There are two types of cities that I have worked in, though I’m sure others abound. My experience however has been either economically-driven cities (Dallas, OKC) or equitably-driven cities (Cleveland, Columbus to some extent). For the economically-driven city, the bottom line is the bottom line. They will listen to city planners and urban designers who can offer economic development. For the equitably-driven city, it’s about quality of life for the disenfranchised.
Cleveland after all is the birthplace of “equity planning,” which is a school of thought founded by Norm Krumholz that honed in on planning for the poor to the exclusion of others. Krumholz’s philosophy, which soon caught on in most major cities, was a response to the times, following race riots from which most major cities have yet to recover. Cleveland for certain was rocked by the Hough Riots of 1966 and the Glenville Riots of 1968. The groundbreaking literature on this matter was Krumholz’s 1975 Planning Policy Report, admirably discussed in this article by his fellow FAICP predecessor Bob Brown.
Regardless of in which category a city may fall, no city is practicing planning for fun. Nobody in a major city, strapped for time and resources, has time on their hands to engage in academic exercises. Columbus is also an oddball hybrid community that is probably equally motivated by both the economy and equity. Just when you think economic development matters always win, the city’s disenfranchised communities get a big win. As far as putting our money where our mouth is: Nearly all place-based resources (CDBG, LIHTC, Urban Infrastructure Recovery Fund, grants, discretionary spending) are targeted to low-income neighborhoods, and nearly all TIF resources are targeted outside of the I-270 beltway, representing a strategy schism.
Cleveland Avenue in Columbus is the context for my most significant personal foray into equity planning – specifically the South Linden community located along Cleveland Avenue, between Hudson and 11th Avenue. This community was the focus of Ohio State’s Fall 2015 Community Design Studio with Dr. Jesus Lara, for which our client was the City of Columbus’ Celebrate One Initiative. Celebrate One is an initiative responding to Columbus’ worst-in-the-nation infant mortality statistics. After studying this matter in great detail, the city, county, Columbus Foundation, and other non-profit partners have concluded that infant mortality is spatially concentrated in areas that suffer from pollution, low walkability, high crime, economic distress, and substandard (unhealthy) housing stock.
There is a must-read study on this matter from Wash U in St. Louis. The takeaway: “Your ZIP code is a better determinant of your health than your genetic code.” When it comes to neighborhoods such as this, not only is equity planning a good approach, but it pays dividends to start making partnerships and inroads with public health officials. In equity-driven cities, the public health officials are going to hold a lot of sway, have more resources, and probably be sympathetic to planning goals.
In addition to astonishingly high infant mortality, the neighborhood also suffers from substandard and often lead-paint-covered housing, low walkability, high traffic noise, proximity to brownfields, poor air quality, and high crime. The high crime is in part due to broken street lights and un-maintained rear alleys that make the perfect spot for a shady drug deal gone bad. The rest are primarily due to poor transit access, adjacency to high-traffic I-71, and the speedway that is Cleveland Avenue (especially heavy commuter traffic that barrels through the neighborhood to bypass congested freeways).
By the way, Walk Score deduces that South Linden is the 42nd “most walkable” neighborhood in Columbus. This was determined not by visiting and documenting existing conditions, but rather through a computer algorithm that relies on “amenities” it picks up on Google Maps. Many of these “amenities” look nicer on Google Maps than they are in reality – many are no longer open at all – so the reality is actually much worse than Walk Score’s imputed result of “Somewhat Walkable,” but it is a good empirical starting point nonetheless.
Should one actually visit to document the existing conditions, I recommend just taking the #8 or #1 bus and just hopping on and off, talking to lots of neighborhood residents in between. Here are some photos from such an excursion:
The above photo with a bus is actually just the “typical bus stop,” which not unlike elsewhere in Columbus, is basically a pole with a sign. Despite its relatively low walkability, the community has some of the highest rates of transit ridership in the area (4,800 daily riders on the #1 Bus), due in part to the transit-dependent population (no car). Transit in this case is seen as a last resort, and due to its undesirability, is not only relegated out of the way of the area’s motorists, but it’s also ditched by transit riders themselves as soon as they can afford a car.
To ameliorate this problem the city is giving the Cleveland Avenue corridor our first BRT system, albeit a BRT-lite. The Cleveland Avenue C-MAX is a $47.7-million project BRT with enhanced stations and rolling stock, but without a lane or signal priority. The C-MAX is one of the most significant recent investments in the northeast side of Columbus.
The C-MAX project is my base line for improving the South Linden community, to the extent that our Community Design Studio was tasked with creating design interventions that enhanced quality of life for this neighborhood’s residents. It’s an urban neighborhood, and it’s a transit-propensity neighborhood, so it should also be a walking neighborhood. Reaching people while they’re waiting for the bus is the most-targeted way to touch lives. It’s also a way for these design interventions to really help the people who live here, and not the people who don’t.
As the member of our studio that focused on transit placemaking, I proposed two design interventions: Bus Box and the “Heart of Linden.”
Bus Box is a bus shelter made by cutting, combing, and painting shipping containers. Not only is it cheap and trendy, bringing an avante garde style to the neighborhood, but additional “boxes” can be used for community info kiosks, a farmer’s stand at the bus stop, or a “bodega box” that just sells essentials.
It’s tailor-fit to this neighborhood’s needs, which is a food desert for its lack of retail and specifically fresh food options; despite efforts to build suitable retail space, area residents still can’t afford the rent. A lot of the neighborhoods carry-outs get themselves in trouble by selling mostly booze, cigarettes, and junk food in order to pay their rent. Rent won’t be a problem at a Bus Box, and successfully incubated retailers will then be in better position to afford rent in the bricks and mortar behind it.
Heart of Linden is basically just taking the worst block in this neighborhood (albeit beautifully fenced-off), also located at the heart of it, and re-activating it. “Heart of Linden” has two main components, a scaled-up Bus Box that can basically become an edgy low-cost retail incubator, and a “Food Hub” not unlike the one proposed previously for Weinland Park. There is currently an effort underway for a similar Food Hub in South Linden, and it makes sense that this needed project (and a potential neighborhood improvement catalyst) locate on a prime site. All of the other uses are just programming expansions and connections to surrounding assets, like potential bike trails or the new library.
Bus Box is certainly more practical. It is built off of ideas I have seen in other cities, such as LAND Studio’s Bike Box project in Cleveland (where they built 8-10 of these). Heart of Linden, certainly a tougher project to take on, seeks to solve a number of challenges through forging the right connections. A lot of Linden’s problems stem from disconnectedness. It just isn’t a pleasant neighborhood in which to walk, so nobody is going to belabor themselves worrying about the pedestrians of South Linden.
But they should.
Beyond offering needed amenities in a well-connected site and layout, Heart of Linden is an intriguing idea as a “BRT-OD.” I’ve obviously written a lot about transit-oriented-development or TOD, and it goes without saying that I’m a believer in the power of rails toward the goal of generating this coveted prize. That said, I concede that BRT can move the needle a little bit. It won’t be the sole driver behind billions of dollars in TOD, but it can contribute, and it doesn’t hurt. So just as BRT is a practical innovation, what if the TOD model could similarly be innovated to fit that practicality? As such, a “BRT-OD” could be more of a temporary re-activation of a site, not unlike a pop-up city, and could rely on technological innovations to give it a lighter footprint and lower up-front building cost.
What if “BRT-OD” is a way forward in terms of integrating these BRT systems with surrounding low-income neighborhoods? I leave you with that thought.