Category Archives: Featured

Evaluating the Actual Design of the Opportunity Corridor

Ever since the state said it was going to award close to $300 million in borrowed turnpike money to the Opportunity Corridor, a project Cleveland’s planning and development leaders had been pushing for more than a decade, it’s been sort of a mad scramble to get shovels in the ground.

Project leaders now have the final federal approvals that they need to begin construction. In a few weeks they’re going to put sections 2 and 3 — the actual new road portion — out to bid on a quickie design-build contract that gives the engineering firm a good deal of leverage over the design details. And that will be the end of it as far as that goes, I believe. $331 million in spending will turn into a road that will be part of Cleveland’s landscape for decades. Pretty much all the leaders involved ceased discussing the design details of the the road months and months ago and have turned their attention toward the development they hope will follow.

They’re behind the ball on that already. Land speculators have been buying up properties and putting fences around them. Just last week some key project leaders floated a plan to solicit foundation support to spend $10 to $20 million assembling land they hope they can sell or give to new firms that will employ city residents.

So everything’s speeding ahead and more or less final as far as the people with power over the situation are concerned as with the $331 million road project. I’m sort of disturbed about this because the $331 million road project still had a lot of pretty glaring issues it seems just aren’t going to get addressed.

One thing I will say is I think the design of the road has gotten better in the last year or so. There have been a few key improvements that resulted from community pressure and public feedback. They are, IMO:

  • ODOT will no longer dead end 19 through streets, including Quincy, a major thoroughfare. On most of those streets, sort of residential side streets, drivers will be allowed to make right turns. With this change the road will still be a barrier to north-south, short-distance travel, the kind that is especially important to people living near by. But it will be less so.
  • Minority and local contractors will get 20 percent of construction contracts.This was a deal offered by Governor Kasich in the run up to his reelection campaign and was pushed for by the Black Contractors Association locally. This was always, always, always, at public meetings a big priority for people living nearby.
  • A pedestrian bridge has been added by the East 55th rapid station. This was a very early change made in response to public outcry. The original proposal from ODOT would have required transit riders to walk a long circuitous route around the road and a retention all to access the rapid station. ODOT caved to complaints and agreed to install a pedestrian bridge that would shorten this distance transit riders will have to travel by a third. (A note about this pedestrian bridge: the fact that ODOT is proposing pedestrian bridges over this road instead of at-grade crossings is pretty good evidence that the road isn’t very pedestrian friendly and operates, at least at this junction, much like a grade-separated highway.)
  • ODOT reduced travel lane widths from 12 feet to 11. 12-foot lanes are the type used on Interstate highways and they encourage fast speeds — far faster than the 35 miles per hour this road is supposed to be designed to accommodate, and faster than what is safe for pedestrians who will have to cross this road. After complaints, ODOT agreed to reduce the lane widths to 11 feet, which is still pretty wide and generous to motorists and not the most pedestrian friendly design but it is better than 12 feet.

That being said there are many, many outstanding issues I’m afraid we’re not going to see adequately resolved:

Bike infrastructure:

The one remaining design issue that seems to be getting a lot of attention is the issue of bike accommodations. Bike Cleveland and project manager Marie Kittredge have been making an issue over the fact that the current plan calls for bikes to use an off-road multi-use path on the road’s south side. Bike Cleveland director Jacob Vansickle has argued correctly that this is a second-rate way to accommodate bikes and is pushing an on-road protected bike lane.

The project’s steering committee is considering this and there seems to be a fair amount of political support. Steve Litt, architecture critic for the Plain Dealer has written about it twice — a sure sign that the establishment is firmly behind this idea. This is sort of an interesting development and I’m encouraged to see people in positions of authority finally pushing back on some of ODOT’s generally pretty old-school designs. I think converting the off-street bike path to on street would be an improvement to the design and help make the road slightly more pedestrian friendly.

However, Marie Kittridge told me they are not considering reducing the width of the road, only widening it to add the bike lane. That’s disappointing. The road is being built to accommodate all the traffic from every planned development around the corridor for the next 20 years. That’s why they were able to justify adding a fifth lane. A lot of the planned development for the area over the next 20 years might not ever happen. Or if it does happen it will take a long time. So the road will likely have excess capacity from day 1.

I am concerned that widening this very expensive road to add bike lanes will turn out to be surprisingly expensive, but that’s just a guess. Conducting a road diet on a parallel road like Woodland might be a nice alternative if so. But it will be interesting to see how that shakes out.

That being said, I am sort disappointed we haven’t seen the same type of advocacy from those in positions of authority for transit riders and pedestrians on this corridor. I really think those two groups are much more profoundly affected.

Transit riders:

We learned late in the process of this project that RTA, after months of denials, was considering closing both the East 79th Street rapid stations, in the heart of the project area. The RTA board has since decided these stations will remain open. But it is unclear where the money will come from to perform the repairs — which will cost at least $20 million. RTA has a $300 million maintenance bill coming due on its rapid system altogether and it certainly doesn’t have the money in its operating budget. RTA was able to negotiate $3 million from ODOT through this project for the East 105th street station, but how it’s going to raise the money for those other stations remains an open question. That is a less than 1 percent concession to transit from ODOT in this project, although the road bisects neighborhoods where 40 percent lack access to a car. I don’t know how anyone can consider this a fair distribution of transportation resources, but everyone just seems to be resigned to the idea that ODOT won’t give anyone money for transit.

Since the existence of the rapid stations was one of the project leaders’ primary justification for building the road — the argument was that new development spurred by the road would be transit accessible for people without cars — it’s pretty disappointing that this issue was more or less sidestepped throughout the process. Transit was pretty much ignored throughout this process — although this was always referred to as a “corridor,” which implies a bigger, more comprehensive project than a road with a side path. Throughout the planning process some of the project leaders have insisted that this area already has good transit access — because it is served by buses and rail — but that road access was the real obstacle (these leaders, I am certain, do not rely on the bus.) Now that whole excuse is sort of our the window, but it’s probably too late to develop a more balanced and inclusive approach.

In the end this $331 million investment in what is almost exclusively car infrastructure provides little to nothing for transit riders and that is a real travesty from an equity perspective, especially considering how transit dependent the surrounding neighborhoods are and how much they are going to be impacted by the construction and traffic from this road.

These are the kind of bridge elements ODOT is proposing.

ODOT and Kittredge are planning a meeting tonight, I understand, to invite the public to share ideas for fancy design elements to be added to some of the project’s many bridges. It’s frustrating to see them focused on this kind of cosmetic detail while all these transit issues remain unaddressed. Furthermore, their eagerness to invest money in this sort of trivial element, while basically ignoring some of the very serious transit concerns in the same area is pretty disappointing, but typical of the highway’s-first, nothing else matters approach we continue to see from the powerful old-school bureaucracy that is ODOT.


Furthermore, what kind of conditions the road is going to present to pedestrians seems to be another wide open question, which is pretty disappointing at this late stage in the game. Right from the beginning, project sponsor promised this road would be a “pedestrian friendly boulevard” — and it should be. It’s an urban road that runs through low-income neighborhoods. We don’t want to build a road that becomes the kind of road that low-income get killed trying to cross to get to jobs. It’s 2015 and our design sensibilities about these things should be getting more developed.

Now I think when the people who came up with this plan laid out that vision — “a pedestrian friendly boulevard” — they meant it. That truly was their vision. Unfortunately, they needed ODOT to design it and make it happen and ODOT doesn’t really do pedestrian friendly, they do highways. What they have put together, at least from what I can tell, is not an urban road but a watered down highway, with trees in the middle and a handful of intersections. And I think the powers that be are so eager to see this money spent and this road built, and accomplish their 10-year goal, they haven’t really been willing to do much in the way of advocacy for pedestrians in the project design, which is unfortunate.

That being said, we don’t have a lot of details about what the project means for pedestrians, even at this late stage. We know there will be a few additional crossings, even a couple mid-block crossings, thanks to public complaints. But we don’t know much of anything about what the intersections will look like. To me it looks like they’re going to be really awful.

