Implementing a Vision for Sustainable Transportation in Ohio

By Jason Segedy

October 8, 2014

Follow me on Twitter thestile1972

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Marc Lefkowitz of GreenCityBlueLake was kind enough to ask me to share my views on the future of sustainable transportation in Ohio with him.

Because I think it such an important topic, I’d like to share some of the same thoughts that I shared with him, here at Notes from the Underground.

1. How has the rule change for Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality (CMAQ) at the federal level (through MAP-21) and subsequently the money going to the states instead of directly to MPOs impacting on MPOs that have a new emphasis on building a sustainable transportation system?

In practice, the emphasis of the CMAQ program has always skewed toward the “CM” (congestion mitigation) component rather than the “AQ” (air quality) component.  This has been true at the national, state, and regional level. 

On the other hand, the CMAQ program does not allow for the construction of new roadways or general-purpose travel lanes, so most of the “congestion mitigation” projects implemented with CMAQ have involved modest, relatively low-impact roadway capacity projects such as turn lanes and/or traffic signal coordination projects. 

Recently, more non-traditional (and in my opinion, more innovative) intersection improvements such as roundabouts have been funded using CMAQ, in lieu of traffic signal or turn lane expansion projects.  My organization, AMATS, has funded the construction of several roundabouts recently.  I like these types of projects because they improve air quality and improve safety.

It is too early for me to say how the recent change to the CMAQ program in Ohio will impact the construction of a more sustainable transportation system.  To be clear, CMAQ was always awarded directly to the states.  Most states (including Ohio, until recently) chose to sub-allocate much of the CMAQ funding to Metropolitan Planning Organizations (although they were never required to do so).

Two years ago, ODOT felt that Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) were not spending their individual CMAQ allocations quickly enough, so it decided to stop sub-allocating the CMAQ funding to individual MPOs, and created a statewide CMAQ program by pooling the approximately $60 million in CMAQ that used to go to the eight largest MPOs.  These MPOs were put in charge of creating a collaborative statewide program for allocating funding and managing these projects.

Since that time, the “Big 8” MPOs (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Akron, Toledo, Youngstown, Canton) have adopted a funding policy and are now embarking on the first round of project applications for the new program. 

From what I have seen so far, public transit, bicycle, and pedestrian improvements are well-represented in the applicant pool, although I cannot yet say how these projects will fare.  The scoring criteria were designed in a way that these projects should get a fair shake.

One caveat on the “fair shake” statement:  CMAQ project selection processes have traditionally weighted “tons of pollutants removed” very heavily in the overall scoring.  This often puts transit, bike, and pedestrian projects at a disadvantage, because their air quality impacts are not necessarily as dramatic as those of traffic signal coordination projects. 

However, it could be credibly argued in many cases that if we implemented more transit, bike, and pedestrian projects, they could collectively add up to even larger air quality improvements over time.  So it’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” issue.  I think that it is important that we ensure that there is equity in how we distribute CMAQ funding for highway, transit, bike, and pedestrian projects.

I’m also concerned about equity in CMAQ funding, not just in terms of the various transportation modes, but also across regions.  It is possible that most of these funds could go to just a few MPO regions, but we won’t know until we finish scoring the projects.  I’d like to see equity between regions somehow incorporated into the new process.  Right now, it is not explicitly there in the criteria that we have adopted.

Two other thoughts: 

Although I am committed to making the new statewide system work, I would have preferred to have kept the previous system of MPO-suballocation in place.  It worked well in our region, and I liked having the local elected officials on our MPO Policy Board have the ultimate responsibility for the funding decisions.  I think the new statewide process has served to erode the local control of federal dollars that the MPO system is predicated upon.

Finally, I have always been, and continue to be, of the opinion that the CMAQ program should be eliminated.  I think it is an undesirable hybrid between congestion mitigation and air quality which doesn’t accomplish either goal very effectively.  I’d like to see the existing federal CMAQ dollars rolled into the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) and the Surface Transportation Program (STP).

2. Which federal and state policies are going to need to be changed if MPOs hope to stay the course on a fix-it-first policy?

I think that the federal government should transform most (if not all) of the STP program into a road and bridge maintenance program.  I don’t think much (if any) of this funding should be available for highway capacity expansion projects. 

