Beyond Buildings


Making a City Work

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I attended a community meeting this weekend in my hometown, Cincinnati. I was one of several hundred people who were supposed to give some thoughts on the comprehensive planning document the city is developing. It certainly is long overdue, as the last general plan is 25 years old and did not accomplish much. Cincinnati has all the problems of a former industrial city, though it is not in as bad of shape as its sisters to the north. Partially, this is the result of geography; the city’s many hills and dales helps foster identity and variety, and its lush greenery hides—at least in the summer—much ill. Cincinnati also is economically more diversified that most of the rustbelt cities. It is home to P&G, Kroger, and Macy’s, to name just the most well-known corporations clustered in its still-viable downtown.
But what will it become? What is any American city going to be in this century? Like all urban cores, Cincinnati is sprawling: since 1960 it has lost 40 percent of its population, while the metropolitan area has doubled and, after Dayton is included in the 2010 census, will encompass well over 2 million people. Most of them do not live within comfortable driving distance of downtown and have little reason to go there. Moreover, Cincinnati is competing with countless other cities for investment and jobs, and may lose several of its large corporations—as have Pittsburgh and Cleveland, for instance.
What the city has going for it is art and landscape. That might sound self-serving as the director of our art museum, but there are few, if any cities in this country that can match the Queen City with a top orchestra, several art museums, a good opera and theater company, and oddites such as our annual May Festival choral event. At the University of Cincinnati, the best schools, according to national rankings, are those of music and design. You can even connect this focus on creativity on what the city’s large corporations do best, namely package and sell products and images.
As for the landscape, this is where the glaciers that scoured the Midwest flat ended and melted into what is now the Ohio River, leaving a varied terrain looking toward the sylvan splendors of Kentucky. The geology helps make this into a distinctive place.
So, what can planning do to build on those strengths? I believe the city should be investing in iconic attractors located strategically around this sprawling landscape. These could be visual and performing arts centers, schools (whether charter or not I leave to others for the moment), or recreational facilities, and they should be scaled from the regional or national to the local. This being a conservative city, the focus right now is on renovation of existing and often mediocre structures, while the city should be building for the future.
It should connect these attractors with a strong public transportation system mimicking the old streetcar system that ran up and down the hills and valleys, but extending out into the furthest reaches of sprawl. It should promote transit-oriented development along these lines and coordinate them with the cultural and educational anchors.   
Parallel to this network, and intertwined with it, Cincinnati should further develop its already excellent park system. There have been several plans to do so, and new parks have appeared on the river here, but these green fingers must be larger in scale and more continuous.
One thing the city does not need is to focus all of its energy on downtown. That has become the control center for the region, a home to headquarters and government. It also has become an entertainment center filled with bars and restaurants. Build on that; do not try to turn it back into the integrated urban core it was 50 years ago.
The recipe is standard for our current urban situation in the United States: attract, frame, connect, and collect, all by building with, rather than on, the land. Acknowledge sprawl and make it work. Invest in the institutions that make the place work and make it worth being here. Every city in America should be doing this, though few are. They claim not to be able to afford to do so (there is an especially venal anti-tax movement in Cincinnati), not to want to and not to have the necessary unified reach (Cincinnati as a city is only a small part of the region). My answer is that we cannot afford not to rebuild our cities.  Otherwise, they will crumble around us, and 50 years from now Cincinnati will, like some of its northern counterparts, be a ghost town.


Comments (4 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:58 AM Thursday, July 15, 2010

    The link for Cincinnati's comprehensive plan is incorrect. Should be

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  • Posted by: bubblement | Time: 9:19 PM Wednesday, March 10, 2010

    Thank you Aaron for taking the time to approach Cincinnati's strategy from the perspective of an art enthusiast. That level of culture can definitely be a catalyst, especially when its edgy and forward-thinking. I do think that downtown is heading in the right direction with its mix of uses and increase in housing stock suitable for urban loving professionals. I hope the new casino development follows your advice and sets a high benchmark for innovative design so that it also can become a new iconic attractor!

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  • Posted by: blackzack | Time: 1:38 PM Wednesday, March 10, 2010

    This insightful analysis of Cincinnati is an example of what is likely needed in many other similar-sized midwestern cities which have a heritage of 19th and 20th century industry and commerce. The by-product of this heritage was a great collection of parks, grand urban neighborhoods and noteworthy architecture. That was then and this is now - I believe Aaron is right-on about the transit needs and the associated need for "iconic attractors", preferrably along those routes, spawning truly mixed-use TOD's. The Cincinnati of our days at DAAP (I was there with Aaron) has not kept up with the infrastructure needs of today and I think Dr. Betsky has the right prescription to bring it back to good health. KUDO's.

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  • Posted by: ygogolak | Time: 12:27 PM Wednesday, March 10, 2010

    I have not been downtown Cincy since the Hadid building was under construction, but I remember it as a nice, clean environment. The City and University have done their part in attracting big name Architects, and as we see, more has to be done than that. One of the things I was flustered by is the amount of sky-bridges. We know by now that these can kill a city, especially one that is not nearly as bad of a climate region as the before mentioned northern cities. I suspect Cincinnati, as is the case with most mid-sized cities these days, is lacking in mixed use/housing. You then get into a battle of chicken or the egg with housing or amenities, and in this case I believe that you have a strong argument for landscape development.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.