By Nicole Hennessy
Driving through Northeast Ohio neighborhoods, I imagine vacant buildings repurposed as free community arts studios; mental health centers focused on immediate solutions to homelessness; and parks currently full of rusty, lopsided slides and swings renovated to include resident-maintained gardens producing fruits and vegetables made available to lower-income communities.
Often, though, these are just thoughts that pass as quickly as the buildings or parks do.
At the next stoplight I come to, the crosswalk light runs out before a senior citizen or a family has a chance to cross the street, and drivers in a rush turn the corner regardless. Safer cities with more amenities, access to well-maintained natural resources, improved public transportation and jobs each represent complex aspects of achieving the best possible quality of life regionally.
Those who are not civic-minded – or who feel overwhelmed by the whole tree from which each of these branches springs – notice, like me, issues within communities, but entrust improvements to elected officials and government entities that must abide by budgets, hopefully ensuring the most pressing issues are taken care of first.
But a new tool called Imagine My NEO, made available by the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium Initiative (NEOSCC), gives users a budget and a list of areas of focus related to land use and transportation.
After about 15 minutes of considering what’s important to me, I opt to focus on maintaining existing infrastructure before building new infrastructure; expanding and connecting the region’s network of open, green and natural spaces; building more community parks; and encouraging a greater variety of housing types in my community.
My results are recorded and compiled with those of other residents in Cuyahoga County, which, as of June 21, emphasized less car dependency; maintaining an urban character; maintaining infrastructure; the availability of nearby recreational opportunities, parks, arts, culture and entertainment; and the ability of school children to safely walk or bike.
Helping participants understand that these improvements are at the cost of putting others on the back burner, the results also show sacrifices made or areas ranked as not as important to the continued growth of the county, as compared with the priorities of surrounding counties: clean air, water and land, low taxes, the availability of good jobs or fewer local development and zoning regulations.
Throughout the community, NEOSCC is also hosting workshops that explain the need for conversation, take residents through the Imagine My NEO tool and discuss the results.
Concerned with civic issues related specifically to transportation or land use, the organization also educates residents.
As the results continue to come in, “what is interesting to watch,” says Jeff Anderle, NEOSCC’s deputy director of communications, “is that people become aware of some of the impacts of land use,” particularly the decline in population versus an increase in land use.
“We’re using about 23 percent more land between 1979 and 2006, while our population decreased by 7 percent,” he continues.
Though the results will not likely serve as scientifically accurate statistical data, Anderle looks forward to how it might shape future growth or priorities within the region.
To achieve my version of an improved Northeast Ohio, actions I would take if given the option include encouraging a greater variety of housing types in my community, cleaning up vacant and abandoned properties, enacting stronger pollution regulations and locating new jobs and services developments near transit stops.
While the first data pool will be presented at the end of July, the tool will still be available through August, after which a second data pool will be presented.
For more information visit http://vibrantneo.org/.