emphasis of community health and climate resiliency efforts in Cleveland and suburbs. Indeed, studies have shown that a $2 per capita investment in trees returns $4 per capita in benefits, including cleaner water. So trees are a great investment.

But Lake Erie will not be cleaned up by cities, sewer districts or homeowners alone. One of the biggest water pollution problems -- and the one mostly responsible for the recent algal blooms in the lake -- is agricultural runoff. For too long, industrial agriculture has gotten a free pass from environmental regulation, even though it’s the dominant land use impact in much of the Lake Erie watershed. It’s time to promote a greater shift to sustainable agricultural practices that restore soils and water quality.

Economic indicators that don’t measure real progress

Like most of the world fixated on GDP, Northeast Ohio measures success based on measurements of consumption and growth – population, jobs, aggregate income, etc. However, such measures don’t always provide an accurate accounting of people’s true quality of life, much less whether the growth can be sustained in the future.

At GCBL, we have long been interested in alternative measures of well-being. A few years ago, we worked with ecological economists from Oberlin College and the University of Vermont on a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) for Northeast Ohio. It balanced increases in income and consumption with costs, such as crime, pollution, and loss of natural resources. For the years 1990 to 2005, the GPI found that consumption rose in Northeast Ohio, but overall well-being declined.

Other alternative measures are being developed, such as the Happy Planet Index. Locally, the Fund for Our Economic Future’s “Growth and Opportunity” research has documented the ways that economic growth doesn’t always bring broadly shared opportunity or a higher quality of life.

In the future, we will need such measures to know if we are getter better or just bigger.

What are your big issues?

These are just some of the big, underlying issues facing Northeast Ohio. We could have added a food system that harms the health of people and the environment or a number of legacy issues affecting an older urban area – brownfields, lead poisoning, inefficient buildings, educational inequities, etc.

What would you add? What do you think are the biggest barriers to a more sustainable Northeast Ohio?

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4 years ago

I appreciate the last few comments because they are addressing the link between the social issues of urban decline which are real barriers to regenerating the urban neighborhoods. Any thoughts on how our cultural institutions can help with curing the weaknesses of both city and inner ring school systems which are a major factor young families confront when making their housing choices.

4 years ago

That's more like it! Let's start identifying solutions like that one and State laws and policies that induce, encourage or subsidize sprawl that need to be changed and then spread the word.

David Beach
4 years ago

Government and school district consolidation could help to even the playing field of services and reduce disparities among different parts of the region. But it's probably the last thing that will happen, given the strong self-interest of suburbs to maintain their favored status. A more likely step forward (as was mentioned in comments below) is the regional tax-base sharing system that has been operating successfully for many years in the Twin Cities metro area of Minnesota. It's a way to share the growth of tax base to keep the entire region strong. Another more possible (yet still hard) thing to level the playing field in Ohio would be equitable funding of public schools -- moving from reliance on local property taxes to state funding.

4 years ago

Question for group: If Cuyahoga County and the surrounding counties were merged into one municipality and one school district, does it address the issue of fleeing from (supposedly) bad schools and higher taxes?

David Beach
4 years ago

Tragic crimes in the city get a lot of media attention and create an unfortunate perception that cities are dangerous places. But from an overall risk perspective, the outer suburbs are a more dangerous place to live, mostly because of increased driving and traffic accidents. You can see studies if you search for "city vs. suburb safety."

If you want to be safe, move to the city and get rid of your car!

4 years ago

There is an idea being expressed that it is a strong central city which makes the Avons of the world grow. This depends on the view that the burbs are leveraging their greenfields to steal growth. Another view might be that the negatives of dis-functional schools and a torn social fabric within the central city create a problem that the affluent run from. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet to fix urban schools and to provide for public safety. Remember attractive walk-able neighborhoods require a feeling of safety. The murder of pizza delivery men in Ohio City sell as many building lots in Avon as any attraction these places have to offer. Unfortunately there is nothing easy about the restructuring that is needed to enhance sustainability. Our issues are social as much as spacial.

4 years ago

"The current transportation system also does not meet the needs of a large number of people -- young, old, disabled, low income -- who can't drive. It's a major cause of air and water pollution. And it contributes to health problems by depriving people of opportunities to get exercise as part of their daily routines".

I agree.

The Cleveland Clinic Foundation (CCF) is constantly preaching "wellness" and "active living" to lower health care costs for our country. They predict if we continue on the health care trajectory we are on, health care costs in the future will bankrupt our nation. I agree. We all need to move more and participate in active transportation for better health. However, the CCF is not practicing what it preaches. It is undermining the very opportunities for people to choose active transportation and public transit.

