Past the point of no return?

Cleveland needs regional strategies
to stem urban decline

It's taken Greater Clevelanders many years to overcome their collective inferiority complex and begin to call themselves the "Comeback City." So it was hard to listen to David Rusk when he came to town in December 1994 and said that Cleveland may very well be "past the statistical point of no return."

Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, NM, has spent the past few years studying which American cities are succeeding or failing, based on measures of poverty and racial segregation. He has found that healthy cities are those with metropolitan governments or other regional approaches for sharing responsibility for urban problems. Failing cities, like Cleveland, have been isolated by their surrounding suburbs.

Speaking at the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency and The City Club, Rusk said that Cleveland's much-heralded downtown developmentsGateway, the Flats, North Coast Harborare making it "a great place for a yuppie lawyer to live." But such developments have not, and will not alone, reverse the city's alarming slide into urban oblivion.

Rusk cited the ominous trends:

  • Cleveland is increasingly becoming the poorhouse of the region. The city's poverty rate jumped from 17.3 percent in 1970 to 28.7 percent in 1990. The number of "poverty" census tracts in the city (those with more than 20 percent poverty) grew from 64 to 147 during the same period. And the number of "hyper poverty" census tracts (those with more than 60 percent poor) grew from one to 21.
  • Poverty in the region has taken on the appearance of apartheid. Overall, the area has nearly as many poor whites as poor blacks, but poverty is much more concentrated in the black community of the inner city. Almost two out of three poor whites live in middle-class neighborhoods dispersed throughout the region, while nine out of ten poor blacks live in poverty neighborhoods. Cleveland is the fourth most segregated city in the nation behind Hammond, IN; Detroit; and Chicago.

Fingers in the dike?

These kinds of sobering statistics have been cited before, such as in the reports of the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland. Boosters of the "Comeback City" do recognize the challenges. But they maintain that we are already responding effectively. They say that strategic investments in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and other attractions will make Cleveland a tourist destination and create jobs. They point to neighborhood-based programs to retain industry and build new housing. They brag about the new federal Empowerment Zone, which will bring concentrated investment to three neighborhoods on Cleveland's east side. We're making progress, they say. We are turning things around.

Critics like Rusk respond that such programs are important and good, but they can't overcome the regional forces of urban sprawl and inner city decline. No city has successfully carried out an inner-city, neighborhood-centered strategy sufficient to reverse the city's decline, Rusk said. Often, the persons who benefit from such programs are able to move out to better communities, leaving poor neighborhoods more isolated than ever.

A metro strategy

Rusk's alternative is a metropolitan strategyone that is far more politically controversial than anything attempted in Greater Cleveland. It would involve at least the following four policies to reduce racial and economic segregation:

  • "Fair share" housing policies (supported by planning and zoning) that will encourage the development of low- and moderate-income housing in all jurisdictions of the metropolitan area.
  • Fair employment and fair housing policies to ensure full access by minorities to the job and housing markets.
  • Housing assistance policies to disperse low-income families to small-unit, scattered-site housing projects and to rent-subsidized private rental housing throughout a diversified metropolitan housing market.
  • Tax-sharing arrangements that will offset tax-base disparities between the central city and its suburbs.

In his recent book, Cities Without Suburbs, Rusk writes: "In baldest terms, sustained success requires moving poor people from bad city neighborhoods to good suburban neighborhoods and moving dollars from relatively wealthy suburban governments to poorer city governments. The long-term payoff will be an overall reduction in poverty, dependency, and crime areawide, and 'prosperous cities [which] are the key to vital regional economies and to safe and healthy suburbs.'"

The state and federal governments must play a strong role to promote such metropolitan strategies, Rusk adds. For example, the state government must:

  • Improve annexation laws to facilitate central city expansion into urbanizing areas.
  • Enact laws to encourage city-county consolidation through local initiative or to reorganize local government by direct state statute.
  • Empower county governments with all municipal powers so that they can act as de facto metro governments where appropriate.
  • Require all local governments in metro areas to have "fair share" affordable housing laws.
  • Establish metrowide tax-sharing arrangements for local governments, or use state aid as a revenue-equalizing mechanism.

Could such policies be enacted in Ohio? Certainly it's hard to imagine a local politician brave enough to suggest that growing suburbs like Solon or Hudson should build low-income housing or share tax revenue with Cleveland or Akron.

People regionalism

But a handful of metro areas in the nationincluding Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chattanooga and Rochesterare doing such things. They have embraced what Rusk calls "people regionalism," in addition to the more common "things regionalism" (e.g., regional sewer or park districts).

"These are communities that are working on acting like a region," Rusk said during his visit. "They have a high level of engagement over the issue of disparities."

In the Twin Cities area, for example, community activists and a courageous state legislator named Myron Orfield have worked to strengthen their Metro Council. They showed that the cities, older blue-collar suburbs and rural areas were all being victimized by high-end growth in outer suburbs. And they put together a political coalition of those interests to level the playing field. In addition to preserving the region's tax-base sharing program, they have worked to require low- and moderate-income housing in all communities, reduced tax incentives for selling farmland to developers, and placed regional sewer and water authorities under metropolitan control so that growth can be managed better at the regional level.

Organizing a force for change

The same arguments about who is hurt by present patterns of development that have been influential in the Twin Cities could also win in Cleveland, according to Rusk. [See our ideas for an Anti-sprawl network.]

"The case is waiting to be made by the central city, older suburbs and really by all of Cuyahoga County, which is passing into a phase of decline as a whole," he said.

The case could also be made by the business community, which needs an educated, productive workforce. Or by taxpayers who must pay to duplicate city infrastructure in new suburbs.

"The European cities with which we compete don't simply discard an earlier generation's capital investments," Rusk noted. "They don't incur that burden."

The case for regionalism could also be made by environmentalists, who decry sprawl's impact on fossil fuel consumption, air pollution and land use. Environmentalists would add, however, that it's not enough just to reduce fiscal disparities. We also need sensible land use planning at the regional level to steer development and keep cities geographically compact. We need policies such as urban growth boundaries and green belts. Allowing the central city to annex surrounding communities (like Columbus does) might keep middle-class residents and tax base within the city limits, but it won't stop sprawling land use.

"To end Cleveland's isolation you need a regional solution," Rusk concluded. "You need to open up economically and racially...If you don't, it will affect the economic competitiveness of the entire region."

We should strive for a society of "balanced opportunity," he said. "We are not well served by the abandonment of the inner city and the movement ever outward."

In Greater Cleveland, our civic leaders have raised the possibility of regional cooperation to finance football stadium renovations for the Browns. What we need are leaders willing to advance regional solutions for the far more serious problems of racial segregation, economic disparity and sprawling land use.



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"To end Cleveland's isolation you need a regional solution," Rusk concluded. "You need to open up economically and racially...If you don't, it will affect the economic competitiveness of the entire region."

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