Cleveland Gets Serious About Fixing Its Problems

Facing continued economic decline and an ever-shrinking population, Cleveland, which has some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, has come up with an aggressive plan to bring the city back. The new Reimagining Cleveland sustainability vision aims to reinvest in dense urban neighborhoods, build “catalytic infrastructure,” and turn vacant, abandoned lots into green open space, commercial and residential farms, even vineyards.

At the 2011 AICP Symposium held at the National Building Museum, Robert Brown, Director of Cleveland’s City Planning Commission, says Cleveland was once the 5th most populous city in the country, but is now in 44th place, with a population of less than 400,000. Over the past few decades, 86 percent of manufacturing jobs have been lost, cutting down the 223,000 jobs the city had in the 1940s. In the past five years, there have been 40,000 foreclosures, a trend, which, unfortunately, put Cleveland on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. During the same period, the city has demolished some 5,000 abandoned homes. Still, there are approximately 20,000 vacant lots, of which 8,000 are now in the city’s “land bank.” For the city, the primary challenge is how to retain an urban form while losing half of its population. The city sees mixed-use development; “catalytic infrastructure;” green open space, urban agriculture, and greenways, as key to dealing with these immense challenges. 

Development is to now be “concentrated in stronger areas.” To decide what these areas are, the planning commission undertook a lengthy mapping process and identified “walkable urban areas,” town centers like downtown, with its comedy clubs, cafes, restaurants, and shops. There are also efforts to revitalize the city center with a new “medical mart,” a one-stop medical facility, which will be linked to rebuilding the city’s older convention center. Nearby, Ohio’s first casino will open in an abandoned department store, all in an effort to increase people density, and bring in more restaurants and stores. “We want to get people on the streets.” Neighborhood arts districts, which Brown said “work much bettter in older urban cores,” are also key areas for investment, along with “live-work” districts in these communities. One former printing press now provides housing for artists. Other areas targeted for investment: Cleveland’s lakefront, which has been cut off by freeways and railroad. On the lakefront, there’s a new mixed-use development.

Cleveland sees bus rapid transit (BRT) as catalytic infrastructure and has invested $200 million in bring fast bus service and infrastructure to the central Euclid Avenue. There’s 4.5 miles of dedicated BRT lanes, 36 stations, 4 miles of parallel bike lanes, and new streetscapes and public art. Like many cities that have put in BRT (see earlier post), the results have been dramatic: Brown said the new system and streetscapes have led to $4.3 billion in new development, with 11.4 million square feet of new building space. Along this corridor, there’s mixed-use and mixed-income developments, including “supportive housing” for homeless, along with a new Museum of Contemporary Art. 

One new infrastructure project, the “Cleveland Opportunity Corridor,” will create Complete Streets through vacant, underutilized neighborhoods. Brown made a point of saying these “weren’t freeways” but will include bike paths, sidewalks, and green infrastructure. Another will create a new path under the freeways so there will be easier access to the beaches from neighboring communities. Also included in those plans are new multi-use trails and a lakefront development.

For the land that has “no market for development,” Cleveland is starting to think more creatively. Brown said the land will be used for green infrastructure, soil remediation, urban agriculture, or renewable energy. Much like Detroit, another large-yet-shrinking city (see earlier post), Cleveland is putting its natural resources to work in an effort to improve health equity throughout the city. As Brown noted, the average life expectancy within parts of the city is 64 years, while 88.5 is the average lifespan for residents in wealthier suburbs. Brown said about half of the difference is due to “diet and exercise.”

To “water our food deserts” and provide healthier food alternatives, Cleveland has totally revamped its codes on urban agriculture. Vineyards, orchards, and bee hives are now acceptable, along with small-scale and large, commercial urban farms. One 6-acre site is farmed by refugees, while a 26-acre “urban agriculture innovation zone” is in the works with USDA and local universities acting as key partners. One 5-acre indoor, worker-owned cooperative greenhouse will be put up in a low-income neighboorhood in an effort to create green jobs. Farmer’s markets are sprouting up everywhere.

In some areas, new rules enable urban gardens and also prohibit other uses, meaning that some land can only be used for urban gardening. Chickens, ducks, and rabbits (up to 6) are now permitted. For spots with further set-backs, gees, roosters, turkeys, and even pigs, sheep, and goats are now allowed. New ordinances mean that the “principle” use of some residential areas can be farms, with farm stands for selling produce and composting. There are also smart incentives: Like Detroit, Cleveland now offers to lease vacant land from its land bank for $1 if the tenant agrees to create and maintain a commercial urban farm (see earlier post). These farmers can get $3,000 to buy seeds, fertilizers, and equipment. Other pilot projects focus on applying phytoremediation to brownfields (see an animation) and introducing native landscapes. The goal is to ensure every Cleveland resident lives walking distance from a community garden. The city is also going to start using “health impact assessments” to measure the impacts, if any, of all their re-zoning efforts.

Explore Reimagining Cleveland’s growing list of innovative projects.

Image credit: Chateau Hough, Cleveland / Reimagining Cleveland

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