Thursday, April 10th, 2014
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.