Before Trump, Cincinnati's Urban Populism
Originally published October 2013
One of the most contentious under-the-radar mayoral races heated up in Cincinnati on September 10th, with former city council representative John Cranley surging to a huge 55%-37% primary victory over previously presumed frontrunner Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls. The primary eliminates minor candidates; now, both Cranley and Qualls are still alive for November’s general election. Cranley's huge primary victory is a notable development for planners everywhere.
Cincinnati, long lumped together with many “declining” rust belt cities, is hot on the trail for “solutions” to cope with its dropping municipal population, along with its gaping budget deficit and struggling competitiveness. Many assumed an easy Qualls victory would spur a continuation of the city’s rampant recent investments in a litany of trendy new planning schemes, seen by some as the key to the city’s future. Down the road, a November loss would deal an unexpected blow that would potentially threaten that future.
These schemes include a citywide form-based code, a $130-million streetcar system, the gentrification of two key neighborhoods adjacent to downtown, and a plan to privatize the city’s parking meters in exchange for a $92 million windfall. All of the ideas have all been initiated under the belief that the city needs to grow its population, and that the key to doing so is to make the region stand out nationally. The presumption that the best way to do this is to invest heavily in the core neighborhoods, primarily downtown, presumes that hoards of new residents, especially young graduates will be lured by the array of hip new developments. With the exception of the parking deal, all of these projects were initiated with significant state or federal grants and tax credits.
As Vice Mayor, Qualls has been one of the most vocal proponents of these efforts. Her particular affinity for the parking and streetcar initiatives as essential to economic development and maintaining regional competitiveness has been a hot topic throughout the election season because Cranley, her opponent, is opposed to them. By contrast, he’s built a campaign around “jobs and core services” to meet the needs of the existing population. And while he hasn’t objected to all of the downtown redevelopment schemes, he’s much more adamantly backing a approach featuring several highway projects, including a major bridge and a new interchange.
The fight for Cincinnati is important not just because it’s a battle over dollars, but because Cincinnati has suddenly become a guinea pig for the broader redevelopment of the Rust Belt. If the city reverses its primary leanings and chooses to move forward on its current path behind Qualls in the general election, it will become perhaps the foremost national testing ground on whether “Portlandization” is the key to growing regions against national competition by kindling latent demand for dense, urban living to their city cores.
The real dynamism of the region is and will continue to be well outside the Cincinnati core. City leaders have argued that reduction in the pace of the city’s population decline from at least 2 percent every year between 2000 and 2010 down to 0.2 percent between 2010 and 2011 proves that city living really is the future of the area, they simultaneously seem to miss noticing the rapid regional growth that for several decades has dwarfed the relatively minuscule population changes occurring within the city itself.
The race to claim victory in the rejuvenation of Cincinnati among the “city core” crowd has now spurred a goal to reach 100,000 new residents by 2023, an aspiration that virtually everyone recognizes as extreme. Never in the city’s history has Cincinnati added more than 52,000 residents in a decade, even in its heyday as a national riverboat transportation hub a century and a half ago.
Coincidentally, as a region, the Cincinnati area hasn’t added fewer than 100,000 new residents since regional statistics became reliably available in the 1950s. In fact, Cincinnati is one of the fastest-growing Rust Belt areas since 1980. The idea of a need to “solve” Cincinnati’s “decline” is inaccurate; it says far more about the aesthetics of saving the city’s central area and shoring up municipal finances than about a benevolent intent to help the city’s broader regional growth, though the latter is typically the stated motive.
Even more pertinent to the objective of adding population by luring residents from other cities is the fact that between 2000 and 2010 no city in the nation that lost population regionally gained population in its core city or in its central downtown. There is almost no evidence of any city successfully rejuvenating its region through downtown reinvestment. While Cincinnati (the region) has been growing, adding 100,000 people to the city core would do little to increase net demand for the area that the region isn’t providing for already, and would most likely represent a heavily subsidized “redistribution” of people from the region’s outlying cities and towns. While just as good for Cincinnati’s municipal tax rolls, it’s hardly realistic to link that to any sort of push to lure “the talent that every city competes for”.
Clearly, the growth Cincinnati leaders are seeking is already coming, and in volumes far exceeding their wildest projections. Unfortunately for downtown's cheerleaders, people choosing to live have overwhelming chosen the densities best found in the suburbs. And while more choice is of course terrific, the development of a mix of densities and housing options should happen naturally, not as the product of the yearnings by some to increase a city’s dwindling piece of the regional pie for financial reasons.
Lofty talk of a region that needs dynamism downtown to lure talent from other cities, hence more population to help pay for budget deficits, doesn’t really make sense. The talent that wants to come is already coming — it's just not coming to downtown, and it’s coming at a rapid (for the Rust Belt) rate. Any downtown investment may lure growth from the suburbs, but is unlikely to lure growth from outside.
While many would contend that luring growth from a city’s own suburbs is a good thing to combat sprawl and undue “suburban flight”, the situation in regional Cincinnati suggests that there really is a happy density that people are choosing, and that people really do like what they’re getting in the suburbs.
Cincinnati's suburban growth over the last several decades has far outpaced population loss from the city by taking advantage of the region’s infrastructural assets: developing along the I-75 corridor north to Dayton, and filling the I-275 loop around the city. Contrary to conventional wisdom, neither the growth nor the emerging densities have been radial. The region’s hubs have become less dense, while the more lightly-populated areas around the highways have become more dense. The average difference in the densities of the region’s many cities and towns is dropping rapidly. In other words, outside of the city core, Cincinnati is settling into a comfortable regional density.
Uniquely well-served by exurban highways, development has continued at these remarkably consistent low densities. There's been little pressure on home values, and virtually zero formation of any new “nodes” of higher density, all because high-speed highway transportation to the major job centers is quickly accessible from a huge land area, and Dayton and Cincinnati, the region’s two largest job hubs, are only 45 minutes apart. Commute times have stayed shorter in Cincinnati than in nearly all other cities. Congestion is low by national standards, and the profile of transit use as opposed to other means of travel is virtually unchanged.
Clearly, adequate room and infrastructure exists: the densities emerging in regional Cincinnati reflect broadly emerging preferences for the future of this part of the country. Coincidentally, they also reflect almost exactly the idyllic utopian idea espoused by Frank Lloyd Wright of one family per acre.