I actually asked ODOT to give me the pedestrian crossing distances for the corridor. Initially they refused because they weren’t “public information” because ODOT itself had never calculated them. That really shows how much effort has gone into thinking about how pedestrians are going to experience this road. They had never even measured it.

Well, I complained about it and they agreed to measure them and give them to me, but only for Phase 1, the widening of East 105th. That’s really not the section of the road I’m most concerned with because it is an existing road and though I think ODOT’s involvement will probably make it more dangerous and less comfortable for pedestrians, since it was an existing historical road will buildings surrounding it, there’s a limit to how badly they can screw it up, in my opinion.

They told me they couldn’t give me the pedestrian crossing distances for the other two sections — the sections they’re spending all this money to build — because they were going to use a design-build contract and so the engineering firm basically gets to decide. I’m not sure whether the public has an opportunity to provide any feedback in this process, but I’m guessing it would be an uphill battle. Again, this is a really disappointing way to approach such a crucial feature of this project.

I took this screen shot from a video ODOT made showing what the Opportunity Corridor will look like. it looks like a scary suburban arterial, to me, the kind that are most dangerous for pedestrians. Image: ODOT

Even with very little detail, it’s fair to say that a lot of the intersections are going to be quite wide. ODOT specifically chose to ignore concerns about the width of the intersections submitted by the public during the planning process — this is noted in the final Environmental Impact Statement and approved by the FHWA.

The road is five lanes for the first portion, and design plans include turn lanes at many intersections — always bad for pedestrians. Add two turn lanes and just the length of the traffic lanes could be as wide as 8o feet, and a lot more could be added if the road allows generous turn radii, which seems to be the plan because of “trucks.” Only 2 percent of the road’s traffic is estimated to be heavy trucks, and yet still that mode takes precedence over pedestrians in a low income neighborhood where many people lack cars. Wide turn radii would also encourage right-turning cars to speed around these intersections and add to the danger for pedestrians.

Now in some of the information ODOT has sent me, they have extended the boulevard into the crosswalk, more or less, to provide pedestrians a “island.” This is a good thing for safety. Even so, 80+ foot intersections are going to be very, very intimidating for the average pedestrian and definitely not the kind that will create a healthy balance of transportation modes or a walkable corridor in the sense most people understand it.

I don’t think the road can fairly be called “pedestrian friendly” and I really don’t even think there’s been a very good faith effort to make it so. I think the version of  “pedestrian friendly” ODOT and other local leaders have settled for is “pedestrian friendly compared to a limited access highway,” in that it provides the bare minimum in grudging accommodations to pedestrians. It’s disappointing that we settled for that and I think we will regret it very soon. It’s possible that the moment the road is built, it would be a good candidate for a road diet because it’s over engineered and not very context sensitive. I mean this road, from what I’ve seen in ODOT renderings, looks exactly like the kind of suburban arterial road you see outside a Walmart on North Olmsted, the kind where you never see any pedestrians, or when you do you’re afraid for them.

East 55th “jughandle”

Most of this area is currently a densely populated portion of the Slavic Village neighborhood. Image: ODOT

This is a good example. A last and final nagging concern I have about the design is tbe proposal for the beginning of the road at East 55th. ODOT and neighborhood leaders agreed a while back on a “jughangle” design, which is more or less a very small highway cloverleaf. The road will scoop below grade and neighborhood folks hope, relieve some of the nasty traffic that occurs at the awful intersection of I-490 and East 55th. I wasn’t around for the negotiations between ODOT and the neighborhood on this design. I assume ODOT presented them with some alternatives — all of them huge, concrete, solutions — and that this was designed to be the best of a lot of bad options from a neighborhood perspective.

I think it’s awful. I don’t understand how pedestrians are supposed to navigate it. The pedestrian bridge apparently. And Kent State’s Urban Design Collaborative pointed out Slavic Village residents won’t even be able to access East 55th from the road, at least last I heard. To make matters worse the whole thing is right in front of the East 55th rapid station and will reduce the walkability of that station, already very poor, and reduce the number of households within walking distance — because this area is where the majority of the houses seized through eminent domain are. So basically we’re trading a real urban neighborhood for that, and that is “progress,”

Some of us who have been following this project critically suggested that maybe a round-about would be a more humane solution, but I don’t think much consideration was given to the idea and I’m not sure 100 percent why. At this point I guess this is more or less set in stone. It’s a real shame to see something like that constructed in a neighborhood in this day and age.

We really should be moving toward road designs that are safe for pedestrians. And I understand that so many cars move through this area — and they’re trying to funnel them now all into the same area — that that creates some design challenges. We might never be able to create truly urban, pedestrian friendly streets in this context and that’s part of the reason I think this whole project is going to help sort of cement some unhealthy transportation patterns for the city at the same time we should be moving in the other direction. Funneling a lot of cars through a single chute really isn’t that healthy for cities, or urban.

I think a lot of people’s attitude, as far as the design of this road goes — and these are people who don’t live nearby — is that the neighborhoods impacted are in bad shape anyway and so these kinds of details don’t really matter. And so we’re getting a potentially damaging and dangerous design for our $331 million public investment, instead of the multi-modal pedestrian friendly boulevard we were promised and we seem to be willing to accept that, unfortunately.

It’s really a betrayal of the neighborhoods impacted I think. “Trust us,” they have been saying the whole time, this road will be “a pedestrian friendly boulevard.” It is technically a boulevard in that it had trees in the middle, but it’s not pedestrian friendly, it’s a thoroughfare designed first and foremost to speed high volumes of vehicular traffic with only the most superficial nods to other modes. I think a lot of the people leading this project understand this but have been willing to overlook it because they think the development will make it worth while. But that wasn’t the deal. They didn’t say, we’ll build a road through your neighborhood mainly designed for the convenience of suburban commuters while offering next to nothing to the surrounding neighborhoods, but it will be worth it in the end because of all the great development. They promised a nice, multi-modal urban road. In the end they only came through with the emptiest, most superficial nods to that kind of a vision — designs on large bridges, for example, a second-rate sidepath that doubles as a sidewalk.

This is a project that more than $30 million was spent “planning.” And this is the end result?  It’s disappointing, especially given how high-flying the rhetoric around this project has been. Those of us who have been making these kinds of points are more or less shouting into the wilderness, however, at this point. I’m not very optimistic that anything will improve and we will have blown an opportunity to create something that would be a real asset for urban neighborhoods.

–Angie Schmitt

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The Cleveland Clinic Just Doesn't Get it

Disappointing but not entirely surprising news from the Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland’s largest employer recently announced that it is closing Lakewood Hospital, in the cozy inner ring suburb, as it expands operations in sprawling Avon. This seems to be fitting with the nonprofit’s model of building a new hospital at every interchange opened in the sprawling hinterlands while winding down its hospital locations in the more populous areas of the region. All these hospitals, despite being entirely inaccessible outside of a private vehicle, are LEED certified for their “green” building practices.

The Cleveland Clinic doesn’t seem to value being part of a connected, urban community a whole lot, although to its credit, it did sponsor the Healhline, Cleveland’s award winning BRT.

The latest news from the Clinic is that it will spend $36 million to construct a 3,000-space parking garage on the southwest edge of its campus. The structure is about what you would expect. Not much of a boon for the neighborhood for the steep pricetag, not much of an advance for healthcare either. The Plain Dealer notes that this garage will be fed by the new $331 million “Opportunity Corridor” highway that will direct commuters from the south and western suburbs to campus.

I wish the Cleveland Clinic was embracing sustainable transportation and trying to make its campus and attractive, livable place. But that doesn’t seem to be the hospital’s M.O. at all. My architect friends jokingly call the Cleveland Clinic campus “Little Dubai.” The campus basically consists of a bunch of monolithic institutional buildings with a lot of dead space in between. It’s not really a community. It’s not really walkable. It’s not really an inviting or fun place to be.

