Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Building a More Dynamic Cincinnati

This post originally appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer on April 8, 2014.

Cincinnati arguably has the greatest collection of assets of any city its size in America. So why has the region been stagnant to slow-growing for so many decades?

When you look at the stunning collection of advantages and assets of Cincinnati – its geography; the amazing dense, historic architecture (great contemporary architecture, too); top-notch cultural institutions; a large corporate presence; and so many pieces of local culture and flavor of a type that has been homogenized away in most places – it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Yet since 1970, while the U.S. has grown by nearly 52 percent in population, the Cincinnati region grew by 26 percent, only half as fast. Other than Dayton, the other surrounding metro areas have also grown about twice as fast or more than Cincinnati. Cincinnati has lagged on jobs, too.

How is this? How can Cincinnati have the best stuff, but be a growth laggard?

Part of it is that all the assets in the world don’t help you if you don’t take advantage of them. Most of these are located in Cincinnati’s delightful urban core. But Cincinnati has to some extent abandoned that core in favor of low-grade sprawl.

The city of Cincinnati has lost a big chunk of population, and its regional share dropped from about 40 percent in 1950 to only 14 percent today. By contrast, New York City is still at 45 percent regional population share today. And while it’s a slow-growing region, too, the city of New York is at an all-time high in population and is booming in many ways, such as its tech and real estate industries.

Even Hamilton County has lost population as a whole, dropping by about 120,000 since 1970. By comparison, Indianapolis’s almost identically sized Marion County gained 135,000 during the same period – this in a place with far fewer obvious assets.

What’s more, unlike its fabulous core, Cincinnati’s sprawl isn’t even that good for the most part. So Cincinnati has chosen to fight its battle where it has few marketplace advantages instead of leveraging its unique and compelling assets.

This has proven a demographically, economically and financially unimpressive strategy. Instead, urban Cincinnati and Hamilton County should align available financial resources to make the most out of the amazing urban environment and assets that exist there.

Meanwhile, the suburbs aren’t going anywhere and will continue to grow, so they should seek to do so on a higher-quality pattern that will be financially sustainable long-term. The problem with sprawl is often less about the environmental impacts than the fact that as they age, older suburbs that weren’t very high-income to begin with become financial albatrosses as they fill up with dead malls, aging and less market-attractive homes, legacy costs and similar issues. And unlike the high-quality classic architecture of the core, they’ve as yet proven less adaptable over the long term.

The wonderful collection of assets Cincinnati has may also have bred complacency. Another name for an asset is “the stuff we did yesterday.” But what are we building for tomorrow? What is our generation’s contribution to the pot?

Cities like Columbus that started out with much less understood in their gut that they needed to go out and create some things. They were hungrier. Cincinnati needs to recover some of that hunger and fire in the belly that motivates other places that are keenly aware of what they lack and are fighting every day to improve.

Cincinnati has also been plagued with deep and counterproductive community divisions. This includes the East Side-West Side split, city vs. suburb, three states, tea partiers vs. liberals, racial divisions, etc. This makes it harder to get things done than it should be because there’s no civic consensus. The streetcar debate makes that very clear.

Cincinnati needs to find a way to heal these wounds and build a durable consensus while leaving room for appropriate debate.

A strategy that works with, not against, the unique qualities and competitive advantages of Cincinnati; a more aggressive, hungry civic attitude; and a way to bridge community divides are three of the things that will help Cincinnati to realize the sustainable growth and prosperity it should have in light of the fantastic place that it is and the incredible assets it has.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Sustainability
Cities: Cincinnati

74 Responses to “Building a More Dynamic Cincinnati”

  1. Nicole says:

    “I’m not comparing as much as contrasting them. The relationship is/ should be complementary with one city doing what the other can’t.”

    I was referring to Mr. Renn’s piece and the comparison often made between Cincinnati’s comparative lack of success in population growth. I agree with you for the most part but Cincinnati as a region does need more growth.

    Part of the problem is Cincinnati isn’t as attractive to many living in the Midwest. Lets say someone from San Francisco and someone from Grandview Indiana both take a trip to Cincinnati and Indianapolis. The person from San Francisco will probably be more impressed with Cincinnati but will be unlikely to move there. The person from Grandview will probably prefer Indy and be more likely to move there.

    Cincinnati hasn’t done enough to attract people from places that would appreciate it and it is more difficult to get on the list of someone living on a coastal city. Of course Cincinnati also hasn’t done enough to improve its cool urban neighborhoods but the effort is much improved lately.

  2. John Morris says:

    I think we both agree.

    Pittsburgh, which you mentioned as sort of a model is actually not growing as an overall region. What it is doing is growing at the core in a fairly reasonable way.

