Where are
we now?

[First published in 1999.]

When the EcoCity Cleveland Journal started publishing in 1993, we asked the question, "Where are we going?"

We looked around Northeast Ohio and saw a number of disturbing trends: Older communities in decline. New subdivisions sprawling over farmland. Highways growing more congested. Transit agencies unable to serve an increasingly dispersed population. Cars burning more fossil fuels and spewing more greenhouse gases. Costly sewer and water lines extended to new developments at the edge of the metropolitan area. Existing infrastructure crumbling. Urban residents fighting to revitalize neighborhoods. Rural residents fighting to preserve wetlands and open space. A scarcity of affordable housing. Wildlife habitats destroyed.

We saw that all these trends were relatedif you could appreciate the regional context in which they occurred. In the intervening years, we have attempted to understand the dynamics of our region. And we have proposed changes that would preserve the best of Northeast Ohio and sustain our quality of life in the future.

As the century draws to close, it seems appropriate to ask, "Where are we now?"

What have we learned in recent years? How has the civic dialogue matured on these critical issues? What progress have we made in Northeast Ohio?

The answer involves three points. First, there's been a surge of interest and concern about these issues, and this has been very encouraging. Second, there is an emerging consensus about the challenges facing our region. Third, although many people and new organizations are working on these issues, we still lack the political ability and the political will to turn things around. Each of these points is discussed below.

Tide of concern

Even the most casual observer of the news must know that land use and regional development have become hot issues. The local and national media are full of stories about "sprawl" and "smart growth" and "livable communities." Almost every local community has a controversy over some development project. And no metro area wants to become the next Atlanta, where traffic congestion and air pollution are starting to strangle economic growth.

Why the increasing concerns? In Northeast Ohio, a number of factors have converged to attract attention:

Rapid pace of land consumption: The strong economy has permitted larger and more expansive development that consumes more land. As a result, every time you drive out to the country, another big chunk of it is gone. People care about the loss of open space and productive farmland.

Fiscal constraints: The region now has so much infrastructure flung over so great a distance that it's hard to maintain the old while building new roads, bridges and sewer systems to serve new growth. The politics of the region is increasingly about fights over scarce resources. And there is increasing awareness of how public subsidies for growth in one part of the region undermine the prospects of other parts of the region.

Environmental constraints: There's growing awareness that our sprawling development patterns are creating intractable environmental problems. Our water pollution comes from paving over the landscape, our air pollution comes from how much we drive, and our dwindling biological diversity comes from how we encroach upon our remaining natural areas.

Cuyahoga County build out: In a few short years, Cuyahoga County will be the first county in Ohio to use up all its virgin land and be fully developed. It will then be faced with the novel question: What next? How does a county reorient itself from growth to maintenance and redevelopment? How can it improve (obtain better housing, better jobs, a better educated population) without growing? How can the county compete with new development in surrounding counties? This will require a new mindset focused on long-term sustainability. It is an historic turning point.

Suburbs and central county at risk: If Cuyahoga County does not make a successful transition to redevelopment, more communities will face decline. Already, the county's oldest suburbs, from Lakewood to Parma to Garfield Heights to Euclid, are facing decline because of aged and obsolete real estate, deteriorating infrastructure, and increasing poverty rates. One-third of Cuyahoga County's home sellers are now moving out to adjacent counties where real estate is new and taxes are lower. For every dollar of household income that moves into Cuyahoga, $1.80 moves out. The general decline of Cuyahoga would have devastating impacts on the entire region.

Big-box retailing: In the '90s, Northeast Ohio has been invaded by big-box retailers like Wal-mart, Target, Kohl's, and Home Depot. New "power strip centers" have had sudden and dramatic impacts on communities. As a result, many more people are asking questions about how to maintain community character and quality of life.

Traffic gridlock: Even though the region as a whole has minimal traffic congestion, some rapidly growing communities are being overwhelmed. Places like Mentor or Strongsville are struggling to deal with congestion that comes from building auto-oriented communities where everyone has little choice but to drive all the time.

Changing needs: Our aging population needs walkable neighborhoods with stores and services close by. Growing numbers of childless households are seeking the excitement and diversity of a more urban experience. Most new suburbs don't meet those needs.

Social justice implications: More people are becoming aware that unbalanced development patterns in the region are leaving behind older communities, the poor, and minorities. As the region spreads out, it is stratifying along lines of race and class.

Global competition: Metropolitan regions are the geographies that compete in the global economy. Areas with social tensions, a deteriorated urban core, traffic congestion, and environmental problems will have a harder time prospering.

Yearning for community and authentic places: Many people are tiring of homes on lonely cul-de-sacs and suburban strip malls. They want real town squares, historic character, and scenic vistas. They see that current development patterns are destroying the places they care about.

In response to these factors, a rather amazing diversity of organizations and programs has emerged to advocate smarter forms of growth. These involve environmental groups, civic and business organizations, churches, universities and others. The activity is at the local, state and national levels.

A good example of the amount of local activities came in one month this fall [in 1999]. Between October 6 and November 4, the Ohio chapter of the American Planning Association had a statewide symposium on growth management, the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute (the major organization of developers) had a forum on the applicability of the Maryland smart growth program to Ohio, the Catholic Diocese hosted a celebration to conclude a series of Church in the City forums on regional issues, and neighborhood groups and fair housing advocates organized a conference called "Sustaining Neighborhoods: An Antidote to Sprawl." Shortly thereafter, the Northeast Ohio Home Builders jumped on the smart growth bandwagon by announcing the formation of their own Smart Growth Education Foundation.

