The Vision for Northeast Ohio laid out in the three-year, $4 million study of how we build today and what that means for the future could be a path to freedom. Unlike Norse demi-god Loki’s claim in Cleveland-scened "The Avengers" that we are ruined by freedom, I feel the VibrantNEO plan releases us from the fear of destruction (and not the giant wormlike aliens chewing up the city). The freedom we need is from an idea that came out of Cold War—spread population and resources like water on a pan.
VibrantNEO found that our best hope is to concentrate our collective resources on existing communities—our city, suburb and Western Reserve town center. To build them up. To make them strong. And attractive.
After three rounds of public meetings in 12 counties with thousands of residents, VibrantNEO concludes that the majority of us want the region’s priorities to be:
- Promote investment in Northeast Ohio’s established communities;
- Protect our soil, water, air, and ecologically sensitive areas;
- Improve our regional fiscal health;
- Develop our regional economy with accessible employment opportunities;
- Enhance our regional transportation network;
- Cultivate and celebrate our local assets and places of public value;
- Expand our parks and open-space network; and
- Preserve and value our prime farmland as a regional economic asset.
But, why should we put faith in our cities to do this? I find the answer in “Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change” heartening. In the 2009 book, authors Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley and Heather Boyer explain why cities are the place where we will take a stand against climate change. They say that while change is hard, it is in cities where history has proven that change is good.
“The unlocking of human ingenuity to work on technology, trade and urban culture has created ever-expanding opportunities in cities.”
“Peter Hall, who has examined why some cities adapt more rapidly than others, suggests that the desire to experiment and innovate is found in the heart of the city’s culture. Robert Friedel calls it the ‘culture of improvement,’ Lewis Mumford refers to this instinct in a city as a ‘collective work of art,’ and Tim Gorringe as ‘creative spirituality.’ Whatever it is called, the ability to experiment and innovate is the tissue of hope and the core of resilience.”
This isn’t some hypothetical exercise. Currently, we are a loose collection of individual communities built from a similar playbook and common ancestry. But something isn’t right. We have a system of incentives that have us competing for pieces instead of expanding the pie. The incentives signal cities to trade land for new buildings and wider roads. Sounds OK, but the development at the edge has also sped blight across our biggest population centers and wealth away from it. We will all be bankrupted if we don’t change the playbook. Also, when was the last time that a suburb stayed prosperous as its center rotted?
Most people don’t even realize why they choose to live in a community that has lots of new buildings or near a highway interchange, or that they might be happier if their community paid more attention to its health and well being by building places and streets that encouraged them to walk, bike and experience nature. Most don’t realize that the new interchange development was paid for by borrowing against the reinvestment in our existing communities.
Unfortunately, “business as usual”—which has only been in place since about the 1950s—will produce a landscape of new buildings and highways today that will be the distressed community in 30 years. That’s unsustainable. Beatley and company note that living in a sprawling metropolis like Atlanta requires 782 gallons of gas per person every year to operate. By contrast, Barcelona has figured out a system of compact urban development supported by world-class transit, walkable streets and gorgeous urban parks that keep people happily in place. Barcelona—at just 64 gallons per person to operate—is more resilient to the shock waves of extreme weather, drought, and floods. Do we want to be more like Barcelona and less like Atlanta?
Thankfully, there’s a more attractive, more resilient alternative for Greater Cleveland.
What is beautiful about the Vision for a sustainable future is the simplicity of the task ahead, and the reward at the end. In 187 pages of data and detail about who were are and where we are heading, the VibrantNEO 2040 Vision finds a path forward that amplifies the good things about our communities, our park systems our waterways, greenways and bikeways. It calls for specifics on how we’ll grow more sustainably such as targets for increased percentage of overall housing in urban and multi-family units (urban housing includes single-family homes built on small lots like we see in the city and inner-ring suburbs). It calls for investments that reduce our vehicle miles traveled.
In the end, to get there will take confidence. We have to try acting collectively and see if the results aren’t better. Will it achieve something greater than ourselves? It will take all of us to demand something better. We think better equates with more closely knit and less reliant on foreign oil. It means a lot less driving, less impact and for our built environment to support our aspirations to live more fully—now and in the future.