  3. Nicole says:

    Yes I mean take ideas from each other where each has found success. Pittsburgh is probably the most similar city to Cincinnati in the country and they have similar problems.

    I think Cincinnati should market itself more to Detroit and Chicago to offset some of the advantages cities like Columbus, Indianapolis and Nashville have in attracting residents from small town and rural areas. Cincinnati has several neighborhoods that are as cool as anything in Chicago and are much cheaper but not as active. People from Detroit also seem to like Cincinnati.

  4. DaveOfRichmond says:

    I’m surprised that this: “…a large corporate presence…” seems to be accepted by everyone as an advantage. It’s been argued that one of Detroit’s problems was an economy dominated by large corporations – leads to local pols favoring those big guys over smaller challengers who may be a threat to their control over the workforce, plus big corp’s tend to foster the kind of complacency that is mentioned in the post (i.e. non-entrepreneurial, non-risk taking). Have these things not been an issue in Cincy? What spinoffs has the region seen from P&G or Federated or Kroger?

  5. Rod Stevens says:

    Dave of Richmond:

    I agree with you about the corporate presence. One of the things that always made me weary of Cincinnati was the big corporate presence, the domination of a package goods firm that stands for every that is main stream. I’m sure that lots of fine corporate jobs come out of that, but what air does it leave in the room for the “Tom’s of Maine”, the “Burt’s Bees”, and all the other alternative products that have been growing up since the mid 1980s, when Diane Keaton made a film about dropping out of the rat race and moving to Vermont to make healthy baby food. The U.S. as an economy has moved away from such giant “convener companies”, for better or worse, towards a model of corporate partnerships in which small and mid-sized companies work as peers. There are research downsides to that, of course, but it does take us a lot closer to the German model of a rich, dense, diverse set of producers who have learned how to sell their expertise to a variety of customers, many of these in foreign markets. Has Cincinnati does that?

  6. Nicole says:

    The corporations of Cincinnati have not historically done much to try to improve the region. However, in the past decade and especially since the riots some of the biggest corporations in the city have made concerted efforts to improve the core. After the riots the business community decided that they wanted and needed a nicer inner city to attract YPs and they formed 3cdc which is behind the redevelopment of Over the Rhine and a lot of projects in the CBD. They have in the last five years or so started investing in the startup community with accelerators like the Brandery and Cintrifuse. A lot of big corporations feel that the creativity and innovation associated with startups is good for their business. Akebia, one of the region’s most successful startups, is a Proctor and Gamble spinoff. Corporations will invest in a city if they see it as advantageous to them, which Cincy’s corporations seem to be doing lately. We’ll see what happens with their new found investment in the city and if it continues.

  7. Matthew Hall says:

    John. Visit Newport and Covington in Kentucky, Downtown, Over the Rhine, and Mt Adams (They border each other) Clifton, University Heights (They border each other), Hyde Park, East Walnut Hills, and Oakley (they border each other somewhat) in Ohio.

  8. Matthew Hall says:

    P & G, GE Aviation, Macy’s, Krogers, and Children’s Hospital have had a role in the creation of many companies in Cincinnati.

  9. Things that stick out at me. Noticed it when I was in Cincy the last couple days and even in this comment thread. The way that Cincinnati the city is seen as distinct and separate from the rest of the region, as if it isn’t even linked.

    Also no mention of the elephant in the room on Cincinnati: the extreme social conservatism. It’s probably changed somewhat and I’m sure the OTR hipsters don’t share that view. Yet it’s a huge overhang for the city. You can’t just point at physical assets and neglect that aspect of reality. Columbus is known as a very gay friendly city, for example. Maybe the gay capital of Ohio.

  10. John Morris says:

    That and the general location were the main reason It never was on my of possible places to move. I knew it would be beautiful & just felt it wasn’t safe to fall in love with buildings alone.