I think that if state or local governments want to do those projects, it should largely be on their own dime.  Too many states and local governments see the federal dollars as “free money” and undertake capacity expansions that they probably wouldn’t embark upon if these federal funds were unavailable for this purpose. 

While there are always individual project exceptions, I think that most roadway capacity-adding projects (especially in a shrinking region like ours) are not cost-effective, especially given our changing demographics and our increasingly precarious fiscal position at the local, state, and federal level. 

At the state level, I’d like to see the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) do a wholesale reassessment of its TRAC/Major-New Capacity program.  While there are individual cases where we could still use new highway capacity in Ohio, given that we rank 46 out of the 50 states in terms of population growth, I think we are in (an enviable) position where we can afford not to spend money on building new or expanding existing roads. 

I think that governments throughout Ohio are collectively spending too much on new highway capacity and not enough on maintenance – largely due to the fact that federal money can be used for capacity expansion. 

We have a lot of aging roads and bridges in this state (we have approximately the fourth largest highway system in the U.S., depending on how you count it).  Maintaining it will become particularly problematic in the coming years because deferred maintenance is far more expensive than preventive maintenance. 

Don’t misunderstand – I am not suggesting that we are collectively derelict in our maintenance duties (our bridges, for example, are safe), but I am suggesting that maintenance is not as high of a priority as it should be; that the new roads and additional lanes will unnecessarily add to our maintenance burden in the coming years; and that maintenance too long deferred is a significant financial liability.

I think that ODOT should reform the TRAC/Major-New Capacity program to provide funding for new highway capacity in only the most dire of situations – particularly those that involve serious traffic safety problems.

Unfortunately, the State of Ohio took the exact opposite approach recently, allowing over $1 billion in borrowed money from the Turnpike to be used for new and expanded roads.  I think that decision will prove to be a strategic mistake in the coming years.  I hope that I am wrong about that.

Another concern of mine is the deplorable condition of many of our urban streets.  While local governments are largely responsible for this, there are many state routes in our cities that could use a lot of extra attention.  ODOT, to its great credit, has stepped up its urban paving program in recent years to help address these needs, but more could still be done. 

Jay Williams, the former mayor of Youngstown once told me that citizens would frequently call him and complain that Route 7 was so beautiful to drive on in Boardman (Township) and so awful in (the City of) Youngstown. 

He would explain to them that state transportation funds were available to Boardman for Route 7 (because it is a township) but not to Youngstown for the exact same road (because it is a city). In reality, Boardman Township is a city in every way that counts (other than legally).  It has over 40,000 people and it is a much more affluent community than Youngstown (one of the poorest cities in the entire country). 

A system of transportation funding that has traditionally helped a place like Boardman, while withholding that same help from a place like Youngstown is not an equitable system and needs to be reformed.  Granted, it is a complicated issue, but I think we could collectively (local governments, MPOs, ODOT) all be doing a better job of taking care of our existing urban streets.

3. How do we start to get projects that shift modes promoted to the CMAQ list?

As I alluded to earlier, in the long run, I don’t think CMAQ is the answer for alternative modes of transportation.  I’d like to see much of the existing CMAQ funding rolled in to the Transportation Alternatives Program (and perhaps into the FTA Section 5307 program) so that transit, bike, and pedestrian projects could directly access the funding that they need without having to undergo an apples-to-oranges comparison with highway projects. 

I think the federal government has too many transportation funding programs to begin with, and CMAQ is one that should be repurposed.

4. Also, related to that, what is the likelihood that NOACA’s request to change state policy governing the TRAC funding to pay for much needed repairs will succeed?

I read about NOACA’s request with interest.  I don’t think that it will be successful, but I think that it is important, because it raises awareness of a growing sentiment that we are spending too much money on new infrastructure in a state with a lot of old infrastructure and not a lot of population growth. 

I think that the best reform for the TRAC program is to keep it as a statewide new capacity program, but to drastically shrink how much money is going into it.  Funds that used to go into it (like the funds being transferred from the Ohio Turnpike) could then be used for the types of maintenance projects that NOACA is advocating for.

On a related note, just as state governments tend to view federal funds as “free money”; local governments also tend to view state funds as “free money”. 

Improving the condition of our urban roads and streets is not just something that ODOT should be responsible for.  It is something that MPOs (and most of all, the local governments themselves) need to prioritize. 

