Making the region better,
not bigger

The following profile of EcoCity Cleveland's director, David Beach, appeared in The Plain Dealer on December 15, 2002.

By Steven Litt
Plain Dealer Architecture Critic

David Beach, who grew up in Bay Village, could have gone anywhere in the world after he graduated from Harvard University in 1979. Many of his classmates did.

Jonathan Alter, who worked alongside Beach at the Harvard Crimson, the university's famous student newspaper, is a senior editor and columnist at Newsweek. Steve Ballmer, the Crimson business manager who approved invoices for film and photo paper when Beach was the newspaper's photography editor, is president and chief executive officer of the global software giant Microsoft Corp.

But rather than follow a mainstream trajectory, Beach returned to Cleveland, where he has become one of the most important and influential environmental advocates in the region, if not the entire state.

As an independent journalist and activist, Beach is having the kind of direct impact on his own community that many writers with more prominent bylines never achieve.

EcoCity Cleveland, the small but influential nonprofit organization founded by Beach, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. EcoCity has published two books "The Greater Cleveland Environment Book" and "Car-Free in Cleveland" and has established a Web site that is gaining national attention (

The Utne Reader, a digest of alternative publications, called EcoCity Cleveland's bimonthly journal "arguably the best local environmental publication in America."

By partnering with other local organizations, Beach and EcoCity have helped launch model construction projects such as the EcoVillage townhouses off West 58th Street in Cleveland's Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. The first four of 20 townhouses in the $4 million project have been built since the summer and more are on the way.

All will incorporate solar-powered heating, nontoxic and recyclable materials, high-efficiency insulation and other "green" features.

Beach has spent years attending meetings of local planning agencies, gradually earning a seat at the table through sheer persistence.

He serves on the Scoping Committee for the Ohio Department of Transportation's project to renovate and redesign the Inner Belt, the cluster of interstate highways that hideously scarred a dozen Cleveland neighborhoods when it was built in the 1960s.

Beach is also playing a key role in reconceiving the Cleveland lakefront through a project called BLUE, short for Building the Livable Urban Edge. And he's trying to launch a statewide campaign to promote "Smart Growth," the antidote to suburban sprawl.

At the center of all this energy is the same quality that has served those famous classmates of his: an ability to see what might be where others only see what's lacking. Beach is a man who can figure out what needs to be done, and then get it done.

David Bergholz, the outgoing director of the George Gund Foundation, which has donated $820,000 to EcoCity projects since 1993, said Beach "has produced a great return on investment. He has been enormously visible and productive in terms of staking out an environmentally friendly agenda for the region."

"What he's done is remarkable," said Tom Bier, who teaches housing policy at the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. "David is one of the premier assets we have, and I'm not blowing smoke on that. He's it."

Passionate but reasoned

Beach is a slim, bespectacled man, 5 feet 10 inches tall, with a soft, raspy voice; a long, narrow face; a light beard; and fine, dark brown hair crowning a high forehead.

He exudes the patience and confidence one would expect from an experienced farmer, or a mountaineering guide familiar with the finer points of traveling in the backcountry.

During a recent visit to Edgewater Park on the city's West Side, Beach looked every bit the outdoorsman. He wore a sturdy black parka and hiking boots with lug soles perfect for clambering up and down icy slopes.

"Have you ever stood out on the lakefront in the winter and heard ice groaning and cracking?" he said above the howling wind. "It's incredible."

Another person might have complained about the chilly grayness of the day. Beach reveled in it.

"Let's create sheltered observation areas on the shoreline," he said. "People in cold climates throughout history have figured out fun things to do in winter, like cross-country skiing and ice skating."

Beach is not one to make fiery speeches. In college, he stood on picket lines to protest Harvard's investments in the racist Afrikaaner regime in South Africa. But today, he works quietly and steadfastly to show how cities and nature can exist in harmony if architects, developers and city planners adopt new, environmentally friendly ways to build.

"He's very reasoned, but passionate a tricky combination," said Jon Jensen, a senior program officer at the Gund Foundation.

Primarily, Beach objects to sprawl the expensive and wasteful ooze of suburban growth that turns cornfields to subdivisions, ravages urban neighborhoods through disinvestment, increases pollution and destroys the difference between city and country.

Sprawl is usually associated with rapidly expanding communities on the coasts or in the Sun Belt not with Northeast Ohio, which virtually has achieved zero population growth.

Nevertheless, middle-class residents in this region are quitting the urban core in greater numbers and resettling on the fringe. As a result, Northeast Ohio has sprawl without growth. All of it, ironically, has been exacerbated by government spending on highways.

"Our urban design is dictated by cars," Beach said. "We've created a pattern where we're forced to drive, and we're all stuck in traffic."

Beach, along with a growing number of community leaders, wants to see a more balanced pattern in which urban neighborhoods are rebuilt, mass-transit systems are strengthened and damaged landscapes are restored.

Beach differentiates between mere growth, which can take any form, and development, which he defines as improvement.

"The sweet spot where you want to be is where you have no growth, but you're getting wealthier as a community," Beach said. "That's the trick for Cleveland. How can we get better, without getting bigger?"

Forward vision

Despite his eagerness to talk about anything having to do with the Greater Cleveland "bioregion," as he calls it, Beach is modest, perhaps even shy, when it comes to talking about himself.

When asked how he feels about his achievements, he responded with a prolonged silence that came as much from his reticence as from a desire to craft a sentence he would be satisfied to see in print.

