Tag Archives: Urban Sprawl

Sprawl and the Undoing of Cleveland

If you want to get a sense of how devastating sprawl has been to the urban areas of northeast Ohio, head over to Woodlawn Avenue in East Cleveland. Between the rows of boarded up buildings, a house collapses onto itself. Graffiti pays homage to dead loved ones — “R.I.P. Fife.” Nearby, stuffed animals have been stapled to a telephone pole in a memorial, presumably, to a dead child.

Travel thirty miles west to Lorain County, and they’re laying sewer pipe for a new housing development. The housing market is strong in exurban Avon, where a new highway interchange has spurred a rush in commercial real estate development on what was once forests. Here residents can commute an easy 35 minutes by highway to downtown Cleveland, while avoiding the higher taxes that come with closer-set communities, burdened by old infrastructure and the cost of providing social services to less affluent residents.

For decades, residents of greater Cleveland have been moving up and moving out. In fact, long ago, East Cleveland itself was founded by industrialists, including John Rockefeller, who were seeking shelter from what they thought were exorbitant city tax rates.

But that’s not what makes this region a special example of the destructive impacts of laissez-faire development. Housing works this way in many, if not most, mid-sized American cities, with less disastrous results. The difference in metro Cleveland is that, roughly since the 1970s, the regional population has been stagnant. That means, in essence, for every house built in Avon, a house in East Cleveland — or the city of Cleveland, or, increasingly, one of the inner-ring suburbs — is abandoned.

The result has been devastating for the central city and the smaller residential communities that encircle it.


Woodlawn Avenue, East Cleveland


Blighted, vacant homes discourage investment, weakening the already depressed urban housing market. Residential demolition costs anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per house, and that’s if there are no complications, such as asbestos or auxiliary structures. This cost becomes an additional burden for the urban municipality, even as it hemorrhages property tax revenues. As a result, city services suffer, and the downward spiral continues, carrying middle-class families further outward, isolating the poor in the center.

Meanwhile, metro Cleveland’s regional planning agency, NOACA, has maintained a neutral policy regarding sprawl — which is to say, it has no policy. Regional land use planning has been a political non-starter for the agency, which is governed by a board of roughly three dozen politicians, representing urban, suburban and exurban interests in approximately equal measure.

A few weeks ago, however, NOACA’s governing board quietly took a small step forward — one that could have big ramifications for the region. Board members passed a resolution agreeing to apply for a federal grant to conduct regional land use planning through the Obama administration’s Sustainable Communities Initiative. With support from the local philanthropic community, the Cleveland area will be pursuing a planning grant, in coordination with the regional governing bodies in nearby Youngstown and Akron.

The grant would provide up to $5 million to conduct regional planning related to land use, economic development, environmental quality, housing and transportation for the Cleveland area. Supported by the budding partnership between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Transportation, the grant would require the Cleveland region to determine which areas are appropriate for future development and which are not. This document would, for the first time, guide transportation and planning decisions with an eye toward sustainability.

Regionalism has been a buzzword in northeast Ohio for years. Urban and suburban leaders alike have been repeatedly exposed to the message that they should be cooperating, coordinating, even consolidating. And the urgency of the message is undeniable. Within Cuyahoga County, home to the city of Cleveland, there are 59 municipalities — each with its own council clerk, streets department and safety forces. The cost of maintaining often duplicative services makes the local tax burden in northeast Ohio relatively high, a fact that is off-putting to businesses the region desperately needs to attract.

But change doesn’t come easily in this part of the country. Where governmental consolidation has taken place across the state, it’s been fraught with costly litigation. In some cases, consolidation efforts have been outright rejected by the voting public. To northeast Ohio government employees, regionalism carries the threat of job loss. This is a frightening discussion in a metro area where dependable jobs are becoming increasingly scarce and where a relatively large proportion of the population depends on the public purse for a paycheck.

As each community pursues development separately, businesses and homeowners overwhelmingly pick the newer, farther flung communities, which are considered safer and often times offer lower development costs. In an effort to cope, urban leaders are working to convert vacant lots in the city of Cleveland back into agricultural use. Meanwhile, in Avon and in exurban areas throughout the region, more and more ready agricultural land is consumed for housing. All the while, the gap between the quality of life in the city and the suburbs — in terms of city services, public education and safety — continues to widen.

City interests have looked fruitlessly to the state and the federal government for policy reforms that would make Ohio cities competitive again. The state has responded with a series of nonbinding development recommendations, which so far seem to have had little effect on regional building patterns. Then along comes the Sustainable Communities Initiative, with the promise of $5 million for planning, which regional leaders — both suburban and urban — cannot ignore. Will that provide the push that Cleveland leaders have been praying for?

It’s too soon to celebrate a new chapter in northeast Ohio. After all, there’s no guarantee that the region will win the grant money. Even then, it is difficult to say how faithful local leaders would be to this guiding document. But if the act of planning brings Cleveland area leaders together to talk about collectively shaping a more sustainable community, that, in itself, is a huge victory for the region.

This post originally appeared on Streetsblog Capital Hill.


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Filed under Headline, sprawl, Urban Planning

Urban/Suburban Affordability Index

Check out this neat site that shows the relative affordability of the city verses the suburbs by calculating housing plus transportation costs.

Here we have Cleveburg:


Did you know that transportation costs represent the number two household expense for most Americans and that US homeowners consistently underestimate their transportation expenses?

This a timely post because the federal government recently began working to include transportation costs in its housing affordability index, according to  Streetsblog. This is part of the President’s Building Sustainable Communities initiative.