The model in Ohio, and in the rest of the U.S., has been that federal (and many state) funds go for “the new stuff” and local funds go for repair.  Ohio’s shrinking cities have been guilty of advocating for expensive new roadway capacity projects while their own streets crumble.  That’s not smart public policy either.

Scapegoats or Solutions?

By Jason Segedy

October 7, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Which is more important? The message or the medium (or the grammar)?

We all have limited time and energy.

Are you spending yours looking for scapegoats or solutions?

Would you rather be right, or be successful?

Yes, it’s a trick question - I’m sure that you would rather be both.  

We all would.

But, if so, why is it that we spend so much of our precious time and energy looking for scapegoats?  For flaws?  For pointing out what the other guy did wrong?

Why do we spend so little time espousing our own vision?  For offering solutions? For sharing what it is that we (the “plural we”, not the “royal we”) could do right?

You don’t change the world by pointing out the shortcomings of someone else’s vision.  

You change the world by espousing a vision that other people can believe in, can get behind, can embrace along with you, and can support as their own.  

If you are truly interested in changing the world, it doesn’t matter if you think your ideas are better than the other guys’.  

That’s not what will set you apart from all of the other people that think their ideas are better than everyone else’s.

There are no shortage of people in politics, or business, or government, or academia to tell you that the other side is wrong.  We’re used to hearing from them, and we’re used to tuning them out.  

Telling you that the other side is wrong is all that most of them are capable of doing (or more accurately, saying, because there is very little doing going on - at least of the kind that matters.)

What they are not capable of doing is demonstrating why they are right.

You will only change the world if other people think your ideas are better than the other guys’, make those ideas their own, and then act on them.

Seth Godin said it best the other day:

You’re right, they’re wrong, but they won

Why is that? Is the world so unfair?

Perhaps they told a story that resonated

And most probably, they built a tribe, not one in their image, but in the image (and dreams) of those that wanted to belong

But mostly, it’s because they were prepared to spend [time] to change the culture..in the direction that mattered to them

He’s right. Think about it.  

Read the whole thing.

A Metropolitan Transportation Planner’s Manifesto

By Jason Segedy

September 30, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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My neighborhood, Wallhaven, in Akron, as seen from my bicycle.

Our job is to help people; specifically to help local governments and the citizens that they represent to create a transportation system that makes our communities better places to live – for everyone - rich and poor; black and white; young and old. 

We do this by recognizing that transportation is a means-to-an-end, rather than an end in itself, and by recognizing that transportation planning is not a “value-neutral” proposition.  It involves subjective value judgments about what is important, and it can help (or harm) local communities, depending on how plans and projects are implemented. 

It is our job to support the projects and initiatives which provide help to communities by enabling them to build better places, rather than those that do harm by undermining and weakening our places.  Distinguishing which type of project is which is not always clear, and takes learning by doing.  It is hard and messy (but very important and rewarding) work.

We recognize that institutions like planning agencies or local governments are a means to an end.  It is the ideas that they embody which change the world.  

But we also realize that institutions are where ideas are developed, nurtured, and disseminated; and that ideas, estranged from their institutional homes, lose much, if not all, of their transformative power. As such, our goal is the reform, renewal, and transformation of our institutions.

We recognize that our job is ultimately about people and places, rather than physical infrastructure.  Roads, bridges, buses, and bike trails may be our artistic media, but better-connected people and stronger, healthier communities are our completed masterpieces.

We realize that the process of working together to build something is just as important as what is physically built, because what is really being built are relationships and a sense of community.  

Once those relationships develop, collaborative networks of people working, learning, and doing together can begin to form.  And once that happens, we will have built the capacity to transform our culture and our region.

We don’t care about receiving accolades for being the person that threw the stone into the pond - all we want to do is see the ripples expand across the water.  

Building a Better Block in Akron’s North Hill Neighborhood

By Jason Segedy

September 26, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Temple Square, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, September 2014

A Few Words About Akron

Akron is a city with a storied past and a bright future.  Our present-day situation is that of a city in transition, as we continue to navigate our way through a decades-long transition from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. 

We are facing this challenge as we have faced others:  by adapting, and by forming collaborative partnerships that harness the power of innovation to transform our community. 

