Jason Segedy doesn’t often post articles, but when he does they are always worth reading. Earlier this year, Strong Towns reposted one of his pieces, which is about sprawl without growth. Jason takes a look at some of the implications of Northeast Ohio’s current development pattern.
Issues of perception aside, we in Northeast Ohio are dealing with some hellishly difficult issues today. Our 12-county region has lost seven percent of its population since 1970, falling from 4.1 million to 3.8 million people. But instead of shrinking our footprint, we’ve done the exact opposite. The region developed an additional 250 square miles of land (over three times the land area of the City of Cleveland) between 1979 and 2006 – a 21% expansion.
Meanwhile, our four core cities continue to deteriorate and hollow-out.
People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline. Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.
These four cities, which, in 1950, all ranked among the 100 largest in America, are today, added together, smaller than Cleveland was in 1950. Cleveland, the 7th largest American city in 1950, ranks 45th (and dropping) today. Akron, Canton, and Youngstown have all dropped out of the top 100.
It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively 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 that, today, serves less than half of that amount.
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, while tens of thousands more are sitting vacant and abandoned today.
Short of intentional action to do otherwise, the future of our core cities looks even worse. According to the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), the region can expect to abandon an additional 175,000 houses between now and 2040. That’s a staggering 18 houses per day, day-in and day-out, for the next 27 years. If current trends continue, very few of them will be rebuilt in place.
The cost of removing all of those abandoned houses is estimated to be around $1.75 billion dollars. Federal, state, regional, or private funding to address the problem is unlikely to materialize.
If you are skeptical about this future projection, the future is already here. Today, over 15,000 houses in Cleveland sit abandoned. In Akron, the number is around 2,300. And in Youngstown, a city of 65,000, that used to have 170,000 residents, an estimated 5,000 abandoned houses and 20,000 vacant lots pose a problem almost too overwhelming to comprehend.
So taxpayers at the federal, state, and local level already paid once to build all of the infrastructure that was in place prior to 1960. Now, they are in the process of paying a second time to build a largely redundant duplicate infrastructure in many of the areas that have been developed since 1960.
The end result, with the region’s population aging, and predicted to grow by less than 100,000 people over the next three decades, is a lot more infrastructure with the same amount of people to pay for it. This means more public debt, higher taxes, and probably both.
In the coming decades, many of the areas developed since 1960 will face a similar dilemma to the one that the core cities are facing today: spend money that you don’t have to maintain infrastructure in an effort to stave off abandonment, or slowly watch previous hard-won investments in housing, economic development, and public infrastructure wither and die.
The 21st Century will mark the first time the United States has ever had to replace a modern public infrastructure. We’ve never had to comprehensively rebuild a modern water and sewer system, transportation network, or electrical grid. The staggering expenditure associated with doing this is going to be an unpleasant wake-up call for a notoriously short-sighted culture.
Did I mention that our country is $17 trillion in debt? This wasn’t the case when we modernized our much less extravagant 19th century infrastructure in older cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.
But it is not the maintenance and replacement costs that will be our ultimate undoing. It is the fact that we are doubling, tripling, and quadrupling-down on this unfunded liability, by continuing to build outward. No one in human history has ever attempted to do what we are doing. That is, to build a modern, urban infrastructure at what is, in-effect, a semi-rural scale.
So where are we in Northeast Ohio today?
- Our core cities have collectively lost 750,000 people since 1950.
- Hundreds of thousands of residents currently lack access to social and economic opportunities that people like me (and likely, you) take for granted
- Tens of thousands of houses in our core cities and inner-ring suburbs currently sit vacant and abandoned.
- An additional 175,000 houses (18 per day, for the next 27 years) are projected to be abandoned, and it would cost close to $2 billion to remove them.
- Suburban areas are building more infrastructure than they will be able to afford to maintain, especially in the long-term.
- Absent a will to change this unhealthy dynamic, we will repeat this cycle in community after community, until we are broke.
Click through to read the whole thing.