I mean, it’s a hospital, so on one hand it’s sort of understandable. On the other hand, it just doesn’t have to be that way. It could be so great. Just east of the Clinic, a private developer, working with some institutional partners built a really phenomenal transit oriented development called Uptown. The development is mixed-use retail, with very little parking. It’s nestled in between Case Western University and Little Itality and it’s quickly becoming one of the coolest most attractive parts of the city.

The Cleveland Clinic campus could be like that, or at the very least more like that. But it needs to have less parking garages and more reasons to make people linger — heck even want to live nearby. It needs sidewalk-facing restaurants. There’s got to be some Cleveland

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Clinic employees who would prefer not to eat all their meals in a hospital cafeteria.

Here are some alternatives the Cleveland Clinic could have tried before building a $36 million parking garage. These are part of a strategy called “transportation demand

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management” that can save both employees and institutions like the Cleveland Clinic money. Because guess what? Parking is very expensive. Garaged parking spaces run up to $30k a piece or higher. There are cheaper and healthier options that would help keep healthcare costs low, offer employees valuable alternatives and improve the area around the Clinic:

  • Offer employees free bus passes/refund bus pass expenses for patients. For the price of a $36 million parking garage, the Cleveland Clinic could have purchased free bus passes at full price for 40,000 employees for a year. (The Cleveland Clinic only has 35,000 employees worldwide.) CAVEAT: I don’t expect that every employee would take transit to the Cleveland Clinic, but offering that as an incentive would encourage SOME employees to take transit instead of driving. For every employee the Cleveland Clinic could convert from a daily driver to transit commuter, it could save at least $12,000 in up front parking costs immediately. Why isn’t the Clinic more motivated to do this? I can only guess lack of imagination or some sort of fatalism/bad attitude about transit and the people that ride it on the part of institutional leadership. That is unfortunate.
  • Offer employees cash incentives to carpool. It could be as little as free parking passes. Again, this wouldn’t work for everyone, but for every employee that could be encouraged to buddy up, $12,000 savings for the Clinic — i.e. healthcare consumers.
  • Offer employees flexibility in parking passes. It is my understanding that the Cleveland Clinic does not allow its employees to purchase part-time parking passes. This is a problem because folks who might be an occasional bike or transit commuters are essentially penalized, or discouraged from doing so, because they must pay the full monthly parking rate. The Clinic should change this immediately.
  • Cash incentives to not drive to campus. Some institutions that run transportation demand management programs have found that offering commuters as little as $90 a year not to commute by car can have a surprising effect on solo car commuting.
  • Another thing the Cleveland could do is get more involved with incentivizing living near work for its employees. I know the Clinic has tried this in the past and it hasn’t been super successful. But it should not give up. Urban areas are becoming increasingly attractive across the county as household sizes become smaller and attitudes about urban living evolve. Probably many of their employees who are recruited from cities like Philadelphia and Chicago and Seattle where urban living is attractive. Their recruitment would benefit if they could offer high-quality living near work. Imagine if each of the Cleveland Clinic’s enormous parking garages were just one-third apartment housing how much more alive and active the campus would feel. The problem is, people won’t move to be closer to the hospital if living near the hospital offers no real advantage over living far away. And right now the Clinic’s transportation policies make driving in from far away as easy as possible and living close to the campus not that pleasant.

All of these alternatives would be cheaper than the way the Cleveland Clinic is doing it right now. And they would all promote something the Cleveland Clinic claims to be very committed to: promoting healthy lifestyles among its workers. It’s failing to do that if it doesn’t encourage its employees to bike and walk to work and to use low-emissions forms of transportation that lower asthma and obesity rates. It’s also negatively impacting the communities around it, which hurts the hospital as well.

-Angie Schmitt



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Confronting Urban Population Decline

Can I interest you in buying an entire block? West Village, Detroit

The fact that many American cities are experiencing significant population decline is old news.  This trend has been occurring since 1950, particularly in the older cities that were once part of the “Great American Manufacturing Belt” that stretched across the northern tier of the country from New England to just west of the Mississippi River.

What is not old news, however, is that many of these same cities are now experiencing serious problems with vacant and abandoned properties.

These problems are relatively new in many places, and unlike population loss per se, the loss of taxpaying households poses an existential threat to the fiscal healthof these cities.

Not only are these cities continuing to lose residents at an alarming rate, but they are now also losing households.  This means that they are losing housing units, which, in turn, means that they are losing much of their built environment.

Residential properties sit vacant and abandoned, as do the commercial properties that used to serve them.  The public infrastructure (streets, utilities, etc.) which used to knit these properties together into cohesive neighborhoods remains, but is increasingly underutilized.

While the infrastructure might be underutilized, it still needs to be maintained.  Schools, safety forces, public utilities, and sanitation services all need to be supported at levels that don’t shrink proportionately with the population.

In the future, residents will be paying a lot more in taxes for a lot less in services,unless a way is found to grow the population (and the tax base) again.

But why is widespread vacancy and a glut of abandoned property a relatively recent phenomenon, while population loss is not?

In order to understand this, we need to know a bit more about how urban population decline actually works.


Vacant lots that once contained houses, York St., Akron

Understanding the Problem

This piece by Alex Ihnen on population change in St. Louis is one of the best posts that I’ve ever read on understanding urban population decline.

St. Louis is an excellent case study, for it has experienced the single largest percentage population decline of any major American city – shrinking 63% from its 1950 peak of 857,000 to its current population of 319,000.

In his piece, Ihnen argues that if policy is to be directed at growing the city’s population, we must understand more about the history of population decline, which factors led to the downturn, and think about what an increasing population would look like today.

The most important point that Ihnen makes is that a significant level of urban population decline experienced since the 1950s was inevitable (i.e. attributable to widespread demographic changes).  Chief among these is the rapid decline in average household size in the United States.

Think about what was going on around 1960.  Take an older, industrial city, like Cleveland, Detroit, or St. Louis, that is “built out” – that is, nearly all of the residential property in the city is built at the maximum development density that it is zoned for, and the city has very little, if any, available land upon which to build new housing.

At the same time you have several extremely consequential demographic trends occurring all at the same time:

  • Rising divorce rates
  • Rising age of first marriage
  • Rising life expectancy
  • Declining birth rates

These trends all began to emerge in the late 1950s, took deep root in the late 1960s, and continued virtually unabated up through the late-1990s.

So, set aside any preconceptions you have about the disadvantages of city living versus suburban living.

Forget, for a minute, the usual suspects in urban decline, such as “white flight”, larger suburban houses and yards, highway construction, increasing automobile usage, crime, declining schools, etc.

Focus instead on the profound social trends which occurred between 1960 and 1990.  Those involving:

  • Marriage (divorce and delayed marriage, resulting in more singles)
  • Health care (increased longevity, resulting in more widows and widowers)
  • Reproduction (the development of “The Pill” in 1960, and legalized abortion in 1973, resulting in less children).

The end result of these trends?  A much smaller average household size.

So, if these older cities were unable to build more housing units, they were going to shrink to a significant degree, regardless of the crime rate, or school quality, or “white flight”, or any of the other common explanations for urban population loss.

Remember that none of the aforementioned social trends happened in isolation.  They all happened simultaneously.

It is truly an astounding convergence of demographic trends.  From a historical perspective, it is a change in household structure the likes of which our nation has never seen.

Think about it – more single older adults (divorce); more single younger adults (delayed marriage); more widows and widowers (rising life expectancy); less children (declining birth rates).

Every single one of these trends implies that, all things being equal, the average household will be much smaller.

And that’s exactly what happened.  Imagine a city with 900,000 inhabitants and 300,000 households – for an average of three people per household.

Now, imagine that same city, decades later, with 600,000 inhabitants and 300,000 households – for an average of two people per household.

The implications are astounding.   This city could theoretically lose one-third of its population without even one additional vacant house or apartment, simply by dropping from an average household size of three to two.

