By Nicole Hennessy
As development continues to sprawl farther and farther out from Cleveland’s center, existing inner- and outer-ring suburbs also experience population decline and aging infrastructure, a consequence not often considered by those who feel inner-city issues do not affect them.
But Angie Schmitt, a local blogger who studies and writes about area transportation and housing issues, said, “This decline, this creeping decay from the center, is coming for communities (like Lakewood and Rocky River).”
Illustrating this is the fact that from 2010 to 2014, every Westshore city experienced population losses. Lakewood suffered the most, losing 746 residents, followed by North Olmsted and Fairview Park.
Meanwhile, outlying cities known for their rapid development of housing stock, such Avon and North Ridgeville, are seeing drastic increases in population.
While advocates of policy change in Northeast Ohio, like Schmitt, have known and reported upon these issues for years, a framework for a Northeast Ohio focused on rebuilding core cities has now been planned and voted upon by a board comprised of some of the area’s most influential policy makers and administrators.
The Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), which oversaw the development of the Vibrant NEO 2040 vision with a $4.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has spent the past three years developing this final framework, hosting community meetings throughout the area.
Those for the proposed changes in local politics agree, plans can’t move forward until 400 area cities and townships agree to develop according to the fiscal and environmental demands of their neighbors.
Of the issues exposed, perhaps the most pressing is the strain on taxpayers due to new roads, schools and infrastructure being built to accommodate newer, outlying communities, while existing areas remain underserved and in need of significant improvements and Cuyahoga County’s population continues to decline.
While some worry the Vibrant NEO 2040 plan could lead to less autonomous cities, Schmitt said she’s excited.
“I think it’s exactly what we need,” she said. “It’s sort of obvious, I think.”
In addition to population loss and economic strain, the trends of where young people are choosing to live and the amenities they find value in also necessitate a framework similar to that of the NEOSCC.
People assume that since in the past families sought suburban homes with large lots, it’s true for the future.
But studies show that only one in eight households created in the next two decades will include children, Schmitt stated. She also explained that, on an institutional level, there’s an outdated idea that families absolutely include children and that racism and issues related to class “prevent us from taking part of a lot of the new developments in a lot of fields,” including real estate.
Speaking from Washington, where she was vacationing, Schmitt described a very walkable, urban and mixed community, wondering to herself how far off Northeast Ohio really is from achieving more sustainability.
Of some of the areas farthest away from Cleveland, she added, “We’re abandoning communities that have a lot of assets for communities that are lacking in some way,” referencing public transportation options or cultural institutions.
In addition to better access to amenities like these, improvements like alternative energy use, which was also outlined in the Vibrant NEO vision, will also dictate where people choose to live in the future. So, too, will the needs of the local aging population, which, like families with no children or single homeowners, won’t necessarily need four-bedroom homes on large lots.
Cuyahoga County Councilman Dale Miller (District 2) also said of the finalized vision, “I think we’re on the right track,” adding that “the question is, How do you make it happen?”
With plans for an extensive commuter rail line, cities utilizing tax credits as a way to discourage sprawl and environmental reforms affecting the lake, rivers, streams and brownfields included in the framework, it is both broad and ambitious.
Miller continued, “One of the fundamental problems in a democratic society is that we pride ourselves greatly on individualism, and we want people to be free to make their own choices; but we also want people to make choices that are in the community’s overall best interests and not always from the individual benefit or, at least, from a narrow perspective.”
Available now at http://vibrantneo.org are resources including policy and best practice recommendations, land use and zoning maps, and a list of pilot projects and descriptions of their functions.