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Detroit Can Learn from Cleveland on Ways to Stop Sprawl

Leaders of Ohio’s largest metropolitan region have teamed up to invent a new tool for governing and curbing sprawl.

December 1, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

CLEVELAND — Although it’s never sought to upstage New York’s cosmopolitan glamour, or California’s glittery trend setting, Ohio nevertheless has always regarded itself as a force in the nation’s affairs, a stage for courageous ideas and plain spoken leaders. This is the state, after all, that produced Thomas Edison, author Sherwood Anderson, and astronaut and Senator John Glenn.

So it should come as no surprise that civic officials from Ohio’s largest metropolitan region have teamed up to invent a new tool for governing. It is the First Suburbs Consortium, an alliance of 10 inner ring Cleveland suburbs that is the first government-led advocacy organization in the nation to focus on halting sprawl.

Behind the grand idea lies a simple premise. Leaders of Cleveland’s older suburbs have concluded that only by working with each other, and with Cleveland Mayor Michael White, can they amass a sufficiently influential political coalition to change policies in the legislature that affect growth and development. In essence, Cleveland and its older suburbs have embraced a new model of regional cooperation that can be applied in Michigan and every other state afflicted by urban disinvestment and runaway development on the fringe. As such, say experts, the First Suburbs Consortium is a genuine political breakthrough in the swiftly evolving national movement to control sprawl.

“For 30 years or so we’ve been going along with the cities losing population, and the growth occurring farther and farther out,” explained John Gilligan, the Democratic governor of Ohio from 1971 to 1975, and now a lecturer at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. “One of the things that contributed to it was how the policy game was played. The cities were always arrayed against the suburban and rural interests. Suburban leaders were raised on a diet of fearing the city and warring against the big city. Crime. Failing schools. Deteriorating housing. That was always the big city’s problem, not theirs.

“But now we’re starting to see the older incorporated suburbs experiencing some of the same symptoms of decay,” Gilligan added. “Leaders of those suburbs recognize that the identical policies that sucked the life out of urban centers are hitting them. Only instead of going at the problem alone, the suburbs and the cities are coming together because they have certain common interests. And that translates into votes which could shift the balance of power in the legislature.”

Formed in 1996, the First Suburbs Consortium already has made its presence known in the Cleveland region, and increasingly in state politics. It joined the fight two years ago to halt the widening of Interstate-90, an east-west corridor, because of concerns the project would accelerate flight to the distant suburbs. Though the highway will be widened, the fight led to changes in how the state Department of Transportation spends money in older communities, especially to repair existing roads. The battle was the first ever waged by local governments in the Cleveland region against a major road.

More recently, the Consortium joined Cleveland city and civic leaders who are seeking to halt the widening of Interstate 71. The goal is to redistribute transportation spending to support alternatives, among them a new light rail line, more bus service, and money to repair roads, curbs, and sidewalks.

“Widening I-71 is a misallocation of resources,” said Ken Montlack, a Cleveland Heights city councilman, and co-founder and chairman of the First Suburbs Consortium. “The Department of Transportation never looked at alternatives and they told us they would not expend any funds for renovating state or federal highways in incorporated areas. They were saving all the money for rural areas.

“We were part of a larger coalition that got that policy reversed,” said Montlack. “Now we want the money to be spent on existing infrastructure. We want to see the whole program changed. Highways just encourage an overdependence on cars that has become a tremendous burden on the infrastructure of cities. It’s a quality of life issue.”

In October, the Consortium — comprised of 10 communities which each pay $1,000 in annual dues — showed off its growing political influence when more than 200 city and state leaders converged in Cleveland to adopt a formal legislative strategy for curbing sprawl. Modeled after the Smart Growth plan approved by Maryland in 1997, the Consortium is calling for sharp changes in public investment priorities so that state and federal money for transportation, housing, schools, jobs, and other investments are directed to existing downtowns and neighborhoods instead of outward to the urban fringe.

Will it fly in the legislature? One of those who attended the conference was an aide to Robert Taft 2nd, the Republican governor-elect, who said growth management would be a priority in the Taft Administration. Two others who spoke were a Republican and Democratic state representative who have teamed up to pass new legislation next year to conserve farmland, and asked for support from the Consortium. In addition, mayors from suburbs in Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo agreed to join suburbs in Cleveland to expand the First Suburbs Consortium into a statewide organization.

Yet even as the idea gains strength, Montlack and other First Suburbs leaders also recognize the opposition they face from Ohio’s sprawling outer suburbs, and from development interests. Realtors, home builders, and outer ring mayors have largely thrown their support behind legislators who oppose changes in state economic development priorities. In Medina County, which grew 48 percent from 1970 to 1990 and is fast transforming itself from corn fields to subdivisions, business support for new highways is strong.