Indeed, this is precisely what happened in older cities like St. Louis, which dropped from a population of 857,000 in 1950 to 319,000 in 2010.

While not all of this population loss was attributable to a decline in average household size, much of it was.  St. Louis’s average household size dropped from 3.1 people per household in 1950 to 2.2 people in 2010.

In fact, Ihnen estimates that decreasing average household size accounted for 46% of the city’s observed population loss between 1950 and 2010 – a far from inconsequential number.

Similar social trends were also occurring in suburban areas, but one mitigating factor was that these areas were being settled disproportionately by families with children.

Suburban areas also had lots of room to build new housing, while the core cities did not.  In a developing suburban area, it did not matter if your average household size shrank a bit between 1950 and 2010.  If you added an additional 10,000 housing units in that same time period, your community was going to grow – a lot.

The role of shrinking household size in urban population loss may be the most under-reported story about urban decline of the entire 20th century.

Yes, the interstate highway system, “white flight”, the desire for larger homes and larger yards, concerns about crime (real or perceived), etc. were all very important factors in why older cities shrank, and why suburban areas grew.  They still are.

But one of the most important factors (and certainly the most overlooked) was the simple fact that households everywhere were getting smaller, and population was only going to be able to grow in places where you could add households.

Unsurprisingly, these places were primarily new, suburban areas, outside of the central cities.

This fact should give urban advocates, city leaders, and urban residents some degree of comfort, for it demonstrates that a fair amount of urban population loss in the decades immediately following the 1950s was not really anyone’s “fault”.  Your city could have done everything right, but, given a static amount of housing, you were going to shrink.

Urban population decline in the 20th Century, was, in many ways, an unavoidable demographic reality that could only have been mitigated by rezoning and building at even higher densities – a housing trend that would have been running exactly counter to the prevailing market wisdom at the time.

And yet…this explanation only takes us so far.

The explanatory power of average household size weakens substantially after the 1990s, when the demographic trends governing it began to stabilize, and as urban housing continued to “age-out”.


Vacant house, Van Dyke St., Detroit

Housing Supply and Demand in the 21st Century

It was not really until the 21st Century that we began hearing about, reading about, and witnessing first-hand an ever-expanding problem with vacant and abandoned properties in many older urban areas.

Prior to the 1990s, most older cities were shrinking without an appreciable or especially noticeable impact upon the built-environment – particularly in residential areas.

Commercial structures are another story, as many were abandoned beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, being as they are more sensitive to fluctuations in total population and household purchasing power.

Alarmingly, as the 21st Century dawned, many older cities began shrinking, not primarily as a result of national demographic trends (household size) or lifestyle preferences (suburban development), but simply due to the fact that many of them were losing their supply of marketable housing.

In short, the houses and apartments in these cities were getting old – too old to be marketable, in most cases, and not nearly enough was being done (or perhaps, could have been done) to replace them.

In some cities, this might have been due to an overall lack of demand, but it is hard to say that it was due to lack of demand for urban living, as such.

All we really know for sure is that there was a lack of demand for most of the product currently on the urban housing market – namely older houses with high front-end renovation costs, significant ongoing maintenance and upkeep costs, and many obsolete features – not enough closets, not enough electrical outlets, small kitchens and bathrooms, no garage, etc.

What we don’t know is whether or not newer, more modern homes might have been marketable had they been built, because in most older cities, they never werebuilt, so there is no way to test the hypothesis.

Maybe the demand wasn’t really there.

Maybe it was.

Maybe the perceived lack of demand was a self-fulfilling prophecy confirmed by a lack of marketable product.

In many places it was likely a combination of both a lack of supply and a lack of demand – how much it was of each, largely depends on the city, or even the neighborhood.

So it would appear that, all things being equal, there is a correlation between the amount of older housing that a city has and the degree of population loss that it has experienced.

In other words, cities with the highest percentage of old houses and apartments are likely to be the ones that are losing the most residents.

Or perhaps it is the other way around?

I decided to test this theory by obtaining data on housing age in every U.S. city that contains over 25,000 housing units.

Governing magazine wrote a fascinating piece on this recently that contained a treasure trove of interesting data.  I used these data in my analysis.

My working definition of “old housing” is housing units that were built prior to 1960.

1960 is a good demarcation for separating new housing from old.  Houses built before 1960 are over 50 years old, which is the point in a house’s life-cycle where ongoing maintenance costs begin to become quite significant.

1960 is also the year when housing and neighborhood design began to change significantly.

Prior to 1960, most houses were still built in a traditional, walkable neighborhood pattern, on a grid, with street lights and sidewalks, and access to public transportation; located in reasonable proximity to commercial and retail development.

After 1960, most neighborhoods were no longer built to conform to this pattern.

So what did I find?

In the United States today, there are 620 cities that contain at least 25,000 housing units.

Of these, 140 can be considered “older cities” with at least 50% of their housing stock built before 1960.

The vast majority of these older cities are located in the Northeast, the Great Lakes, and on the West Coast.  Very few of them are located in the South or the Intermountain West.

The 10 Fastest Shrinking Cities in the U.S.

1. St. Louis, MO (63% decline, 77% built pre-1960)
2. Detroit, MI (61% decline, 81% built pre-1960)
3. Youngstown, OH (61% decline, 77% built pre-1960)
4. Cleveland, OH (57% decline, 79% built pre-1960)
5. Gary, IN (55% decline, 63% built pre-1960)
6. Buffalo, NY (55% decline, 84% built pre-1960)
7. Pittsburgh, PA (55% decline, 75% built pre-1960)
8. Niagara Falls, NY (51% decline, 84% built pre-1960)
9. Flint, MI (48% decline, 70% built pre-1960)
10. Scranton, PA (47% decline, 76% built pre-1960)

I found a strong correlation (0.533) between the age of the housing (% of total units built prior to 1960) and the percentage of population lost since the city’s peak.

This finding is not particularly shocking, and to be sure, the correlation likely runs both ways.

That is, cities with a lot of old housing are often shrinking cities, because the old housing is not as marketable.

Conversely, shrinking cities often have a lot of old housing, because they are losing population and therefore don’t have lot of demand for new housing.

Regardless of the overall strength or direction of the correlation, this fact remains:

In the 21st Century, given today’s demographic trends, it is near-mathematically impossible for shrinking cities to ever grow again, without building new housing.

These cities have an over-supply of housing that people do not want, and an under-supply of housing that people do want.

Much of the older housing is blighted, vacant, or abandoned, and it is being torn down at a much faster rate than new housing is being built.

These cities will continue to lose population unless they figure out how to do more than simply tear houses down.  They need to learn how to rebuild their neighborhoods from the ground up.

It all boils down to simple arithmetic: less occupied housing units + less people per household = less households, and less people.

No matter how great these cities are, no matter how many casinos or stadiums they build, no matter how safe they are, no matter how low their taxes are, no matter how much else they “do right”, they will inexorably continue to lose population if they don’t learn how to build lots of marketable new housing – and at a much faster rate than they are tearing houses down.

Why is new housing the only way to go?

The only possible means for a shrinking city to grow again are:

1) increase average household size

2) rehabilitate/renovate existing housing

3) build new housing.

Option #1 is not going to happen anywhere in the United States (with the possible exception of places attracting high levels of immigration).  It flies in the face of a fifty-year long demographic trend – that of shrinking American household size, described earlier in this post.

Option #2 is possible, but in most cities it is exceedingly difficult.

Rehabilitating and renovating old houses and buildings is a costly proposition and is only feasible on a large scale in places where:  1) the overall demand for urban housing is high and the supply is low; and 2) the quality of the older housing is such that it is still marketable.

This strategy can work in places like New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston, where both sufficient demand exists, and where there is a large stock of under-utilized high-quality construction (much of it built prior to 1920) with historic character and value.

