NE Ohio’s Blackout on the Word “Sprawl”

Ok. In case you missed it, the city of Cleveland lost 17 percent of its population in the last decade. Nearly one in five residents packed up and left in just ten years. That’s almost 2 percent a year, or one in 50 people, that decided to leave Cleveland annually.

Where did they go? The overwhelming answer is the suburbs. The Cleveland metro region lost a relatively minor 2.5 percent of its population over the same time period, so we can be assured manufacturing losses aren’t impacting all our communities equally.

Exurban Medina County, over that time period, grew 14 percent. Exurban Avon grew 85 percent.

Did people move directly from Cleveland to Avon? Of course not. They moved from Lakewood (-8%), Cleveland Heights (-8%) and Parma (-5%).

As these folks made their way outward, they left a tremendous mess in Cleveland and the inner ring suburbs. In addition, they traded relatively more sustainable (walkable) and integrated (diverse) communities for car-centric, mostly white communities.

So let’s take stock. As a region, we got smaller, more spread out, more segregated by race and income. Cleveland’s image problem? Still bad, perhaps worse. The state of the Cleveland Public Schools? Ugh. The future of our region more generally? The trends aren’t encouraging.

But this is nothing new. This pattern has been weakening the region for decades. There’s a word for it too: sprawl. S-P-R-A-W-L. Sprawl.

Do you know what the minimum lot size is in Medina County for new homes? Two (TWO!!!) acres! One thing can be assured about the owner of a two-acre lot: he or she will NEVER leave the home without a car. Never!

There is a word for that type of zoning in the planning profession: exclusionary zoning. That means communities intentionally establish zoning standards that make it impossible for lower income people, and by default most minorities, to live in their communities. A two-acre lot in Medina county costs about $80,000, so that’s the admission fee before you’ve even begun on the house. In some states, this practice is illegal. (Avon has recently proposed something similar.)

So, what response do we get to this pattern from our civic leaders in Cleveland? Well, there is one promising sign. The region is undergoing a planning process, that is to include land use planning. Although, that process has been underway for about a year and no one really knows how it’s going.

Meanwhile, the word sprawl — the thing that is killing our region, robbing children of opportunities, preventing working age people from reaching economic opportunities, the thing that is draining the wealth (home equity) of middle class families — is absent from the civic discussion.

The Plain Dealer — loyal to its suburban readership — never broaches the topic. The one exception is Steve Litt and only as an aside.

NOACA, metro Cleveland’s regional planning agency, demonstrating true leadership, does not use the word in ANY of its planning documents. But Director Howard Maier says it’s not necessary because the intent of the word is “marbled in” to its policies. If you say so, Howard.

Northeast Ohio has no smart growth agency. No watchdog group or nonprofit membership organization dedicated to tracking this issue.

I appeared on a radio show to discuss this topic — sprawl — earlier this year. (By the way, the only reason the topic was even brought up was because I raised it.) The show host described it thus: “you could call it sprawl, or you could call it economic development.”

I’m not sure that’s true. And I think as a region we should be very careful about confusing those terms.

This photo shows a forest that was recently leveled in Avon, Ohio to make room for a Lowes. NE Ohio: minus one forest, plus zero hardware stores = same old problems.

For example, the opening of a Cleveland Clinic in Medina or Avon is the kind of thing civic leaders will fall all over themselves to describe as economic development and some sort of sign that the region is on the rebound. But when the Cleveland Clinic opens a new location, they just close another — like the one in East Cleveland.

Businesses that provide services to existing residents, that’s not really economic development. A new laundrymat or daycare doesn’t really make our region more wealthy, unless somehow they encourage everyone to dip into savings they otherwise wouldn’t have touched, or unless the new chain is locally owed and the old chain was national.

The opening of a Lowes in Avon. That isn’t economic development. Our regional population is shrinking. When a Lowes opens in Avon, another closes closer to the city. We can only support so many hardware stores.

Around the closed hardware store, property values will decline. Around the new hardware store, public money must be invested in infrastructure.

So there is a net loss in well-being. We have the same number of hardware stores/Cleveland Clinics. But now, we have wasted taxpayer money on infrastructure we didn’t need and cannot afford to maintain. Meanwhile, we have taken equity from one set of people and transferred it to another, rather arbitrarily undermining some residents’ financial well-being for the benefit of (more wealthy) others.

I know people other than me see this. I know there are Plain Dealer editors that understand this. Business leaders. Educational leaders. I know because some of them have told me in confidence.

Unless this changes, the region will not recover. But how on earth are we going to change this if we can’t even bring ourselves to utter the word sprawl.


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