  11. Dan Wolf says:

    Lot of good points made regarding city uniqueness and playing to their strengths. Again, I believe a recognition of this and a more cooperative super regional outlook would help the relatively closely situated cities of the eastern Midwest.
    Regarding the city/suburb divergent perspectives; the greater common interests of the region I think is understood. It was pointed out that all folks want to feel that their neighborhood is getting a fair share of benefits for their share of taxes paid. Many of the corporate HQ managers probably live in the suburbs, I know so. I don’t think this “divide” is as big as Aaron and a few others may think. I grew up in the suburbs and didn’t have this perspective; nor did my parents, aunts, uncles, etc. So many favorable efforts are under way that I believe everyone will be able to see that Cincy isn’t as divided as some suggest.
    Aaron, I appreciate Cincinnati’s social conservatism. I don’t think it is “extreme”. It may be one of the few major city/regions in the country where the moral values of the early 1960s and before still prevail. I prefer that. Those who prefer otherwise can join another city/region. Is that Fair? In a great big country people have cultural choices as to where they wish to live. Regarding Columbus, I grew up there for seven years. Nice city and all, but I don’t wish to live in the “gay capital” of anywhere. Isn’t it alright to hold my Christian values and live where I find the culture more to my liking? I would like to be respected for my values as well, without recriminations from anyone. Where is all that “diversity and tolerance” storehouse?
    Cincy is great in many ways as has been noted by many in this blog, including our host Aaron. Cincinnati’s conservative culture produced many of its great legacy assets, including the many corporate HQs. Let Cincinnati be itself and market itself to whomever and where ever it wishes. As noted, many innovations are occurring here.
    I thought new urbanism included the ideas that each city/region has its own personality and characteristics due to the values of the peoples who built the metropolis. That is distinctive. Would anyone here expect Charleston S.C. to have the personality of say Newark or Phoenix?
    I think the business leaders and many others are working well together in downtown Cincy. They no doubt live in different areas of the city and suburbs. A vibrant and grand city is more on display every day. Cincinnati is attracting a lot of positive attention.

  12. Nicole says:

    I think many of the most passionate defenders of the city (defenders of the urban areas only) did not grow up in the urban areas of the region. Many who love the inner city are well aware of the conservatism of the area because they grew up with it, myself included. (I don’t live in inner city Cincy but I am rooting for those who are trying to make it a better place. A better place meaning somewhere with beautiful surroundings that is a more liberal and open society and has controlled crime. This is obviously a fantasy utopia but we can’t help but dream of something better in our hometown.)

    The urban areas of the region are seen as more open and liberal, and a place where you can rebel against what you hear on things like 700 WLW, the local AM talk radio station. Many of those “OTR hipsters” you refer to have family with much more conservative views living in the burbs. The city is viewed as “theirs” in a way that the suburbs are not.

    Likewise, those crazy kids trying to gentrify the inner city are living in an area that seems foreign to people outside the city because the middle and upper classes have not lived in some of these areas for over fifty years and rarely ventured there. There are still many in the suburbs who associate the city with crime and danger and fear the lower income African Americans who live there. Some of the angst about city gentrification is also that lower income African Americans are being pushed their way. Many of the liberals in the inner city won’t admit it but they also wouldn’t mind lower income African Americans being priced out of places like Over the Rhine if it means that crime drops. These are significant tensions and in this respect race relations haven’t improved much.

  13. EJ says:


    There are significant economic tradeoffs that come with maintaining an exclusionary culture, which is at the core of the social conservatism that Cincy is legendary/notorious for, which is what I think Aaron is getting at.

    Cincinnati has a wealth of cultural and physical assets (built and natural) unmatched by any other city in the surrounding tri-state region, yet in terms of growth it has become a real laggard, while the satellite cities that once looked up to it and regarded it as a regional capital have in many respects caught up to and surpassed it, or are on a trajectory to do so. Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Lexington have each grown significantly to become fairly respectable cities in their own right, but each would burn itself to the ground if doing so meant that it could be reborn and reconstructed possessing even a mere third of Cincy’s assets.

    Put another way, if Columbus held Cincy’s cultural and physical assets, in addition to its open and welcoming attitude towards diversity, it would truly be the Midwestern equivalent of San Francisco and perhaps even compete with Chicago for the limelight. But Columbus just has the culture. It will never have the natural and built physical and cultural assets that Cincy does.

    Cincy on the other hand does have the assets, but not the culture. Unlike Columbus, it can work on its problem areas. Cincy can work on addressing its culture, but hasn’t done so meaningfully up to this point. That it has not done so appears to be what has held it back economically and growth-wise while also allowing its regional capital status to be thrown into dispute.

    I suspect Cincinnati will always be notably conservative to some degree, but it need not be so in such a way and to such an extent that it stifles its own ability to thrive and prosper in the 21st century. In an increasingly global world, no city of any relevance can afford to keep itself socially and culturally isolated.

  14. Chris Barnett says:

    Dan, certainly it seems that many people are like you in that they want to live in a place where their attitudes and beliefs are shared by many or most people. But others of us favor a live and let live culture.

    No one is suggesting that you can’t believe and act as you wish, but it is an American axiom that your rights don’t extend to dictating others’ choices and beliefs; the conservative Christian movement seems to expend an awful lot of time and money trying to enshrine their reading of the Bible in law. Frankly, that repels moderates, who decide elections.

    I would suggest that longing for an idealized bygone era is not productive for people or for urban areas.