Where this strategy is not likely to work is in the classic shrinking cities of the Rust Belt – places like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, where overall demand is much lower, and where there is a large excess stock of vacant low-quality housing (much of built hastily, and rather poorly, between 1920 and 1960 for industrial workers).

Much of this housing, especially in smaller, working-class cities like Flint, Gary, and Youngstown is functionally-obsolete.  As much as our hearts may wish it to see preserved, our heads (and pocketbooks) will carry the day.

It is simply not worth saving.  There is far too much of it, there is far too little demand for it, and (the final nail in the coffin) so much of it has been vacant for so long that it is in wretched condition.

So that leaves us with Option #3.  Build brand-new housing.

Is this a major challenge?  You bet.

Building new housing in cities is often more expensive than building new housing in undeveloped areas (due to land acquisition, environmental mitigation, and demolition costs).

In many cities (again, frequently the fastest shrinking ones in the Rust Belt) building new housing is an uncertain market proposition.

In most of these markets, it has not been attempted on a large scale, and many developers are understandably reluctant to invest in rebuilding large-swaths of inner city neighborhoods, for fear that they will lose their shirts if sufficient demand does not materialize.

But what is the alternative?

A vicious-cycle of further decline, more blight, higher taxes, and more disinvestment.


Rolling with the punches: Kercheval-Parker Park, Detroit

Why Bother?

If they do not embark upon an innovative, cross-sector, comprehensive effort to build new housing, shrinking Rust Belt cities will face an existential social and economic crisis that will be far more costly (in both human and monetary terms) than the status quo.

I’ve written about this previously:

Regardless of what some advocates of regionalism might say, city boundaries are not arbitrary and meaningless.  Although some may claim that shrinking cities are no big deal as long as the metropolitan region overall is growing, central cities will continue to profoundly matter, especially to the people (often disproportionately poor) that remain.

Municipal boundaries are not irrelevant, whatever the regionalists may tell you. Economies may be regional, but in most of the nation’s fastest declining cities, government is not.  Municipal boundaries affect taxation, land use policy, public safety, education, public infrastructure, and the delivery of social services.

When a city’s population declines precipitously, the proportional demand for the public services that it provides shrinks less than its population, with the end result that its residents end up paying more in taxes, for less in services.  Even if this were not the case, it is expensive and (politically speaking) exceedingly difficult to scale-back and shrink long-term capital investments in public infrastructure – as “shrinking cities” like Detroit and Youngstown have discovered.

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself.  As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

Brent Larkin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, makes similar, extremely compelling points:

Cleveland may be about half as big, population-wise, as it was in 1970, but in inflation-adjusted dollars the cost of running the city is about the same…

Although Cleveland spends five times more in actual dollars today to serve a city with twice the population in 1970, Councilman Michael Polensek said city services are the worst since he took office in 1978.

“In all my years of public office, I’ve never experienced such a breakdown in the level of city services,” said Polensek. “Quality of life services – street repair, grass cutting, waste collection, caring for abandoned property, police protection – have never been this bad. And that includes when we were in default.”

Although the city has far fewer residents, it must pay to maintain an infrastructure built to support a million residents.

Yet, you hear precious little about the need to build new housing in most shrinking cities. There is certainly no comprehensive strategy, in most places, to actually doit.

Instead, we hear a lot about stadiums, casinos, convention centers, and hotels.

We hear a lot about these cities as places to play – but precious little about these cities as places to live.

I have even heard public officials remark on more than one occasion that residential development is a net liability, because residential development costs the city more in services than it generates in terms of tax revenue.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this means that the most profitable city would be one with no people living in it.

It’s sheer lunacy.  Talk about “destroying the village in order to save it.”

Furthermore, as Brent Larkin points out in the aforementioned column, shrinking cities are already paying to provide these services – what is missing are the people and the necessary tax base to pay for them.

Far too many cities in the Rust Belt have fatalistically resigned themselves to population loss.

It is a terrible long-term strategy.

James Howard Kunstler says it well:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape.

Yes, figuring out how to build new housing and re-populate our shrinking urban centers will be difficult.

But we have to try.

What is our alternative?

This is not just about bricks and mortar infrastructure, or civic pride.  It’s about people.

As ruinously as the built environment and urban landscape in our cities has fared, many of their remaining residents have fared even worse.

The poor are increasingly isolated from social and economic opportunities, as metropolitan regions continue to sort themselves geographically by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

As our core cities continue to be abandoned, the poor, the working class, and many minorities are left behind in the places with shrinking tax and resource bases, while the wealthy continue to concentrate themselves in places that are increasingly homogeneous, with greater access to social and economic opportunities.

That doesn’t sound like “The American Dream” to me.

Rust Belt cities are presently on the hook to dig deeper into their already decimated tax bases, and foot the bill, alone, to deal with the blight and disinvestment.

They are in a no-win situation:  ignore the problem, and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money that they don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and businesses away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse.

What we have on our hands is a vicious-cycle of decline, and disinvestment, and more decline.

What we need to create is a virtuous-cycle of investment, and renewal, and more investment.

In the Rust Belt, growing your city’s population is not about chasing a number, or “keeping up with the Joneses”.

Increasingly, it is going to be about survival.

Today’s political and economic reality is that no one from the federal government, the state, or the rest of the metropolitan region is going to step in and save these cities.

They are going to have to figure out how to do it themselves.


Renovated houses along Parker St., Detroit

Worrisome Trends in Akron

In every culture, you have a “creation myth” – a story you tell yourself (that may or may not be entirely true) about where you have been, where you are, and where you are going.

In Akron (the city that I live in, and love) our “creation myth” goes like this:

We were a world-renowned city, the global center of the rubber and tire industry, for roughly the first three-quarters of the 20th Century; we struggled mightily in the 1970s and 1980s; we began a comeback in the 1990s; and we have been on an upward trajectory ever since, outpacing most of our Rust Belt peers (minus the road bump of the 2008 recession).

There is a lot of truth to this myth, but like any unifying narrative, it glosses over some details that might get in the way.

Like our continued population loss, and our corresponding failure to figure out how to renew our community as a place to live.

To be clear:

We did weather the storm of the collapse of our primary industry far better than most Rust Belt cities did.

We have an amazing stock of high quality, older housing on the city’s west side that is likely to sustain it for years to come.

We are the least racially-segregated major city in Ohio, and one of the least-segregated older industrial cities in the entire U.S.

We have consistently economically outperformed every major city in Ohio (except Columbus), and have held our own compared to our Rust Belt peers nationwide.

We enjoy political and economic leadership that is the envy of most cities, and that has served us extraordinarily well throughout the aftermath of the collapse of the rubber and tire industry.

But much of what I discussed earlier about population decline in St. Louis applies directly to Akron.

With a current-day population of 199,000, we have now lost 91,000 people since we reached our peak population of 290,000 in 1960 (a 31% decline).

After losing only 6,000 residents in the 1990s, we lost 17,000 in the 2000s.

In 2010, we shrunk to below 200,000 for the first time since 1910.

So, since the beginning of the 21st Century, our population loss has actually accelerated, rather than decelerated – by a factor of three.

That’s concerning.

Even more worrisome is the fact that, since 2000, we have seen a significant decline in the number of households – for the first time since 1960.

Most of our shrinkage through 2000 was due to the changes in household size that I described at the beginning of this post.  These changes were still concerning, but they were not out of step with what was going on in most other older cities.

Almost unbelievably, between 1960 and 2000, we had the same number of households, despite the fact that we lost 73,000 people.

It’s really quite remarkable.

But since 2000, we have been losing people and households.

This is extremely concerning, because it is the loss of households that has directly contributed to our growing vacant and abandoned property problem and the erosion of our tax base.

Here are Akron’s numbers by decade.  They are dramatic:

Year       Population         Households        Avg. HH Size

1960          290,351                  90,004                    3.23

1970          275,425                  91,592                    3.01

1980          237,177                  90,576                    2.62

1990          223,019                  90,119                    2.47

2000          217,074                  90,143                    2.41

2010          199,110                  83,718                    2.38

So despite losing 73,000 residents, the number of households in Akron was consistent for 40 years.