Ohio, like Michigan and other midwestern states, has long been poised for a decisive debate on sprawl. This is a state that has been defined by regional distinctions in geography and civic character. Ohio, on the one hand, is one of the most urbanized states in the country, with a concentration of 16 metropolitan areas each with more than 150,000 people. On the other hand, more than half of Ohio’s 26.3 million acres is devoted to farming.

Runaway growth and development in rural Ohio is beginning to blur the distinctions in an ooze of new highways, malls, subdivisions, and office parks that are spreading out into the countryside at an astonishing pace. From 1954 to 1992, Ohio lost 1.4 million acres of farmland, according to a state task force report.

According to David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M. and author of Cities without Suburbs, Ohio’s population grew by just 13 percent from 1960 to 1990. During the same period, the urbanization of land increased by 64 percent. In other words, Ohio is using land at a rate five times as fast as the growth in population.

The trend is most worrisome in the Cleveland region. Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, lost 308,000 people from 1970 to 1990, an 18 percent decline. A report by the Ohio Housing Research Network concluded that because of Cleveland’s population drain, the five-county region surrounding the city is expected to lose 3 percent of its population by 2010. Yet the total acres devoted to new businesses and residences in outlying farm counties like Medina will increase by 30 percent. Summed up: The Cleveland metropolitan region is experiencing sprawl without growth.

These sorts of trends, and the dislocations and hardship they cause in urban communities, were familiar to planners and several academics in Cleveland. But they attracted scarce attention in city councils, political circles, and the media until the early 1990s, when three related events occurred.

The first was the founding in 1992 of EcoCity Cleveland, a monthly journal of reporting and commentary about the harm sprawl was causing to the metropolitan region. The magazine’s Harvard-educated editor and chief correspondent, David Beach, had attracted considerable attention as a freelance columnist for Cleveland’s alternative press by writing about neighborhood organizing, the environment, and economic development. EcoCity Cleveland, which quickly gained 1,000 subscribers, was one of the first magazines in the country to report on the links between sprawl, the environment, civic redevelopment, and quality of life for a general audience. “All along, we’ve tried not just to complain about environmental problems but to try to provide a positive vision of how things can change,” said Beach.

Nominated twice for journalistic excellence by the Utne Reader, EcoCity Cleveland helped to frame sprawl as an issue of urgent and compelling interest for Cleveland’s media and political leaders. “It is so easy to read, and so broad in the kind of information they are gathering and conveying through that publication,” said Thomas Bier, director of Housing Policy Research at Cleveland State University. “It has made a major contribution in public education and in orienting officials, the public, and so many others to what this discussion is all about. People aren’t stupid. They just did not have the opportunity to read and see and hear what the dynamics of the region were all about until EcoCity Cleveland came along.”

The second event was the publication in 1993 of “The Church and the City,” a resounding moral statement written by Bishop Anthony Pilla of the Cleveland diocese that opposed sprawl and the policies that encourage disinvestment. Prompted by declining membership and economic vitality — the number of Catholics in Cleveland dropped from 234,786 in 1950 to 126,600 in 1990 — Bishop Pilla said it was a moral imperative to reverse the outward migration because of the damage it was causing to the city, and increasingly the inner suburbs.

“If this imbalance of investment continues, we can expect even more urban decline,” wrote Bishop Pilla. “Stable neighborhoods will erode. The inner suburbs will soon follow. Spreading decline will spawn even more stress among people and institutions. The fiscal strength of the county government will weaken, further jeopardizing the region’s ability to compete in the global economy.”

And the third event was the decision by Cleveland’s funding community, especially the George Gund Foundation, to support EcoCity Cleveland, the Housing Policy Research Program at Cleveland State, and other groups working on growth management in the region.

The combination of a respected journalistic voice, a revered religious leader, and sustained funding changed how Cleveland viewed outer suburban growth, and made it clear to city and inner ring suburban leaders that decline was neither inevitable nor unsolveable. Sprawl became a running news story in the Cleveland media. Some citizens in outer suburbs began to mobilize around the idea of halting the advance of strip malls and big box stores in their communities. Leaders of the first ring suburbs began talking to each other about disinvestment and how to combat it.

“Somehow it all just began to make sense to me and my colleagues in other first suburbs,” said Montlack. “There are 59 separate municipalities in Cuyahoga County, and we all thought of ourselves as 59 separate city states, all toiling pretty much in isolation. At one of our city council retreats in 1996, I suggested we try to conduct some outreach for better cooperation. That was the beginning of the First Suburbs Consortium.

“There are some very smart, very savvy mayors who understand innately the problem we all face,” Montlack added. “We want to change policies from those that subsidize outmigration and disinvestment in our communities, to those that promote redevelopment and nurturing of our neighborhoods. We have this window of opportunity now to accomplish that goal.”

About the Author
Keith Schneider is a writer and executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Benzonia.

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