The land use tragedy
Here is one simple fact that tells a lot about the disturbing direction we're headed as a region: Between 1980 and 2010 the five-county region is expected to lose three percent of its population while occupying 30 percent more residential land.
Thus, we have sprawl without growth. We have a relatively stable population (and employment) base in the region, yet we are spreading out over more and more of the landscape. It's a zero-sum game in which the perceived "growth" of some parts of the region often comes at the expense of older communities. And it's a game that consumes more land and requires expanded infrastructuremore roads and bridges, sewer and water lines, schools and public buildingsthat we and our children will have to build and maintain at great cost.
According to Census data, population has shifted from Cuyahoga County to surrounding counties. In 1970, for example, Cuyahoga County contained 74 percent of the region's population. By the year 1990, Cuyahoga County's share dropped to 67 percent. Meanwhile, surrounding counties (Geauga, Lake, Lorain and Medina) are all gaining population. These trends are projected to continue during the next decade.
As Cuyahoga County empties out, its population density (measured in people per residential acre) is decreasing. That makes sense. But a counter-intuitive phenomenon is expected to occur in the other counties. They will add population and decrease in overall housing density. That's partly because most of their new housing construction is in low density suburban subdivisionsbig homes on large lots.
If we were compact
Does this residential sprawl have to happen? Well, we might ask how compact could we comfortably be if development took a different form. Imagine, for example, that the entire region was built to the population density of a well-planned community like Shaker Heights, or about 4,900 people per square mile. At that density, the region's 2.1 million people could fit into 429 square miles. Cuyahoga County has 458 square miles, so all the people in the five-county area could live within its boundaries. We would need additional land for commercial and industrial uses, but we could certainly satisfy all reasonable needs with far less land than we are paving over now.
Indeed, the ideal form for our metropolitan area would have development clustered around the City of Cleveland (and Akron) and inner suburbs, with other development focused on compact satellite cities and villages in the outlying counties (e.g., Lorain, Elyria, Oberlin, Medina City, Hudson, Chagrin Falls, Chardon, Painesville). We could house and employ our population very well, while maintaining most of our land as farms, woods and natural areas.
If development could be more compact, we could all drive less because we would be located closer to the places we want to be. Higher densities would make public transit work better. We would create less air pollution and burn less gasoline. Our streams would be cleaner. We would save money on infrastructure. The emphasis would be on maintaining and reviving our existing urban areas. In the long run, our communities would be more livable.
But we are doing the opposite. Instead of focusing development on the core of the region, we are emptying it.
The big losers of population since 1970 include the central city of Cleveland and surrounding inner suburbs. In effect, these communities are being discarded so that "growth" can occur out on the metropolitan fringe.
This outmigration includes income as well as population. The illustration below shows how total payroll dollars have declined in Cleveland and the inner suburbs, while increasing in the outer suburbs and outlying counties (except for Lorain County, which was hit particularly hard by manufacturing losses). This shift in wealth leads to a greater concentration of poverty in the core. These communities are burdened with higher social service costs at the same time they are losing income and tax base. Eventually, their social and economic problems could undermine the fiscal health of Cuyahoga County as a whole.
At present, there is nothing in place capable of changing these trends in Northeast Ohio. There are no programs, no organizations, no clear strategies at the regional levelnothing strong enough to break the dynamic of sprawl and outmigration.
There is, however, a growing recognition of the problem and an intense discussion about how to respond. Even the business community is realizing that business as usual is neither affordable nor sustainable. After a presentation on population trends at a recent NOACA meeting, Dave Goss from the Greater Cleveland Growth Association stood up and called for an alternative future for the region. "I'd like to challenge NOACA and others to think about where we want to be 20 years from now," Goss said. "We have to challenge these trend analyses, not just accept them like we have in the past."
For its part, NOACA is trying to set priorities so that our transportation investments reinforce more of the compact land uses that we want (see Getting the transportation we want). Ultimately, everyone in the region will have to come together as a region and come to grips with our "sprawl without growth" dilemma. We have to recognize the dangerous, zero-sum game that we have been playing. For in the long run, this game is wasteful and destructive environmentally, socially and economically. It's time to change.
And we can change. We can choose a different path of development. For example, the rapidly growing metropolitan region of Portland, Oregon, plans to absorb 700,000 new residents with hardly any increase in its urbanized area. To accomplish this, the Portland metro area will promote higher-density development downtown and in satellite urban centers, with an emphasis on development clustered near light rail transit stations. And it will greatly increase the regional proportion of residential development in the central city.
The choice is ours. We can continue to let our cities bleed over the countryside, or we can promote compact development patterns that will make our communities healthier and more sustainable.
We have sprawl without growth. We have a relatively stable population (and employment) base in the region, yet we are spreading out over more and more of the landscape. It's a zero-sum game in which the perceived "growth" of some parts of the region often comes at the expense of older communities. And it's a game that consumes more land and requires expanded infrastructuremore roads and bridges, sewer and water lines, schools and public buildingsthat we and our children will have to build and maintain at great cost.