Making a City Work
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.