Akron was the fastest growing city in the United States between 1910 and 1920; tripling in size, and growing from a population of 69,000 to 208,000 in just one decade.  Our period of rapid growth coincided with the expansion of the rubber and tire industry, which, in turn, corresponded with that of the automobile industry.

Since the mid-1970s, we have seen heavy industry leave our city, and have also lost 31% of our population, declining from a peak of 290,000 residents in 1960, to 199,000 residents today. 

The loss of jobs, residents, and some of our prosperity and identity has been a difficult transition for the city and its people.  But we are a resilient bunch, and we are fortunate to have many assets to build upon. 

One of these is a strong civic leadership culture and a solid history of public, private, and philanthropic partnerships to build upon.  

Another asset is a legacy of solid, well-planned neighborhoods.  Some of these, like Goodyear Heights and Firestone Park, were developed by the rubber and tire companies for the blue-collar workforce; while others, primarily located in Northwest Akron, were home to the white collar industrial workforce, comprised of executives, managers, engineers, and scientists.  

Other neighborhoods, like North Hill, developed organically, built primarily by immigrants from distant lands that came to our city to make a better life for themselves and their children.

These historic neighborhoods have served our city well, but many of the houses and commercial buildings that were built during our boom years, turn 100 years old this decade.  Many of our oldest structures are increasingly becoming blighted, vacant, or abandoned.

Akron’s greatest challenge over the next few decades will be learning how to rebuild the residential and commercial structures in our neighborhoods.   I believe that our city has both the human capital, as well as the innovative and collaborative culture to become a national model for learning how to do this type of work.

But we have to get intentional about it.  It’s not going to happen on its own.  

Thinking Big, But Doing Small

How do we do this?  We begin by envisioning neighborhoods that are great places to live, work, play, shop, relax, and socialize.  Creating these types of places means being sensitive to the needs of residents, and building things at a scale where people can walk and bike to where they need to go.

Doing this well will require public, philanthropic, non-profit, and private sector leadership; in partnership with everyday people working together, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time, to rebuild and transform their community.  

Thanks to the Knight Foundation, and to Josh McManus, its dynamic new program director in Akron, the stage is being set to do this type of work and to do it well. 

Back in June, I had the distinct privilege to meet Jason Roberts of The Better Block, when the Knight Foundation brought him to Akron for Switching Gears, an active transportation conference sponsored by my organization, the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS).  

The entire premise of Jason’s work is to take one block at a time, start small, and actually do something.  It could be some temporary new bike lanes; it could be some temporary street art, or street furniture; it could be a makeshift coffee shop, or art gallery, or beer garden.  

The important thing is to do something new in a neighborhood, let people see it, let people experience it, and, most importantly - let them participate in actually creating it.  

People build, borrow, or (as a last resort) buy the materials that they need to transform their block.  The process of working together to build something is even more important than what is physically built, because what is really built are relationships and a sense of community.  Once those relationships develop, collaborative networks of people working, learning, and doing together can begin to form.  And once that happens, we will have built the capacity to transform our city.

Jason was here with us again on August 5 to begin working with the Knight Foundation and with AMATS to pilot the Better Block concept in Akron.  At a community event that afternoon, Jason talked about the need to learn how to think small, and to implement modest, low-cost improvements that can lead to big, positive changes later on.  

Instead of simply talking about intangible future plans that will never be realized due to fiscal considerations or bureaucracy, people work together to accomplish small things that they can actually see and touch.  They learn to savor that first taste of success, which leads to building the kind of trust and inspiring the type of hope that it takes to transform an entire city.

It is a simple, but incredibly powerful and profound concept - get people working together on small, but significant and visible projects in their own community, and watch the trust build, see the relationships develop and grow, and watch the hope begin to inspire other people throughout the community.

The Better Block concept isn’t a panacea.  But that’s kind of the point - there is no panacea.  

What it is, though, is a very powerful tool in the community development toolbox. 

The Better Block recognizes that the work of rebuilding our cities begins one person at a time, one block at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time.  

When coupled with visionary and innovative leadership from the public sector, the private sector, non-profits, and the philanthropic community, the results of this approach can be truly transformative.