In sum, the discussion has come a long way in the past few years. Many constituencies are focused on smart growth. It has become a common denominator in discussions about:

  • Urban redevelopment
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Farmland preservation
  • Historic preservation
  • Affordable housing
  • Welfare to work
  • Reduction in concentrated poverty
  • Fiscal soundness
  • Economic competitiveness
  • Quality of life

Increasingly, all these issues are seen as part of a larger regional picture of land use and development. People are making the connections.

Emerging consensus

People are making these connections all over Northeast Ohio. You can see the heads nodding in agreement whether its at a meeting of a neighborhood development group in Cleveland, a church group in Lake County, a farmland preservation group in Medina County, or a Realtors' group in Geauga County.

Specifically, they seem to accept the following points:

  • Land use patterns (the ways we spread our communities across the landscape) matter. Indeed, they matter a lot.
  • The metropolitan region is the key unit of analysis, not individual cities and towns.
  • Central cities and suburbs are interdependent and share a single, regional destiny.
  • Given the political fragmentation of Northeast Ohio, we lack a coherent vision of our region and ability to act as a region.
  • The region would be more successful with better coordination and less intra-regional competition.
  • The region would be healthier with reduced fiscal and racial disparities between city and suburbs.
  • We want to see more redevelopment of older, urban core communities. This is especially important in a region like ours where the growth in population and employment is slow.
  • We want to preserve vital ecosystems and open space.
  • Public policies and investmentsinfrastructure investments, tax policies, economic development incentivesshape land use patterns by setting the stage for private development.
  • The state hasor should havean important role to play in the redevelopment of older communities and the preservation of open space.
  • We want efficient and sustainable use of resources and tax dollars.
  • It makes sense to build only the infrastructure that future generations will be able to afford to maintain.
  • Planning for land use and transportation should be integrated, since one affects the other.
  • People should have transportation choices and not be completely dependent on the automobile.
  • Citizens acting together in civil society canand should play a role in development decisions and in creating a regional vision for the future.

The challenge ahead

Underlying the above points is a preservation ethic, a belief in stewardship. People want to take care of existing communities and the natural world around them. But they are realizing that the systema hard-to-comprehend mixture of fragmented political institutions, laws, policies, and marketsis not set up to do that very well.

That's a big reason why so many people and organizations are exploring new ways to act on their beliefs. They are seeking innovative strategies that can change the system or work directly with citizens to make end runs around it.

So you see the rise of the First Suburbs Consortium, a new vision of common interests among political leaders. Or you see the Catholic Diocese' Church in the City initiative and United WE-CAN's church-based organizing, which work with religious congregations from a moral and social justice perspective. Or you see nonprofit organizations, such as EcoCity Cleveland, helping citizens develop regional land use plans that transcend political boundaries. They are all parts of a new civic infrastructure.

To succeed in a difficult state like Ohio, these efforts will have to broaden and deepen in the coming years. In addition, the following will be needed:

State support: As we outlined last year in our Ohio Smart Growth Agenda, the state has been a major obstacle to progress on these issues. It needs to reorient programs to take care of existing communities and preserve open space, such as the way Maryland has done. The necessary changes will require leadership from the governor and state legislators. Citizens will have to communicate to their elected officials that smart growth policies are bipartisan and will benefit a majority of people in the state. And to mobilize support throughout the separate metro areas of the state, we will have create a stronger identity for Ohio as a unique place.

More ways to act as a region: Projects like our Citizens' Bioregional Plan are helping citizens craft a new vision of the region. But more should be done to allow citizens and elected officials to think, plan, and act at the regional scale. We need more opportunities for cooperative governance across political boundaries. And we need more ways for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable for decisions that have regional impacts.

A unifying regional project: To get us in the habit of working as a region, we need inspirational projects. The Ohio & Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor is a good example of project that begins to tie the center of the region together. Now it's time to think of a larger regional greenbelt for open space preservation and recreational amenities.

Business leadership: While local business groups, such as Cleveland Tomorrow, have supported the redevelopment of Cleveland's downtown and neighborhoods, the overall thrust of the business community has been to support economic development everywhere and anywhere throughout Northeast Ohio (in this case, a large region that includes much of the northeast quadrant of the state). We need more business leaders who will say that it matters where development occurs within the region.

A focus on sustainability: At every level, our decision-making must be infused with criteria of sustainability. Instead of a short-term focus on rapid growth, we need a long-term focus on enduring quality. As David Crockett, the leader of sustainability efforts in Chattanooga, TN, said in a recent speech in Cleveland, "Every time a bulldozer cranks up it doesn't mean we're making money."

Opportunity before crisis

We will not alter the development patterns of a major American metropolis overnight. This is the work of a generation. It's work that involves broad, cultural shifts in values and perceptions about what kinds of places are desirable. It involves a creeping awareness that things are out of balance, that quality of life is eroding, that costs are rising, that communities are unstable.

But the change is starting. And the exciting thing is that here in Greater Cleveland we have the chance to come out ahead of other regions. As troubling as our situation is, it is not as dire as the situation of many regions. Our growth has been slower, more digestible. We haven't sprawled as much. We still have a manageable urban area. We offer a high quality of life at a low cost of living. In short, we're not in a crisis like Atlanta or parts of California.

It's said that people never mobilize to change things until there is a crisis. But that may not be true. Another thing David Crockett said in his recent speech here is that the great transformations of historyfrom the Industrial Revolution to the Information Agecome from opportunity, not from crisis. Opportunity drives change.

In the case of Northeast Ohio, we have the opportunity to think about our growth, plan well, and do it right.

We have our opportunity. Let's seize it.


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

Where are we now?
What is sprawl? smart growth?
Race and regionalism

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People want to take care of existing communities and the natural world around them. But they see the system is not set up
to do that very well.


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