Northeast Ohio’s existential challenge

The problem of expanding infrastructure as population decreases

Our 12-county region has lost 7 percent of its population since 1970, but our developed footprint has done the exact opposite, expanding by 21 percent (an additional 250 square miles) between 1979 and 2006. Meanwhile, our four core cities — Cleveland, Akron, Canton and Youngstown — continue to deteriorate and hollow-out, collectively losing nearly 1 million people since their 1950s-era peak.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities and transportation infrastructure. We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people. Today, it serves less than half of that amount.

More than bricks and mortar

The effect on the most vulnerable neighborhoods located within the core cities themselves has been nothing short of catastrophic. Thousands of houses have been torn down leaving gaping holes in the urban fabric. Roads sit underutilized while the pavement crumbles away.

But this is not just a matter of bricks and mortar. As poorly as the built environment and urban landscape in these cities has fared, many of the remaining residents have fared even worse.

The poor are increasingly isolated from social and economic opportunities as the region continues to sort itself geographically by race, class and socioeconomic status. In a recent report by the Brookings Institution, Cleveland ranked 96th out of 96 metros in terms of the change in the number of jobs near the typical resident. Akron ranked 84th.

Meanwhile, the region continues to shrink, spreading the exact same population that it had in 1960 over a much larger footprint, replicating the entire housing, public utilities and transportation infrastructure that was already there to support it.

The end result is a lot more public infrastructure than we need with fewer people to pay for it. This means more public debt and higher taxes.

Everyone’s problem

We need to make our core cities more attractive to private investment to take advantage of the infrastructure that we have already built. We also need to realign state transportation and economic development policy to discourage the construction of new infrastructure.

This is a difficult problem that people of goodwill all over the ideological spectrum can and should disagree about how best to address. The solutions are not immediately apparent and will not come solely from one person, group or political party. They will not come from a couple of urban planners sitting around a table, but will instead need to involve the private sector, public officials and all of the citizens that they represent.

But first we have to acknowledge that there is a problem — a problem that we have a collective responsibility to solve. It is a problem that is not just a matter of dollars and cents. It is ultimately about people and how we ensure that everyone has access to the social and economic opportunities that people like you and me probably take for granted.

Jason Segedy is Director of Planning and Urban Development for the City of Akron where he is responsible for overseeing capital budgeting, comprehensive planning, development services and zoning for the City of Akron.