When pressed, he said: "The work that I'm doing has tremendous rewards. They may not be monetary rewards, necessarily, but they are in other ways more meaningful."

Beach, 45, is a descendant of English colonists who settled in New England in 1639. His antecedent, Richard Beach, was a co-founder of New Haven, Conn.

Members of the Beach family have lived in the Cleveland area for five generations. His father, Edward Beach, a retired industrial engineer, is the great-grandson of Dr. Edward Beach, a physician who moved to Cleveland from Medina in the mid-19th century.

But David Beach doesn't flaunt his genealogy. Far from it.

"I'm not the family historian," he said. "I look forward rather than back."

Beach can't point to a specific moment when he made the environment his vocation. It was a path he gradually moved toward after working as a writer, editor, ad salesman and delivery man for the Plain Press, a small community newspaper in Ohio City, whose cheeky name combines those of The Plain Dealer and the former Cleveland Press.

After reporting on hunger, homelessness, unemployment and arson fires at a time when Cleveland's reputation was bottoming, Beach became convinced that the travails of local neighborhoods were connected to, and perhaps caused by, regional policies that encouraged sprawl and flight from the city.

"The important forces are happening at a regional scale," he said.

And while he was learning the ABCs of urban development, Beach was also impressing his colleagues at the Plain Press with his management skills.

Before Beach's arrival, the newspaper "was an all-volunteer, incredibly ragtag production," said Chris Warren, a former Plain Press writer who later became director of economic development for the city of Cleveland and a vice president of real estate investment for Shorebank Corp.

Warren said that "David came in and rescued [the paper] and set it up on a firm business footing. We felt nothing but relief that he was willing to spend ungodly hours making things work. Here was someone who was 10 years younger than us. But he knew what he was doing."

Beach also wrote magazine articles for The Plain Dealer and other local publications. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he wrote a column called "Lake Effects" for a weekly newspaper, the Edition, a precursor to the now-defunct Free Times.

And then, in 1992, with scant seed money, Beach founded EcoCity Cleveland. The organization now has a $200,000-a-year budget, a dues-paying membership of more than 1,000 people, and 3½ full-time employees, including Beach.

EcoCity soon will move to the new Cleveland Environmental Center in a renovated Cleveland Trust bank building at Lorain Avenue and Fulton Road on Cleveland's West Side.

But for the past 10 years, the organization has been headquartered in the third-floor attic of Beach's house in Cleveland Heights, where he lives with his wife, Dr. Constance Magoulias, and his sons, Daniel, 16, and Dylan, 14.

EcoCity employees Ryan McKenzie, a specialist in bike transportation and mass transit, and Manda Gillespie, who coordinates work on EcoVillage, have learned to come and go without disturbing Beach's family life.

As a boss, Beach is known for his restraint and his dry sense of humor. He keeps the books, repairs computers and phones, and carries out the trash, leaving notes to his co-workers signed "maintenance crew."

"He'll say very humorous things and keep a straight face, and I'll laugh hysterically," said Gillespie, who has worked for six years at EcoCity. "David is very understated. He would never criticize or yell at any of us, no matter how poorly we do things."

Most observers agree that EcoCity's success has been based on Beach's gifts as a writer.

He has a knack for communicating complex ideas simply and concisely. He also has a feel for the poetics of Northeast Ohio's landscape.

That sensitivity suffuses "The Greater Cleveland Environment Book," published in 1998, a 336-page almanac, written and edited by Beach, with contributions from 13 other writers.

The book includes a description of a nocturnal canoe ride Beach took with friends on the upper reaches of the Cuyahoga several years earlier.

"It was perfectly still and dark," Beach wrote. "We looked past the black outlines of trees and could see nothing but endless marsh - no farms, no houses, no lights. We had found a little corner of wilderness. We enjoyed the feeling for several minutes, each of us lost in our own private reveries, holding our breaths so as not to break the spell."

Beach believes that Ohio has suffered so much degradation through industrialization and suburbanization because most Ohioans have never cared about their landscape.

"Ohio was a state where people came to make money and exploit natural resources," he said in an interview last year. "I don't think many Ohioans identify with the landscape of Ohio."

Beach sees it as his job to celebrate the state's neglected virtues. He also wants to draw connections among all the various professionals who shape the physical environment, from traffic engineers to architects and urban designers.

In that sense, Beach is part of a time-honored American tradition that includes architectural critics Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, whose work profoundly influenced 20th-century architecture and planning, even though neither of them had a professional degree.

"I certainly don't put myself in that league," Beach said. "But that's certainly a tradition I identify with."

Most important, Beach likes to think long-term. He wonders, for example, why the state doesn't spend $50 million a year to buy lakefront residential properties that owners put up for sale.

Over half a century, through routine purchases, Ohio could assemble a continuous lakefront park that would vastly increase the value of properties to the south, while giving Ohioans the kind of shoreline access now enjoyed by Floridians and Californians.

But Beach is pragmatic. He recognizes that he'll recruit more people to his cause through gentle persuasion than by being a firebrand.

"It's not just a matter of being a troublemaker," Beach said, "but saying things in a constructive way so it moves the civic dialogue in a new way. You can do that by being at the table again and again, so you know the system and can make a contribution."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4136

© 2002 The Plain Dealer


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EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003

More about EcoCity Cleveland


Rather than follow a mainstream trajectory, Beach returned to Cleveland, where he has become one of the most important and influential environmental advocates in the region, if not the entire state.
Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer


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