But since 2000, we lost another 17,000 people and over 6,000 households.

Even worse, this unprecedented loss of households came at a time when average household size was starting to level off.  If we had been able to keep the same amount of households, we could have retained a lot of the people that we lost during this past decade.

In fact, if we had retained the same number of households, we would have lost less than 3,000 people in the last decade.

But we didn’t.

Maybe we couldn’t have retained these households.

Maybe we didn’t have the available housing to do it.


Brand new houses along Hickory St., Akron

Moving Forward

The 21st Century represents a true demographic turning point for our city.  Our loss of not just population, but now households, too, is a direct result of our using up all of the viable, marketable housing that we had, and our tearing down more housing than we have been able to rebuild.

Simply put – we are now at the place where we are physically unable to grow, because we are experiencing a net loss of housing – year after year, as it gets older and older.

On average, we tear down 500 houses every year in this city. On average, we build 10.

New residents can move to Akron, of course, but they will simply be replacing someone who already lives here.

We are playing “musical chairs” with our housing stock – one person replaces another, and every once in a while, another chair is taken away.

It is a very disturbing trend.

It is also a very underreported trend.  I had never seen this information until I pulled it from the census for this blog post.  I’m not sure that anyone else even knows this.

So what should we do?

We have to learn how to build new housing in this city – a lot of new housing.  And we have to learn how to market it well.

Rehabilitating old houses (where practical) will certainly help us, but my guess is that, even in a best case scenario, we will tear down five houses for every one that is renovated.

The houses that we have left are simply getting too old and obsolete.  The best ones, in the best neighborhoods, are already occupied and are being cared for.

I think Downtown’s future is as a mixed-use residential center, rather than as an office center.  This trend is already happening in many cities.  It is happening on a significant scale in Cleveland, as more and more office space is vacated and retrofitted as residential space.  We should intentionally support that same thing here.

We have lots of undeveloped and underutilized land in this city that could be re-purposed as new densely-developed, mixed-use urban neighborhoods.  Especially if we got creative.

Rolling Acres Mall, for example, could be redeveloped as a huge, new residential neighborhood.  I’ve heard talk of reusing it as an industrial park, but I’ve never heard anyone mention the possibility of redeveloping it as an actual neighborhood.

We should think about it.

We have schools that are shutting down.  The former Perkins Middle School, for example, could be redeveloped as a cluster of new homes in an already quite attractive and convenient residential neighborhood.

We have a lot of underutilized parks in this city.  Grace Park, for example, has been a crummy park for over 60 years.  My grandfather, a former APD Captain used to tell me about how he would bust drug dealers and prostitutes there, even back in the 1950s.

Grace Park could probably be shrunk down to 1/3 of its current size, with the other 2/3 of the existing park redeveloped as a new, densely-developed, mixed-use urban neighborhood.

The remaining 1/3 of the existing park could be preserved, re-sized, and with new adjacent residential properties, might actually see some use.

It’s an extremely attractive site – located immediately adjacent to Downtown Akron, the University of Akron, and Summa Akron City Hospital.

Some of these ideas are probably infeasible.  They might even be kooky.

There would be lots of legal, administrative, and marketing hurdles involved in transforming an infamous Dead Mall like Rolling Acres into a vibrant urban neighborhood.

Grace Park was bequeathed to the City of Akron by Simon Perkins (Akron’s founder) himself, and God only knows what kinds of legal and administrative hurdles would be involved in violating that near-sacred covenant.

But even if these ideas prove to be crazy, there have to be other creative and innovative ideas out there for rebuilding our city.

Not enough people are publicly thinking about this, or proposing audacious ideas about how to grow again.

But this is the kind of thinking that actually repopulates your city.

As important as they are, a stray infill house here and there (like the ones pictured above) is simply not going to get the job done.

The oldest neighborhoods, like West Hill, or University Park, that are closest to the core of the city may eventually begin to redevelop as attractive residential areas, as Highland Square has begun to.

But, at the same time, many of the older, formerly stable working-class neighborhoods like Kenmore, North Hill, and Goodyear Heights will begin to “age-out”, as their housing becomes increasingly obsolete and difficult to maintain. Ellet and Firestone Park may not be that far behind.

Much of West Akron will continue to age gracefully and is likely to remain a stable, attractive area for years to come, but we can’t rely on it forever.

We are likely to experience a lot of ups-and-downs in terms of neighborhood revitalization and decline over the next several decades.

We will probably need half-a-dozen (or more) different redevelopment strategies for our neighborhoods, depending on which neighborhood we are talking about.

We will need to learn how to bring the public sector, the private sector (specifically developers, home builders, and realtors), non-profits, and residents together in order to strategically, intentionally, and creatively rebuild each one of our neighborhoods.

It will be challenging, but we can do it – working together.

As a community, we need to adopt some bold and audacious goals involving population growth and residential redevelopment.

I, for one, would like to see us grow back to a population of 250,000 before I die.

In the meantime, we could start with a more modest goal of growing our population back above 200,000. Given current trends, it is not going to be as easy as it sounds.

If we could get one in five homebuyers in Summit County to end up purchasing a house in Akron (who would not have otherwise) we could get back above 200,000 – provided that we are building enough new housing that we are not simply playing musical chairs with the existing housing.

Attracting one in five prospective homebuyers in Summit County to Akron is doable, and that includes families with children.

To those who would offer knee-jerk arguments that prospective homebuyers would never send their kids to the Akron Public Schools, or be willing to pay for private schools, it is important to point out that, today, less than 30% of American households are even composed of families with children.

I would also argue that social problems like poor public school performance are every bit as much an effect of urban population decline as they are a cause of it.

Rebuilding the middle class in Akron would do far more to restore the performance of the Akron Public Schools than additional funding or an imaginary set of better teachers would.

If we can learn how to build new housing, and attract new residents to Akron, we could begin to mitigate our abandoned and vacant property problem; begin to restore our tax base; and begin to create new markets for entrepreneurship and small-business development in our neighborhoods.

It would create new opportunities, new jobs, and provide more people with a wonderful place to live.

It would also leave plenty of residential growth to go around for the remainder of Summit County.  After all, the City of Akron still accounts for 37% of the county’s population, so attracting 20% of the new homebuyers is far from an unreasonable or an inequitable goal.

Restoring the residential housing market in Akron would also be good for taxpayers throughout Summit County.  As property values decline in the urban core, it is suburban homeowners who end up having to make up the difference.

I think that Akron has the human capital, and the innovative and collaborative culture to figure out how to do this.

But we have to get intentional about it.  It’s not going to happen on its own.

–By Jason Segedy. Originally published at his blog Notes from the Underground.


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East Liverpool and the Unforgiving Economy of Rural Appalachia

About 100 miles Southeast of Cleveland, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, along the Ohio River sits the small city of East Liverpool, Ohio. Once known as the pottery capitol of the world, many of the China and glassware factories have closed, as have the steel mills where many East Liverpool residents once worked. In its heyday during World War II, almost 50,000 people lived in East Liverpool. Today the city’s population tops off at just above 10,000.

Nearly 30 percent of all residents live below the poverty level. The per capita income is just more than $16,000. The unemployment rate is 13 percent. It’s a city where almost every second or third house seems to be abandoned, and not just abandoned. Some are burnt out. Some are falling down. The locals talk about the incessant and merciless drug traffic. They say dealers have come up to the city from the east coast – having found a robust market for heroin and other opiates. The drug trade wreaks constant havoc on the streets. In late September, five people were shot there in a single night.

East Liverpool enjoys another dubious honor: a staggeringly high cancer rate. In 2009, data showed that East Liverpool’s cancer rate is 615.8 people per 100,000. The Ohio average is 450.4.