North Hill:  A storied past, and a bright future

North Hill is called “North Hill” for a reason.  The neighborhood is separated from the rest of the city by the Little Cuyahoga Valley, which contains the most challenging topography in the city.  

North Hill remained undeveloped until 1891, when a trolley line up the Howard Street hill was completed.  The steep, 13.5% grade on Howard Street proved difficult:

The trolley couldn’t make the climb when the power was weak, and when the brakes failed, the streetcars shot backward down the hill at breakneck speeds. They sometimes crashed into cars at the bottom, causing injury and death - thus discouraging the faint of heart from moving to the new subdivisions at the top of the hill.

-Akron Beacon Journal, July 1983

The Howard Street hill (which was the third steepest streetcar grade in the country) was a continued impediment to the development of North Hill until the Main Street Viaduct was opened in 1923.

The trolley was quickly rerouted to the new bridge, and the development of North Hill proceeded rapidly.  It was an ideal location - a brand new neighborhood in one of the fastest growing cities in the country, that was flat and easy to develop (once you got the top of the hill).

Thousands of newcomers, primarily from southern Italy and Poland, helped to settle the neighborhood.  The new immigrants prospered (despite often being discriminated against by native-born Akronites) and established businesses, cultural institutions, social clubs, and numerous churches, including St. Martha’s, St. Anthony’s, and St. Hedwig’s.

Many of the businesses were located in and around the Temple Square district at the intersection of North Main Street and Cuyahoga Falls Avenue.  

Temple Square quickly became “downtown North Hill”, since it was located strategically in the heart of the neighborhood, where the streetcar linked up with the electric railroad that headed to Cuyahoga Falls, and points north, including Cleveland.

North Hill also became home to thousands of African-Americans, migrating from the rural south, who were attracted by the jobs and economic opportunities brought about by the growth of the rubber and tire industry.

The neighborhood’s black residents experienced less overt discrimination than they did in the South, but race relations were still far from perfect.  

Blacks were often relegated to the worst-paying and most difficult factory jobs, and were often denied equal access to housing and mortgage lending opportunities.  They were confined to living in the least-desirable areas of the neighborhood located toward the bottom of the hill. Although we have come quite far in terms of improved race relations, this pattern of settlement is still evident to this very day.  

North Hill continued to grow and thrive up through the mid-1960s, when it began to lose population as the houses, commercial buildings, and other infrastructure began to get old.  Many of the former immigrants moved out of Akron to nearby communities, such as Cuyahoga Falls, Stow, and Tallmadge.

Since that time, much of the housing and the physical infrastructure of the neighborhood has continued to decay, and the neighborhood has continued to lose population and businesses.  

Temple Square business owners banded together in the late 1970s to fight the decline and worked with the City of Akron to launch a $2.3 million project to beautify the area in the mid-1980s.  

The new streetscape improvements made the area look more attractive, but they did not succeed in stopping the decline.  Retailers continued to close their doors throughout the 1990s and 2000s, and many of the nearby houses continued to become run-down, vacant, and abandoned.

Improving the physical condition of the neighborhood was necessary, but it proved to be an insufficient condition for revitalizing the neighborhood.  What was missing?  Perhaps it was the human element - people, community, and the power of networks of committed, engaged, and connected citizens to effect transformative change.

In the late 2000s, a new wave of immigrants began arriving in the neighborhood.  The newcomers hailed primarily from southeast Asia and Latin America, from places like Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, India, and Mexico.

Today, these new immigrants are working hard to revitalize and renew the neighborhood, just as the wave of Italian and Polish immigrants, and African Americans did before them. 

We are happy to welcome them to Akron.  They represent an incredibly important part of our community’s future, and we are excited to work together with them to make our city a better place for all of us to live - black and white; rich and poor; native-born and foreign-born.

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Temple Square, Akron Beacon Journal, Summer 1983

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Akron streetcar map, 1920, showing North Hill trolley lines

Better Block:  Partnering to Rebuild Our City, One Block at a Time

WHO?  You, me, and as many of our friends, neighbors, family members, and colleagues that we can assemble to help.

WHAT?  A Better Block – a community development demonstration tool that rebuilds an area using grassroots efforts to show the potential to create a great walkable, vibrant neighborhood center; and to develop “pop-up” businesses to show the potential for revitalized economic activity in an area.

