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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Neighborhood Summit Recap

Over 600 concerned local citizens turned up at last weekend's Neighborhood Summit, Step Two in involving the public in Plan Cincinnati, a new comprehensive plan being drafted by the City. While the meat and potatoes of the event were the small-group sessions focused on seven "Project Elements" (Housing and Neighborhood Development; Economic Development and Business Retention; Transportation and Transit; Health, Environment and Open Space; Historic Preservation; Urban Design; and, Arts and Culture) the highlights of the day were the two featured speakers: Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and Anthony Williams JD, former Mayor of Washington D.C.

Williams' talk was a straight-forward explanation of the Washington D.C. Comprehensive Plan that he oversaw in office, and while his delivery utilized dry wit and the invocation of insights from our Founding Fathers, it was Bernstein's presentation that fascinated outright, striking at some of the key issues Cincinnati must address with its Comprehensive Plan.

Bernstein spoke predominantly on the drawbacks of an automobile-centric transportation network and two points especially stood out. First, he shared a graph charting the rise and fall of gas prices, followed by a graph almost perfectly shadowing the first line, but on a lag of about six months time: the rate of foreclosures. Our level of fuel dependency is dependent on our living locations, to the point where many people are just plain stuck when gas rises to excruciating price-points.

Expanding on that idea, Bernstein then demonstrated how chasing lower housing costs out away from a city's center could actually wind up crippling a household's financial flexibility. Since transportation costs are largely a function of the distance one lives from work, social and educational opportunities, the two expenses ought to be looked at together, and Bernstein showed that in a "Drive Til You Qualify" market -- areas that are chiefly auto-dependent -- a commitment to suburban and exurban life is also a commitment to increased transportation expenses.

Bernstein demonstrated that, on average, a household saving $6k in monthly housing costs ends up sinking up 77% of their income into housing and transport, combined. Spend that extra $6,000 to live closer to where you learn, work and play, and the average household could end up with over 50% of their income still in their pockets -- money which can then spur growth in a diverse local economy. Preemptively addressing the mass-transit critic, who might scoff at New Urbanist cities such as Portland, Bernstein quipped, "People who maybe don't travel a lot think, Oh, Portland, they're a 'fuzzy' kind of people. Well, yeah: they're fuzzy all the way to the bank."

After Bernstein spoke, citizens weighed in on the Project Elements in their respective small groups, offering opinions on how initiatives should be prioritized, and brainstorming ways to achieve goals such as being "a city with inviting and engaging public spaces" and having "economically diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods."

Even after three such hour-long sessions, the real work is ahead; over the next six months working groups will meet to turn the initial feedback from the Neighborhood Summit into strategies aimed to realize each element. The working groups are open to all. Visit for more information.


theargylist said...

Notably absent from the "Project Elements" is education. Without improving urban public school districts, it's hard to imagine middle class families moving back from the suburbs. Gas prices may rise, but the extra costs and time commuting are low on the list when middle class families consider where to live. Schools remain the number-one concern of these families.

Without focusing on education, urbanists will create urban communities that only attract wealthy families who can afford private schools, childless young people, and retirees. If the city doesn't fix the schools, a "mixed-income neighborhood" is unrealistic.

Jeremy said...

While the small-groups focused on the seven Project Elements listed above, there are several Elements that are included in the scope of Plan Cincinnati, but were not covered at the Neighborhood Summit... "Institutions" being one. I know that includes our universities. I'm not sure if it involves CPS as well.

I'd strongly advise reaching out to the Plan Cincinnati folks if you feel strongly about making Education its own Element. I know that the "Arts & Culture" element was added to the project only after constituents suggested it be included.

Jeremy said...

Duh. Two minutes of digging and I discovered that, according to the Plan Cincinnati website, "Institutions" includes "colleges & universities" as well as "school." (See all the Project Elements with brief descriptions here: )

Strange, though, that they wouldn't solicit citizen feedback at the Summit on such a democratic, hot-button issue...

theargylist said...

Jeremy, I appreciate your thoughts. My concern is that public education is rarely ever discussed as a key issue for urban revitalization. You often hear about public transportation, public space, reinvestment in communities, etc.

But as much as we love the idea of taking a streetcar to a Reds game, or how nice it is to be able to walk to the grocery store, we often ignore why people have abandoned older urban centers. I think public education is probably the most obvious reason. If we are really committed to reinvigorating our center-city, we need to address the problems of public schools. The inefficiencies of suburban living are meaningless to many middle class suburbanites solely because of this issue.

Considering the rising costs of private schooling (look at how much more expensive Catholic schools are now versus 10 years ago), most middle class would-be-Cincinnatians don't have a choice. It's either live in the suburbs or deprive your children of a quality education. The bistros, wine bars, and outdoor concerts (and even the streetcar) are nice, but they are not the meat-and-potatoes infrastructure that will revitalize the urban core.

Randy Simes said...


You're absolutely right that public education is a serious issue that we must not forget when discussing the desirability of our cities for families with children.

With that said, it can be difficult to handle these issues since the City of Cincinnati does not oversee Cincinnati Public Schools or any school district inside city limits for that matter. Plan Cincinnati can, should and certainly will engage Cincinnati Public Schools and families with children, but the focus of a comprehensive plan is usually more so on the areas the City can have a direct impact (transportation, urban design, environment, etc).

Interestingly enough, the Mayor's Young Professionals Kitchen Cabinet even has an education committee. Not necessarily something you would think would be of interest to young professionals, but it is something the young leaders of Cincinnati have identified as being a crucial element when it comes to Cincinnati's future success.

Jeremy said...

Michaele Pride is co-chair of the Plan Cincinnati Steering Committee and has mentioned that connectivity w/in and between neighborhoods is vital being strong citywide. To paraphrase, It needs to be easy for people to have access to good schools (and jobs, etc). I'm not sure how a Planning Department can directly affect the quality of school options, beyond putting them all within reach, and possibly incentivizing future development for education, to make sure facilities are high-quality and well-located. I'm definitely all ears for other ideas; I'm just coming up short in this department.

Really -- and this is going to sound like a cop-out -- if we build a better city with a sound Comp Plan, we'll grow our tax base, thereby putting more resources in CPS's hands. It's a start at least...

P-Newt said...

Hardly a cop out. The educational issues arise from funding. The problem is inner-city schools don't function as well because schools are standard based and egalitarian. The standards are low to meet certain requirements, but when certain children lack family support for education, they slow down the rest of their class. This provides for less opportunities for brighter, fully supported children to advance (i.e. lack of meaningful challenges). Hence, the demand for a private (often Catholic) education. As certain families moved away from the city looking for better public schools, they took their money with them which they placed within the schools. New schools with newer resources, buoyed by a fresh thriving tax base naturally run ahead of their forgotten counterparts. I would argue this is no different than inner-ring suburbs being left behind in funding for roads/infrastructure improvements, while new communities have more money because states fund new development freely and are less apt to replace/repair due to the illusory "growth" associated with new communities.

So if the city of Cincinnati becomes more livable with the draw of taxpayers back within Cincinnati, the tax base increases, and CPS has more resources, more top level students to raise itself up from the mat. Good planning certainly is related to improved education, but not necessarily something that must be targeted directly as CPS needs to develop its own plan for improvement. The massive renovation/rebuliding project is a great start and should play well into the Plan Cincinnati objectives.

P-Newt said...

And let's not forget how great Walnut Hills, Clark Montessori, and SCPA really are...these are nationally recognized schools for excellence.

Quimbob said...

What Lord Newton said.
Also see local blog article.

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