Filed under Headline, Public Transportation, Real Estate, sprawl, Urban Planning

The New, Suburban, Face of Poverty

Between 2000 and 2008, large metropolitan areas saw their suburban poverty rates grow at twice the rate of inner cities, according to a new report by the Brookings Institution.

For example, in 2008, 23 percent more people were living in poverty outside the city of Cleveland’s borders than inside it. That’s a 44 percent jump since 2000, for a total of 9 percent of the suburban population. Meanwhile the number of poor in the city of Cleveland decreased, WCPN Ideastream reports.

Similar trends were reported in Akron and Youngstown.

Also of note:

-Social service providers are ill equipped to serve the decentralized population of the new suburban poor.

-Sun Belt cities like Miami, Phoenix and Los Angeles, hard hit by the housing crisis, have seen significant increases in poverty over the last two years.



Filed under Featured, sprawl, The Housing Crisis, Urban Poverty

How the Car Drained Detroit

Among the theories about the cause of the demise of Detroit, this one’s one of my personal favorites.

According to this article published in The Pop Up City, auto culture, specifically sprawl, literally drained the life out of Detroit.


“The Detroit exodus began emerging right after the moment the car industry started to boom,” says writer Joop De Boer.

“Detroit’s population halved within 50 years, changing the city from a vibrant metropolis into an urban vacuum.”

“For years all over the world the economically strongest have chosen to leave the inner cities, and find themselves a house in the cultural desert of suburbia. However, over the last decade this situation seems to have changed slowly.

“The inner city has become a place for good living as well, preferable for an increasing amount of people. They are not suffering from the suffocating clouds of industrial poison any more. Cities have become talent magnets full of those who are unexplained in the social context of a village, and look for cultural and social tolerance. The modern city is occupied by those who look out for the city’s best quality… the city people.”



Filed under Featured, sprawl, U.S. Auto Industry

New Urban Ideal: Young, Progressive and White?

Portland. Seattle. Minneapolis. Besides being magnets for well-educated young people, what do these cities have in common?

According to Aaron Renn, creator of the Urbanophile blog, they all have a relatively low proportion of black people.

In an article published on New Geography, Renn asks, is the trend towards cities like Portland a form of nationwide suburban sprawl?

A city scene in Portland. No black people to be found.

A city scene in Portland.

Is it only a coincidence that cities with a high proportion of black residents are so often the most maligned, like Detroit, Cleveland and Youngstown?

If you’ve ever read the Urbanophile (and if you haven’t, you should), you’ll notice that Aaron is a great creator of charts.

He has developed some pretty convincing data to back up his argument.


Portland and Seattle: 6% black. Austin: 8%. Denver: 10%.

I think Aaron has a point and this is an issue that doesn’t get the play it deserves in most of our discussions. Because racial issues and racial tensions shape our cities and our country profoundly, though not as overtly as they once did. This is especially true in the industrial Midwest.

On the other hand, there are some notable exceptions to Aaron’s rule. Atlanta, for one. New York and Chicago for another.

While I think Aaron has a point, I think the socioeconomic vestiges of a pattern of discrimination in housing, finance and education may be influencing residential decisions more than race at this point, or at least playing an increasingly strong role. The history of racial turmoil in Cleveland and Detroit and Chicago are still very ingrained in the cultural consciousness. In these cities, and the two events that had the greatest impact were the race riots and forced school integration, or busing.

Older generations in Cleveland are still programmed to the “us vs. them” turf battles between ethnic groups and blacks that played out the cities neighborhoods in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Last week, a professor of mine mentioned that his friend still refuses to drive through the Hough neighborhood, where riots took place in the ’70s, out of fear. My 47-year-old mother, a Toledo native, recently told me that every time she hears about Detroit, she thinks about the riots and how scary a place it’s always seemed.

Meanwhile a discriminatory education system continues to drive middle-class families out of the central city of Cleveland. Ohio’s Supreme Court has rules the state’s education funding system unconstitutional four times and still no relief for inner-city families.

So what’s the difference between Detroit and Cleveland and Chicago and New York? Well, not nearly as much as now until the ’90s when Chicago and New York began pushing minorities to the periphery, while in Cleveland and Detroit, whites continued their migration outward. While there is some concern about “rings of poverty” and endemic violence on Chicago’s South Side, studies have shown that cities where wealth trended inward perform better economically than where wealth flowed outward.

That said, I certainly wouldn’t call Chicago a model for racial integration.

Anyway it’s an interesting article and Aaron brings up a good point. I think these issues are very complicated, however. Everyone wants to be the journalist that pinpoints exactly what’s wrong with Detroit or Cleveland, when the truth is, cities are very dynamic places with a multitude of different forces at play.

Any input?

St. Louis? Youngstown? Memphis? Camden?



Filed under Featured, Race Relations

11 Great Train Stations that Were

The Infrastructurist has catalogued the 11 greatest train stations to meet the wrecking ball (pictures and all!).

The short list: New York’s Penn Station, Memphis’ Union Station and Atlanta’s Terminal Station.

Atlanta's Terminal Station: a ghost of public transport

Atlanta's Terminal Station: a ghost of public transport

The article laments: Almost like a rite of passage, cities across the country embraced the era of Interstates, Big Macs, and suburban sprawl by tearing down their train depots. (Frequently, they just did the Joni Mitchell thing and put up a parking lot.)


Filed under Featured, Public Transportation

Video: Dissecting Suburbia

Does sprawl make you angry? Then you have something in common with James Howard Kunstler, “the world’s most outspoken critic of suburban sprawl.” How about a 20-minute rant to ease your rage? It will make you feel better, I swear.


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