Some of us have been part of numerous “regional visioning” projects over the years (see our back issues of the EcoCity Cleveland Journal for some essential history), and we’ve grown pretty cynical about planning processes that aim to think rationally about where development makes economic and environmental sense in fragmented Northeast Ohio.
But it might be time to ditch the cynicism, for in the coming year we will have our best shot in decades to think creatively about the future of our region. The Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), the 12-county group funded with a $4.25 million federal grant, is about to hire a team of the nation’s top planning experts to help develop a regional sustainability plan, Vibrant NEO 2040, that might actually have a chance of being implemented.
Assuming that contract details can be worked out in the next month, the team will include Sasaki Associates of Boston (an international design and planning firm with Northeast Ohio experience with Cleveland’s Gateway project and Euclid Corridor) and Fregonese Associates of Portland, OR (an urban and regional planning firm that has pioneered the development of interactive software tools for community-based planning). The team will also have a strong local partner, City Architecture, which has led numerous urban revitalization projects throughout the region.
Starting in January, the team will conduct a year-long scenario planning process that will help people throughout the region think about:
- What do we care about? What are our common values?
- Where is the region going? What are the business-as-usual trends for land use, transportation, housing, job locations, air and water quality, carbon emissions, and other factors that underlie our quality of life and prospects for future success? (NEOSCC has already documented costly regional trends. For instance, the region had 23 percent fewer people and 11 percent fewer jobs per developed acre in 2006 than in 1979, meaning we are spreading our assets over a wider area.)
- What are possible alternative scenarios of the future if we develop differently? For instance, what could the region look like if we favored the redevelopment of our existing cities and towns rather than suburban sprawl?
- What are the implications of the various scenarios regarding the costs of infrastructure and government services, environmental quality, housing affordability, and locations for the good jobs of the future? What is sustainable?
- Which scenario is preferred? What do we want as a region?
- What needs to change to create such a future? What policies, investments, strategies, and leadership? And who is responsible?
This process will include extensive public engagement to reach out to people throughout the region and develop a shared vision. And it will employ highly visual planning tools and graphics to help people imagine and evaluate different futures. Northeast Ohio has never attempted something like this—not at this large scale with this amount of resources and sophistication.
In the coming year, it will be important for people who care about the quality of life in Northeast Ohio to support the process, get involved, and contribute their ideas. The process has already come under fire by misguided Tea Party activists who equate regional planning with a socialist plot by the United Nations.
It will be challenging to overcome divisions and find common ground. It’s hard to think about a complex, 12-county region with hundreds of individual communities and no regional political institutions. Hard to get our arms around such a large geography. Hard to understand development trends that happen gradually over decades. Hard to appreciate how today’s sprawling land use patterns underlie so many other environmental, economic and social issues. And especially hard to imagine how the current trends can be changed.
But this will be one good chance to try.
Watch this website and blog for extensive coverage of the Northeast Ohio scenario planning process in the coming months. See our 1999—and still quite relevant—version of a regional vision here.