East Liverpool and the tiny towns and villages that surround it are part of the forgotten rural poor in America. Devoid of all economic opportunity, they’ve become a dumping ground for the detritus of the global economy while simultaneously fueling it by providing coal, oil and natural gas.

If you haven’t heard of East Liverpool, don’t be too hard on yourself. Until about a year ago, I hadn’t either. My job as an organizer for the Ohio Organizing Collaborative took me there. I joined the OOC to start organizing communities affected by fracking, the process of extracting oil and gas from shale formations deep within the Earth. As I began exploring the rural areas of Eastern Ohio, a colleague introduced me to three men – one in his seventies, two in their eighties – who had been fighting for environmental justice for East Liverpool since the 1980s: Alonzo Spencer, Virgil Reynolds and Mike Walton. Each has been seeking justice for their community. They are the remnants of a once robust movement to shut down the hazardous waste incinerator that was finally constructed in 1994.

They still write letters to the EPA, the governor and anyone else they can think of. They are seeking answers about an ash plume emitted from the incinerator last summer. The ash coated the homes and cars in the surrounding area. No one has given them an explanation. Meanwhile the cancer cases continue to mount. A friend and coworker of mine from East Liverpool knows 12 people who suffer or passed away from blood or bone cancer. In a city this small – this is outrageous.

The common notion is that Democrats are environmentalists and Republicans are not. But the Clinton family and administration had a hand in constructing and protecting the incinerator. Friends and former colleagues of President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were the incinerator’s initial investors. Despite countless violations on it’s permit, the Clinton administration allowed the incinerator to be constructed – 1100 feet from an elementary school, in the middle of an African American neighborhood, on a flood plane along the Ohio River.

Indeed, as the area surround East Liverpool de-industrialized and residents could not longer find work that pays a living wage, the area’s main industry seems to be waste disposal and resource extraction. Across the river in Beaver County PA is a coal ash impoundment pond affectionately known as “Little Blue,” possibly because it literally glows neon blue. There are more than 600 permits for horizontal fracking wells within 50 miles of the city (NOTE: That’s in Ohio only, if you include western Pennsylvania it’s more like 1,300) . Just south of it, in the equally stressed village of Wellsville, cancer-causing silica sand used for fracking operations is stored in huge uncovered piles just several hundred feet from a residential neighborhood. Down river in Jefferson County is First Energy’s dilapidated Coal Fire Power Plant WH Sammis – which the EPA says is one of Ohio’s top five polluters. Meanwhile, a University of Cincinnati study has shown that the levels of manganese emissions in East Liverpool are at a dangerous level and have led to learning disabilities and cognitive problems among the area’s children. And we all wonder why poor folks living in areas like these just can’t get a job and make something of themselves?

I’m not from East Liverpool. I am not poor, nor have I ever known poverty. I grew up in a comfortable suburb far from the shootings, drug trade and hazardous waste incinerators. I am the granddaughter of poor Irish immigrants who came to Cleveland in the 1920s for economic opportunity and political freedom. My grandfather got a WPA job under President Roosevelt during the New Deal. He was a laborer who helped build the Terminal Tower. He eventually got a union job at the Cleveland Graphite Bronze Factory. He took three busses to work every day, but made enough money to send his seven kids to Catholic school (It only cost $12 for each child to attend.) They lived in the bottom apartment of a double on West 93rd Street, often sleeping several children to a bed and my mother on the couch in the living room. Life was hard for my mom’s family – but each and every one of those seven children joined the ranks of at least the middle class. My uncles served in the military, and the GI bill sent them to college and law school. One uncle became a Vice President at both Notre Dame and Ohio State University and another became a judge in Cuyahoga County. My mom received her master’s degree from Boston College.

Not only was the social safety net present, but my family was not exposed to the same level of concentrated toxic contamination. Cleveland’s air quality was bad when my mom was a child in the 1950s and ‘60s – but the economic opportunities she had gave her a fighting chance to move someplace healthier. Few people in East Liverpool have that chance. Those that did are already gone.

My family is smart and driven – but no more so than many of the people I have met in East Liverpool. The difference is, we benefitted from a more robust social safety net, unions and economic opportunity. Without access to public transportation, my grandfather wouldn’t have been able to make it to work. Without a union, he wouldn’t have made a living wage. Without the programs put in place under the New Deal, my struggling young grandparents and their children might not have climbed out of poverty.

In poor neighborhoods across America, rural and urban alike, we must return to investing in our people. Without the New Deal, there would be no Caitlin Johnson – of this I am certain. It’s time to realize that dream for all Americans. And it’s time to move to a new economy – one based on investing in people, not investing in resource extraction and waste disposal. The areas richest in natural resources should not be the areas most plagued by crippling poverty. It doesn’t add up. The patterns are far too clear for us to continue blaming individual behavior when the game appears to be rigged in favor of nameless, faceless corporations.

By Caitlin Johnson

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Milwaukee's Effort to Build a New Industry Around Clean Water

The three lake sturgeon in Discovery World’s “touch tank” aren’t given official names, but that hasn’t kept at least one employee in this newish Milwaukee educational center from christening them female superhero names like Tank Girl and She-Ra. As a Michigan native, I’d heard of Sturgeon before, but I wasn’t prepared to fall for them the way I did when I put my hand in the tank.

Sturgeon are big – in the wild, they’ve been known to reach up to seven feet long. And they’re unlike any other fish I’d seen. Their rough skin is scale-less and their spine is bony like dinosaurs you’ve seen pictured in kids’ books. In fact, sturgeon have been around for at least 200 million years. It’s a mind-blowing story of survival.

Tank Girl and She-Ra swam right up to my still hand, rubbing against it as they passed over and over, like a cat might. Perhaps they were just hoping for food or were bored from swimming endless laps in their tank, but the woman overseeing the aquarium that afternoon likes to muse on the possibility that they get some pleasure from being touched.

Photo: Riveredge Nature Center

Photo: Riveredge Nature Center

Sturgeon have been around since the Cretaceous, but it took no time for humans to decimate their populations in the Milwaukee River by the early 1900s. Now, thanks to nearly a decade of stocking efforts by Riveredge Nature Center and Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, the fish is coming back. “Sturgeon Fest” draws Milwaukeeans to the mouth of the river to release hundreds of tagged fish into Lake Michigan every autumn. It’ll be several years before they’re able to spawn on their own, but the whole region is pulling for them.

The sturgeon’s fragile comeback mirrors the city’s own. More than any other Great Lakes city, Milwaukee is prioritizing the value of the water in its midst. Could it base its economy on the protection of a resource rather than its exploitation? Its first forays into this concept point to “yes”.

Near the site of Sturgeon Fest is the University of Wisconsin’s brand new School of Freshwater Sciences building. I had a chance to visit the school in early October with the members of Rachel’s Network who were holding a conference on – what else? – water. The women of Rachel’s Network hail from around the country, but all share a passion for (and ability to) fund impactful environmental projects.

A tug pushing coal in front of UWM's new School of Freshwater Sciences building

A tug pushing coal in front of UWM’s new School of Freshwater Sciences building

We travelled to the school along the Inner Harbor, aboard the UWM research vessel Neeskay. Decades of industrial misuse were on display. The school itself is sandwiched between gigantic storage tanks filed with foul-smelling asphalt on one side and a huge pile of coal bound for the city’s power station on the other.

The choice to site the school here is a testament to Milwaukee and UWM’s faith in the future. When professors and students look out their wide classroom windows on the second floor of the school, they don’t see the hundreds of acres of brownfields and unsightly heavy industry: they see the potential for a new economy built on social and ecological sustainability. Efforts are now underway to redevelop the Inner Harbor in this vision.

The amount of collaboration that happens in this city is enviable. Urban farming pioneer Will Allen collaborates with UWM on aquaponics. The Water Council, a collection of innovative water companies, counts the Metro Milwaukee Sewarage District among its members. Small businesses like Lakefront Brewery work with environmental nonprofits and Discovery World to advocate for clean water. Milwaukee’s new water economy is a remarkably cohesive effort.