Consider the CCFs "decanting plan", drawn up for the acquisition of the assets of Lakewood Hospital. Decanting refers to the taking of profitable, vital health service lines from one facility and pouring them into another, leaving behind the not so profitable dregs. Lakewood Hospital is located in a densely populated, vital city center accessible to public transit and active transportation. The CCF Avon facility, into which Lakewood assets have been poured, is plopped beside a highway exit surrounded by a sea of parking, accessible only by car. This is quite contradictory to the CCFs much trumpeted "wellness" and "active living" marketing memes.

Has NOACA, NEO Sustainable Communities Consortium, Federal Reserve Bank, Fund for our Economic Future, Cuyahoga County Department of Sustainability spoken out on this and other glaring examples of "the biggest barriers to a more sustainable Northeast Ohio"? Or does the region's largest employer and consumer of media advertising get a free pass?

Matt Kuhns
4 years ago


"a short-term 30-year successful community is all they are really looking for."

Sadly, I think this phrase nails it; I need to hang onto it. Sprawl communities really are like single-use, disposable products. An influx of the upwardly-mobile funds a one-time build-up of infrastructure; the money from fast growth runs out by the time that stuff needs replacing, but at that point people just move out even further and start again.

Today's booming exurb is tomorrow's declining has-been, but who really cares when so many of the people living in them have no strong connection to community in the first place?

I really do lament being so gloomy about all of this. I just don't see what's going to overcome force of habit in a region where the people most ambitious and hungry for change tend to go start their lives elsewhere.

4 years ago

How do we get the Avons of the region to understand that "without a strong central city [Cleveland, in our case] there would be little likelihood of future success for outer 'burbs'"? I think that if you ask most of the residents of those communities, they think that there current success is independent of what happens in Cleveland. And, frankly, they can point to tangibles like all of the development happening around them to back up their argument. Also, I think lower taxes is one of the main reasons that folks move out of the Cuyahoga County. Any form of regional government will probably mean that they would face a tax increase. I doubt that they would be down with that, especially because a short-term 30-year successful community is all they are really looking for.

Matt Kuhns
4 years ago

I presume you mean the Metropolitan Council, which has authority over a seven-county area. (I would link to the Wikipedia article, but links are not allowed here.)

Something like this would potentially be an excellent model, except for the most difficult part: getting it set up. Metropolitan Council appears to have been a creation of the state legislature, which is located in the center of the region in question, which is the only major city in Minnesota.

I don't see Republican legislators in Columbus corralling the counties of Northeast Ohio into a regional government system.

As for enlightened self-interest, I agree that every-suburb-for-itself is bad for everyone in the long term. But I don't think that the populations of outer suburbs and exurbs care. As Mark Twain wrote, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Sam Bell
4 years ago

As I recall, Hennepin County MN, offers a real-world template for successful regionalism. (Not, of course, without some critics!) In essence, the argument is that without a strong central city [Cleveland, in our case] there would be little likelihood of future success for outer 'burbs [Avon, in your example] Understanding this gives Avon a true incentive to help support the inner core.

David Beach
4 years ago

Good points by Matt and Teavana below. I said these were big issues, not easy ones!

Of course, there is tremendous inertia in the old system of automobile-dependent, sprawl development. But I guess I have hope that the tide is turning, despite the temporary obstacle of $1.50 gas. Attitudes about cars are changing. Real estate trends are changing with a growing market for walkable urbanism. Carbon emissions must be reduced. And there is a desperate need for a new American Dream that works for more people and is more affordable, convenient, equitable, and interesting.

4 years ago

Matt hit the nail on the head. What incentive would the Avons of the region have for scaling back sprawl development. Perhaps if there was a hammer that NOACA could wield it would make a difference, but so far it seems that they're reluctant to exercise leadership on this issue. And, oh yeah, let's not forget, a large segment of the population equates sprawl with "progress."

Matt Kuhns
4 years ago

I favor all of this, but I confess that I have little hope of it happening. Regional planning, in particular, strikes me as all but hopeless at this point.

Even if all Cuyahoga County had a single metropolitan government (and even if it weren't irredeemably corrupt), the sprawl has already pushed out well into the adjacent counties. I have no idea what could stop that, given that governments in Avon, e.g., presumably have a strong preference for people and money continuing to flow toward them.

I hate to say it, but I just don't see Northeast Ohio checking that dynamic, least of all with gasoline around $1.50/gallon.

If there's a successful model to which you can point, I would love to read about it.

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