TransformSustainability agenda › Vibrant cities and towns

A region of vibrant cities and towns

We live with diverse landscapes in Northeast Ohio. We have natural areas harboring remnants of biological richness that evolved here since the last Ice Age. We have a working countryside of pastoral beauty and picturesque small towns harkening back to the settlement of the Western Reserve. We have vibrant urban neighborhoods, great city centers, and an incredible industrial landscape. We love all these special places and seek to sustain the best qualities of each, emphasizing conservation, restoration, and redevelopment. In short, we seek a regional pattern of settlement that allows us to live sustainably on the land.

Downtown urban center<br />The centers of Cleveland, Akron and other cities are the vibrant hearts of the region.  Villa Carabelli in Little Italy<br />Infill development is restoring well-designed density to Cleveland neighborhoods. Cyclist at Market Square in Ohio City<br />Cities make low-energy, low-mileage lifestyles possible. Tremont stroll<br />Young families are choosing city life in neighborhoods like Tremont in Cleveland.Historic county seat<br />In rural areas, town centers like Chardon are locations for redevelopment. City and country<br />One of the best ways to conserve farmland and natural areas is to build great cities that attract more people.

Urbane solutions

Cities and town centers are the solution to many sustainability challenges. They are where most people can live with the smallest environmental footprint—the lowest energy use, the least transportation use, the least impact to natural areas and farmland, the least infrastructure cost, and the greatest use of existing community assets.

Yet in recent decades the overwhelming trend has been to promote development in new areas at the edges of metropolitan areas—new suburbs, new shopping areas, new job centers. This has helped to drain people and investment from the region’s historic urban centers. And the style of this development—low-density and automobile-dependent—has magnified the energy use and other environmental impacts.

For a sustainable future, we need to rebalance the region. So this section will be about strategies to redevelop the cities and towns of Northeast Ohio—to discover a sustainable urban future.

Admittedly, this is not an easy subject. It’s about regional planning and the distribution of development. Given the political fragmentation of the region, solutions are difficult and controversial. But we must try. The land use issue is fundamental. It’s at the root of many other sustainability issues, from transportation to water quality.

Fragmented lands

Sadly, Northeast Ohio has no regional vision for how to live sustainably on the land. Our fragmented structure of local governments — all with their own, individual control of land use and their own, unrelenting need to grow their tax base — makes regional cooperation and planning extremely difficult.

How can we come together and talk about where it's best to develop land and where it's best to conserve land? How can we talk about issues of equity and the fiscal disparities between rich and poor communities? And how can we do this on a regional scale, the only geography that matters?

Elements of a regional plan for sustainable land use

  • Conservation strategy— Start with protection of life-sustaining natural systems, water quality, and biological diversity. We need good science to understand how to do this, and we need an extensive civic discussion about conservation goals. And we will need to make greater investments to protect the most critical areas before it's too late.
  • Development/redevelopment strategy — To balance conservation, we need to develop a regional consensus about the best places for development. In a slowly growing region, we need to focus our development efforts where they add the most value, often by redeveloping existing communities (otherwise new development will simply force the abandonment of old). This strategy must include the best places for residential, commercial, and industrial development. And it must include sufficient incentives and policies to influence the real estate market — so that developers can find profitable opportunities in good locations.
  • Farmland protection strategy — Farming is a major industry, and prime farmland should be considered a strategic asset. Our region's development strategy, therefore, should include farmland as an essential component.
  • Regional affordable housing strategy — Exclusionary zoning in newer suburbs forces a handful of the region's communities to shoulder the burden of providing housing for the poor and people of modest means. This isn't fair, and it contributes to decline and disinvestment in older communities. A "fair-share" system to distribute affordable housing, if applied region-wide, would assure that no single community is disproportionately poor. And it would help link low-income households to better jobs, schools, and the other opportunities of American society.
  • Regional tax-base sharing strategy — If the benefits of growth were more equitably shared by communities throughout the region, there would be less cut-throat competition for jobs and tax base. We could focus on growing together — in the best places — rather than competing in a ruinous zero-sum game. Other regions, such as the Twin Cities in Minnesota, offer good models of this kind of cooperation for the regional good.

Northeast Ohio needs a mix of these strategies to have a sustainable land-use future. Who will start the regional discussion? Who will provide leadership?

Updated 10/11/13

Regardless of the myths about living close to the land, cities are where human beings have the lowest ecological footprint. It takes less energy, wood, material, and food to provide a good life for a person in a city than in the country. Rather than perceive the city as an ecological sink sucking up the resources of the countryside, which cities can do, cities can also be a kind of ecological ark, places where humanity gathers while we peak in population and develop ecological intelligence for a new civilization.
— Paul Hawken

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