Ohio’s cities are dying. That is the simple truth. In fact there is practically no other state in the union whose major cities have experienced the same amount of population loss. This hard truth was driven home when the results of the 2010 Census came out. The six biggest cities in Ohio, save Columbus, all experienced population loss. Cleveland, which has lost over half of its population, saw a 17 percent decline. Dayton lost nearly 15 percent. Youngstown, once home to 170,000 people, is now smaller than the city of Parma. Cincinnati, Akron, and Toledo also registered losses.
One of the main drivers behind this, well known to many of you, is sprawl or decentralization. This is a problem with a very long history. At the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Ohio already had over 784 different municipalities, with 31 just in Hamilton County. This plethora of municipalities grew with little or no guidance from long term and sustainable planning.
More recently, the population density of the Dayton urban area decreased from 3,263 per square mile in 1970 to 2,209 in 2000; however, the amount of developed or urbanized land increased from 185 square miles to 327 square miles during the same time period. The Youngstown/Warren Metropolitan Area’s footprint increased by 30 percent from the years 1970 to 1990, while simultaneously decreasing almost ten percent in terms of population. Cleveland’s experience with sprawl is similar and has been well covered here.
Even the lone “success” story of Columbus is problematic. Annexation has buttressed the city’s population; yet, sprawl has contributed to a low population density, inner city decay and food deserts—the neighborhood of King Lincoln is a good example of the latter two phenomena. When comparing individual counties, in 2006 Franklin County actually had a higher rate of poverty than did Cuyahoga or Hamilton County.
Collapsing cities are a drag on regions, not surprisingly, and the state in general. Low-density cities are also a hindrance to innovation. Productivity also decreases with spatial density in the labor market. Nor are low-density cities attractive for young professionals, a demographic Ohio politicians claim to covet. And young people are precisely what Ohio is losing. Ohio recently registered the third largest drop of any state in its under 18 population. It’s possible, perhaps probable, that the state will experience a net population loss in the next census. Probably a large portion of this loss is related to jobs; only Michigan fared worse than Ohio in terms of job loss from 2000 to 2008. This is due to a number of factors, but sprawl, decaying cities, corruption, disastrous tax abatement policies and state income tax cuts for the wealthy have either exacerbated the issue or caused further losses in state revenue.
A main problem that any urban activist in Ohio must face is the fact that the state’s power base is in the suburbs. While John Kasich is a classic example of the suburban governing mentality—one that has no interest in or understanding of urban issues—his predecessor Governor Strickland also proved unable to tackle key urban problems, though Yvette McGee Brown was a promising pick for lieutenant governor.
In short, there seems to be little chance that the state or federal government will take any steps to alleviate the problems of Ohio cities; quite to the contrary, “austerity measures” are likely to make them worse. Thus, Ohioans will be increasingly forced to rely on grass roots organizing and regionalization campaigns. For short of a political miracle, this is what is left to do.
I will close by issuing a warning to Ohio’s leaders, be they in government or in the business community. I would issue the same warning to Washington: When social scientists, journalists, sociologists and others visit Ohio to report on its state as an urban laboratory for dysfunction, it should tell you something. It is not that there is organized smear campaign against Ohio or its cities; it is simply that the state is dying. The state is dying because East Cleveland is dying; it is dying because of the south side of Youngstown is dying; it is dying because inner city Canton is dying. The sooner you realize this, the sooner Ohio can be saved.