The Ohio character
(or lack thereof)

Factors that work against change

If enough people had spoken for the river, we might have saved it. If enough people had believed that our scarred country was worth defending, we might have dug in our heels and fought. Our attachments to the land were all private. We had no shared lore, no literature, no art to root us there, to give us courage to help us stand our ground. The only maps we had were those issued by the state, showing a maze of numbered lines stretched over emptiness. The Ohio landscape never showed up on postcards or posters, never unfurled like tapestry in films, rarely filled even a paragraph in books. There were no mountains in that place, no waterfalls, no rocky gorges, no vistas. It was a country of low hills, cut over woods, scoured fields, villages that had lost their purpose, roads that had lost their way.
Scott Russell Sanders,
"Writing from the Center"
(describing his childhood along the Mahoning River in Northeast Ohio)

Ohio has more large urban areas than any other state in the Union, which makes it hard to get anything done at the state level. The media are fragmented by urban centers. There are no common sources of information. Nobody in Cincinnati knows anything about Dayton; nobody in Dayton knows anything about Columbus; nobody in Columbus knows anything about Cleveland. So when you want to change policies, you have an enormous educational challenge. It's a tough job to bring the people of Ohio kicking and screaming into the 21st century-not because they are bad people but because they don't get the information they need to make decisions.
John Gilligan,
former Governor of Ohio

Ohio lags behind many other states in advancing smart growth. A recent survey of state planning reforms and smart growth measures by the American Planning Association found that Ohio was one of only 12 states not pursuing statewide reforms.7 The reasons for this lack of progress range from a strong home-rule tradition to the conservative ideology of the current General Assembly.

But, underlying the specific barriers, there are at least two, broad, cultural factors that retard progress: the lack of an Ohio identity and the lack of a strong environmental ethos. Any movement for smart growth in Ohio must deal with these factors.

A fundamental challenge: Lack of an Ohio identity

Does "Ohio" exist in the hearts and minds of most Ohioans? Do peopleother than Ohio State football fansthink of themselves as "Buckeyes"?

While people feel attachment to some part of the state (a city, watershed, or region), they tend not to identify with Ohio as a whole. And that is understandable. Ohio has no coherent geography, no political or cultural center of gravity, and no mythology that celebrates it as a distinctive place. Indeed, there is no obvious reason for Ohio to exist as a political entity. Parts of the state relate, variously, to Lake Erie, the Ohio River, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Kentucky, Appalachia, or Indiana more than they do to the state capitol, Columbus.

Ohio is a crossroads statea place that many people pass through. It's also an ecological crossroads, since the state is split up into five physiographic regions: Glaciated Allegheny Plateau, Unglaciated Allegheny Plateau, Central Lowland Till Plains, Huron-Erie Lake Plains, and Interior Low Plateau (Bluegrass Section).8

The state is further divided into an unusually large number of metropolitan areas, each with their own media markets. Such divisions, as former Governor John Gilligan observes in the quote above, make it extremely difficult to convene a statewide discussion on any topic, much less enact any comprehensive statewide reforms.

Moreover, there is a fundamental political split in the state that makes it hard to act as one Ohio. While most observers of state politics are aware that southern Ohio tends to be more conservative than northern Ohio, fewer may appreciate the depth and longevity of the difference. It dates to before the Civil War. As James M. McPherson writes in his book on the Civil War era, Battle Cry of Freedom, the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois had a clear political and cultural division:

Most of the initial settlers there had come from the upper South and Pennsylvania. They populated the southern part of the region and evolved a corn-hog-whiskey economy, selling their small surplus in markets accessible by the Ohio-Mississippi river network. They were called Buckeyes, Hoosiers, Suckers; they dressed in homespun clothes dyed with the oil of walnut or butternut trees, and hence acquired the generic name Butternuts. They remained rural, southern, and localist in their orientation, hostile toward "Yankees" of New England heritage who settled the northern portions of these states made accessible by the Erie Canal after 1825. These Yankees established a wheat-cattle-sheep-dairy farming economy linked to the eastern markets by the burgeoning rail network after 1850. The railroads and the rapidly multiplying banks, industries, towns and cities owned or controlled by the "Yankees" caused these parts of the states to grow faster than the Butternut sections.9

Lack of a strong environmental ethos

This may be more of an assumption than a proven fact, but it seems that Ohio has a weaker environmental ethos than other states. A recent campaign to maintain land use planning laws in Oregon, for instance, had the slogan, "Help keep Oregon, Oregon." If you substitute "Ohio" for "Oregon" in that slogan, it sounds almost silly. There just isn't the same love for and identification with the Ohio landscape.

Why? One can suggest a number of possible reasons. First, Ohio lacks the awe-inspiring natural beauty of other states. Lake Erie and the rolling hills of Southeast Ohio are nice, but they can't compare to oceans and mountains. Ohio's scenic beauty is smaller, subtler, harder to appreciate.

Second, Ohio has lost almost all its pristine, natural landscape. Early in its history, the state was worked over thoroughlylogged over, farmed over, and then industrialized. All that's left today are a few scattered remnants of the natural world. For many Ohioans, still, the land and water exist to be used, not preserved.

Third, Ohio has a lingering sense of Rust Belt insecurity. It's been a no-growth or slow-growth state for so long that development is often welcomed without question. Too many compromises are made, leading to further degradation of the environment.

Fourth, Ohio has little tradition of public land. It ranks 47th among states in the amount of public land per capita. The prevailing sentiment is for private land, not the preservation of land (or regulation of land uses) for broader public purposes.

Local identities?

If there is no strong "Ohio" identity, what do Ohioans identify with? This will be an important question for a statewide movement for smart growth to answer. One positive factor to consider is that Ohio has a very stable population (in contrast to states like Florida or Nevada where everybody is from somewhere else). People have roots in Ohio, but the roots are probably local. So organizing strategies for smart growth may have to appeal to local or regional sensibilities.


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

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