Thursday, November 12, 2009

In Jay's Humble F-ing Opinion: New Urbanism in Cincinnati

Today I was listening to a discussion on the radio (WVXU 91.7 in Cincinnati) about a plan to re-route I-75 as a bridge is being built to replace the highway's Brent Spence bridge which crosses the Ohio River into Kentucky. They were putting forth ideas to transform the Mill Creek corridor (through which the highway passes) into a more attractive area, not only in appearance, but also in usefulness and looking towards the long-term benefit of the city as a whole.

Right there I knew they'll be in trouble.

They began talking about the roles modes of transportation other than automobiles could have in the plan. Cincinnatians don't know modes of transport other than automobiles exist. Oh sure, they see planes overhead and at the airport. They might even use one at some point. They see boats as well, but see them as for someone else. Cincinnatians also see trains, but have no clue as to how they impact their lives, and likely assume that being a quaint relic of past times, they don't. And bicycles are something for children, right?

The speakers specifically mentioned bike paths and light rail/streetcars as possible elements of the revitalization of the Mill Creek corridor.

Despite the fact that all other cities that build light rail/streetcar systems experience higher property values, increased economic activity, new businesses and jobs along those lines, Cincinnatians and the residents of Hamilton County have for a long time been informed that these systems will lower their property values and increase crime. Why should that be the case here, when it has been just the opposite in every other city? Cincinnatians don't ask those questions. They accept what they are told largely because the people who tell them this are longtime fixtures in Hamilton County government (ie: officials who haven't experienced anything better). Change isn't very popular in Cincinnati/Hamilton County, which is why so many for so long have voted over and again for a Republican-dominated county board of commissioners. Republicans don't like change either. The party of values as they are; they yearn for a return to "the good old days", strong families, and simpler times.

This is where it gets weird.

The good old days, strong families, and simpler times depended largely upon streetcars/rail systems and urban centers. In our rush to the suburbs we've ignored all that. Instead of walking to work, we drive up to two hours we live so far away. There's no train or streetcar to take; and in many cases, not even a bus. We've made sure we are completely dependent upon our cars to get to work, go shopping, get the kids to school and sports practice; even to get out of our neighborhoods, now crazy communities of isolated cul-de-sacs, instead of interlocking blocks of homes, shops, and churches as before.

There's this "new urbanism" movement the speakers were talking about and how Cincinnati can benefit from it. Movements scare Cincinnatians. So does the word "urban". But new urbanism shouldn't. Basically, new urbanism is in many ways a return to the best ideas of the past. It is the idea of creating neighborhoods in which people can walk to many of the places where they shop, study, and work. A range of housing, shopping, and job types located in one community benefits all. The residents are healthier, they spend more time together, they need not drive so long or far every day, and if they must commute to work, streetcar/rail/bus systems are easily accessible, rendering the daily drive for many obsolete. Healthy, vibrant neighborhoods like this are the very things that enabled the development and sustainability of the world's great places to live, as well as created those "good old days" of which people hold so fondly.

Call it "new urbanism" or going "back to the future" if you will. Whatever you call it, and whatever your politics, it is what will propel Cincinnati successfully into the future.

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