Lakefront Brewery President Russ Klisch appeared on the front page of the Journal Sentinel the day after we toured his brewery.

Lakefront Brewery President Russ Klisch appeared on the front page of the Journal Sentinel the day after we toured his brewery.

Meghan Jensen of the Water Council, Ann Brummitt of Milwaukee Water Commons, Karen Sands of Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and Lynde Uihlein. Milwaukee's water community is very collaborative.

Meghan Jensen of the Water Council, Ann Brummitt of Milwaukee Water Commons, Karen Sands of Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and Lynde Uihlein. Milwaukee’s water community is very collaborative.

All this work could be undermined, of course, by forces like federal and state politics and climate change that are beyond the city’s control. Water rights advocate Maude Barlow gave Rachel’s Network a sobering picture of extreme energy development and transportation that’s ramping up around the Great Lakes, from bitumen (tarsands) shipments on lake freighters to growing capacity on pipelines like one Enbridge line that runs the length of Wisconsin and the aging Line 5 that carries oil and gas right under the Straits of Mackinac.

The coal-fired Edgewater Generating Station mars an otherwise beautiful Lake Michigan coastline in Sheboygan.

The coal-fired Edgewater Generating Station mars an otherwise beautiful Lake Michigan coastline in Sheboygan.

Environmental engineer David Flowers talks about the natural sewage system he designed at Riveredge. Wetlands and underground cisterns treat water coming from the facilities.

An interactive model of the Great Lakes at Discovery World.

An interactive model of the Great Lakes at Discovery World.

Great Lakes residents take water abundance for granted. But this abundance is far from guaranteed in the future, says Jenny Kehl, UWM’s Chair of the School of Freshwater Sciences. Many regions of the country are already experiencing serious water scarcity and the Great Lakes will become an obvious place to make up the difference. The system’s recharge rate is only 1 percent. Harvest anything more than that, and (heaven forbid) you might have an Aral Sea on your hands.

Some of the best days of my life have been spent along and on these restorative inland seas. I’ve climbed dunes in Saugatuk at sunset and fished with my dad on Lake Huron. I’ve wandered the shore with my inquisitive nieces and nephew, searching for stones and feathers and fish skeletons. To think this is all at risk is a terrifying proposition.

Although we arrived in Milwaukee after Sturgeon Fest concluded, Riveredge Nature Center allowed me to “adopt” one of their released sturgeon. Should the fish tagged with #985120030644058 be found and scanned somewhere, I’ll receive notification. I’m hoping like hell that fish comes back to spawn someday, and that when it does, Milwaukee’s fledgling water ethic will have caught on around the Great Lakes.

By Erica Flock and originally published at Negwegon.


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The Faithful Press on Cleveland's Giant, Outdoor Chandelier

Here‘s Cleveland’s “architecture critic” Steven Litt defending the construction of a giant, outdoor chandelier in downtown Cleveland.

The crux of Litt’s argument seems to be if a woman from Vermont was standing under it and taking a picture of it, criticisms of this project can’t be legitimate. Litt reported on this project many times and each time he alluded to unnamed “critics” who think the project is tacky and/or a waste of money (The city of Cleveland, which has a 54 percent child poverty rate, contributed $1 million to the construction project).

Litt never found the time to talk to a single critic. In every instance he deferred to Art Falco, the director of Playhouse Square, who — by the way — does not think the project is a waste of money and/or tacky.

So far, the only national press I’ve seen weigh in on this was renown tastemaker USA Today — “hey look, Cleveland built a giant outdoor chandelier” — and Gizmodo — “here’s how a giant outdoor chandelier is even constructed.” The other publications that might be interested in a large-scale new public space installation in a U.S. city have mostly been silent. (Being polite?)

If all we need to determine the architectural quality of something is to interview a passerby, what do we need an “architecture critic” for at all? What large-scale decorative object installed in downtown Cleveland would warrant criticism from Steven Litt?

Where was the design community on this? Not speaking with the press, that’s for sure. Why is that?

–Angie Schmitt


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Wealthy Suburbs Help Keep Pro Sports on Cleveland's Payroll

The battle over Issue 7, whether or not to renew the sin tax on alcohol and cigarettes, revenues from which finances upgrades to our professional sports facilities, ended up being the main event in Tuesday’s primary here in Cuyahoga County. Ultimately, Cuyahoga County residents voted 56%-44% to continue the tax for another two decades.

The arguments for and against the sin tax, at least as it is currently defined, have been laid out quite effectively and ad nauseum; I’m not here to rehash them. It was nearly impossible for anyone watching, listening to, or attending a Cavs or Indians game to avoid being hit over the head with pro-Issue 7 ads.

The Browns, Cavs, Indians, and their allies – particularly the Greater Cleveland Partnership and The Plain Dealer (which basically acted as the official media mouthpiece of the campaign) – outspent the ragtag anti-Issue 7 crowd 170-to-1; the groups spent roughly $1.2 million and $7,000, respectively. While the anti-Issue 7 campaign mounted an effective charge on social media and built a solid, if motley, coalition around the issue, the group never really stood a chance against those odds.

In a post yesterday, Cleveland Magazine reporter Erick Trickey argued that this debate perfectly encapsulated how politics works in Northeast Ohio. Lines don’t really break down according to party affiliation – this is one of the most Democratic counties in the country. Rather,

The best way to understand most Cleveland political debates isn’t party politics. It’s, do you believe in spending tax money on “public-private partnerships” that draw people and business downtown? Or do you thinks that’s corporate welfare, giveaway of money better spent on other needs? That debate has run through our politics for decades, from tax abatement in the ’80s through Gateway in 1990 through the convention center debate in 2007, to the sin tax rematch yesterday.

This got me thinking about the political economy of this issue. We already know that all sin taxes are inherently regressive; they are consumption taxes assessed equally, regardless of income, ensuring that the poor pay more than the wealthy as a share of their income. Accordingly, it’s perhaps not surprising that, while the sin tax had already passed twice in Cuyahoga County, it failed each time in Cleveland.

Given these facts, I wanted to explore the relationships between per capita income and Issue 7 results. Below, you will see the correlation between median household income from 2006-2010 (5-year average) and the percentage of voters voting yes on Issue 7 (PDF). Income data are drawn from the American Community Survey (via NEO-CANDO), and elections results are from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

median income & issue 7 all citiesCorrelation between median household income and Issue 7 results for all 57 municipalities in Cuyahoga County. 

As you can see, the relationship is quite strong (the correlation coefficient is .607). As income increases, so too does the percentage of voters supporting the sin tax. But, as you can see, there are a few municipalities on the right side of the chart that may be skewing the data due to their extremely high income levels. These include Bentleyville and Hunting Valley, where the median household income is $191,250 and $250,001, respectively. For comparison, the median household income for Cuyahoga County was $59,583 for this period.

In order to account for this potential skew, I removed the five municipalities who had incomes more than 2 standard deviations greater than the mean. These were Moreland Hills, Gates Mills, Pepper Pike, Bentleyville, and Hunting Valley – your extremely tony eastern suburbs. (On a related note, Gates Mills also has the highest household carbon footprint of any municipality in the region). As you see below, when I remove these five outliers, the correlation becomes even stronger (correlation coefficient of .621).

median income & issue 7 no outliersCorrelation between median household income & sin tax results with the 5 outliers removed. 

Issue 7 only failed in six municipalities; these had an average income of $47,744, more than $11,000 less than the median for the County as a whole. Five of these cities are middle class, inner-ring suburbs located just south of Cleveland; the other two are the city of Cleveland and Valley View. Shockingly, East Cleveland, easily the poorest city in the County, actually voted forthe sin tax 53%-47%.

Clearly, there is a major income divide over this issue, with lower-income voters, who will bear the burden of the tax, far less likely to support it than higher-income voters. Maybe that would have made a difference if voter turnout in Cleveland wasn’t 13.85%. But it is what it is, at this point.

By Tim Kovach


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