  15. Kerry says:

    I am amazed at the boilerplate stereotype comments by many commenters regarding the “extreme” conservatism of Cincinnati. This may be true if you are comparing Cincinnati to NY, LA, Chicago but definitely not when compared to Indy, Columbus, Louisville, Lexington, etc. I have lived in Cincy as well as Indy, Louisville and Columbus when I worked for a medical device manufacturer. The people I met in Cincy were overall less conservative than Indy and Louisville and about the same as Columbus. The stereotype of ultra-conservative Cincinnati was probably true decades ago but certainly not now. The most extremely conservative people I have interacted with in business over the last 15 years are all in Indianapolis, Louisville and Lexington. The Columbus metro area is no mecca of liberal thought and lifestyle acceptance as well. They are the beneficiaries of some strong tolerant ideals by political leaders but certainly not the overall population. The “lifestyle acceptance” is concentrated in a small area of the metro area. Beyond that area it is conservatism in the extreme. If you doubt this just take a look at the last decade of presidential elections in Cincinnati vs Columbus. Columbus went with John McCain and Mitt Romney the last 2 elections. Cincinnati went with Obama both times. From my experience in the downtown areas and reaching into the suburbs of each city, the stereotype of Cincinnati ultra-conservatism doesn’t hold up.

  16. John Morris says:

    Does seem somewhat unlikely that the majority of city residents are extreme social conservatives.

    Southwestern Ohio usually is seen as a social conservative stronghold in a swing state- just like the Cleveland area is seen as a “corrupt” union stronghold.

    My guess is if Cincinnati was a conservative city in a majority (social) conservative state- it wouldn’t be as noticed. The perception- is certainly a big issue for Cincinnati.

  17. wkg in bham says:

    I hope this is taken in the right spirit: the problem is not that the conservative class is too conservative, but the the criminal underclass is too criminal.

  18. wkg in bham says:

    To expand upon my previous comment a little bit. It doesn’t get any more conservative that Birmingham. I love my neighbors. They’re neat, polite, friendly, look after their kids, helpful to a fault. What more could you want? Yep, there are certain things we just don’t talk about. Birmingham is pretty much a live-and-let-live kind of place. We have a very substantial gay community that as far as I know, gets along without any problems at all. Does “roll-tide-roll” take up way more importance than it should? Of course. NASCAR? Absolutely. I think Cincinnati is probably sort of the same way. It’s Ohio for God’s sake. Get over it.

  19. Chris Barnett says:

    Marion County Indiana went twice for Obama. We are represented in Congress by Andre Carson, a Democrat who is an African American Muslim, though outlying edges of the county are represented by suburban Republicans. This hardly describes a very conservative place; since the county is only about 27% African American, the congressman relies on Caucasian voters for reelection.

  20. John Morris says:

    If one uses Pittsburgh as a model, one should remember the region as whole is not yet growing.

    What it has done is stabilize and shift growth towards the core. Aside from the North Hills/Cranberry area, there are few growing suburbs.

    The end result is of this painful process is a city better positioned for a new kind of growth based on tech, education, research & specialty manufacturing with a lower overhang of fixed infrastructure to maintain. Watching great old places and buildings fade for lack of love is still a big reality here.

  21. John Morris says:

    I guess what I’m saying is a real dynamic city doesn’t try to grow everywhere, or save everything. The great investor is defined by how rapidly they dump bad choices and shift into good ones.

  22. wkg in bham says:

    @Kerry “From my experience in the downtown areas and reaching into the suburbs of each city, the stereotype of Cincinnati ultra-conservatism doesn’t hold up.” Yes. Even within the city itself there can be a great deal of variation from neighborhood to neighborhood.

    Even at the personal level. A person can have beliefs on some things that would be called “conservative” and others that usually called “liberal”.

    I’ve never been anywhere that was monolithic that a person couldn’t find kindred spirits.

  23. EDG says:

    @ Aaron M. Renn I haven’t noticed extreme social conservatives as an elephant. It’s been 25 years since the Mapplethorpe case, the new County Sherriff is a Democrat, and the current City Council is majority Dem as well as the Mayor. There is also a very well-known gay pride parade through Northside on the 4th of July. There is a conservative political group called COAST, but it’s really just a few attorneys that sue the city to cover their fees. One of their most prominent members was kicked out of his law firm and moved to the next county after the streetcar debate was settled.

  24. EDG says:

    @ EJ I strongly disagree with the statement that Cincy has the assets and Columbus has the culture. The physical environment of Columbus is a reflection of the people that live there. The arena district is a great new development done much better than The Banks, but Covington or OTR dwarf German Village and then all you’re left with is a sleepy downtown and Short North and some outer villages. Nothing is stopping the people of Columbus from making their downtown just as urban, but they haven’t yet.

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