WHERE?  North Main Street between Frances Avenue and Cuyahoga Falls Avenue in North Hill’s Temple Square business district.  You may know this block by its familiar landmarks, such as the Office Bistro and North Akron Savings.  This block was chosen after careful review of over 30 locations throughout the city, and our team felt that it was the best location to initially pilot the concept.  Our hope is to utilize the information that we’ve collected on dozens of other locations throughout the city in the development of future Better Blocks, working in partnership with all of you.

WHEN?  Spring 2015.  We originally planned this event for October 2014, but we’ve gotten such an overwhelmingly positive response from everyone that we feel that this initial pilot is important enough to take the time required to make it a truly special event – one that is inclusive, engaging, fun, and (most importantly) one that results in tangible longer-term change in the neighborhood. 

Not rushing to complete this in October will give us quite a bit more time to work with all of you to brainstorm, connect, plan, engage, and act.  We also think that it will help us to learn a lot about what it takes to pull one of these projects off locally, and, consequently, will help us to create other successful Better Blocks throughout the city next year.  We want to see this type of project happen in every one of the city’s neighborhoods in the future.

AMATS and the Knight Foundation will be convening a stakeholder meeting soon, in order to keep the momentum going, and to channel all of the positive community response we are getting into transformative action when the Better Block launches.

WHY?  Because we believe that it isn’t just important to plan, but that it is important to do – to let people see, experience, and participate in creating something new in a neighborhood by borrowing, building, or (as a last resort) buying the things that they need to transform their neighborhood and their community. 

The process of working together across cultural and sectoral boundaries is just as important as what is physically built, because we aren’t just working with “bricks and mortar”, but we’re also building relationships and a sense of community. 

We believe that the work of rebuilding our city begins one person at a time, one block at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time.  We believe that the Better Block, when coupled with visionary and innovative leadership from the public sector, the private sector, non-profits, the philanthropic community, and most importantly – everyday people – can truly transform our community.

HOW?  Better Blocks often involve street improvements (e.g. bike lanes, wider sidewalks); landscaping and aesthetic improvements; the temporary re-use of vacant commercial spaces as coffees shops, art galleries, etc.; and community events (food festivals, beer gardens, etc.)  The exact “event programming” and “design treatment” that the location receives is dependent upon neighborhood characteristics, the capacity of stakeholders, and available resources. 

For this particular project, we envision some combination of street/streetscape improvements, reuse of vacant spaces, and a community event(s) that will involve food and entertainment.  One of the unique opportunities of the North Hill neighborhood is to build collaborative partnerships with the vibrant and growing community of new immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and around the world.  We have also contacted the owners of vacant properties on the block and they are tentatively willing to “lend” them to us for the day.

Help us learn how to build community and create great neighborhoods by doing.  We are incredibly excited about working together with you to transform Temple Square, North Hill, and all of Akron! 

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for frequent updates and more information.

Exploring Akron’s Wonderfully Historic and Weird West Hill Neighborhood

By Jason Segedy

September 4, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Despite the technological advances of the modern world, such as the fact that I could show up in Tokyo 24 hours from now; or that I could send a text message to a friend in Australia in less time than it will take you to read this sentence; we human beings still exist in time and space. 

As such, history and geography will continue to exert a powerful influence on our lives.  This is true whether we realize it or not, and no matter how much we might have hated studying them as subjects in high school.

Our community.  My neighborhoodOur history.  It’s not a linguistic accident that we use these possessive pronouns when we describe place, and space, and time.  The geographic and historic attributes of the places that we live and love continue to resonate with us on a deeply personal level; and regardless of whether we are completely conscious of them, they shape us as we go about our daily lives.

West Hill has always been one of my favorite neighborhoods in Akron.  It is wonderful, and historic, and weird, which means that it is a perfect microcosm of a city that is most certainly all of those things.

This tiny residential neighborhood, which is one of the oldest in the city, is home to an astounding number of historic sites, interesting oddities, and culturally-significant places. 

It serves as a cultural hearth, being the original home of both Akron’s Irish Catholic community and its Jewish community.  It later became one of the city’s premier residential neighborhoods, as the wealthy began moving up (literally) and westward (because the wind blows toward the east here) to escape the air pollution and unpleasant odors generated by the rubber and tire industry. 

West Hill is a mishmash of the kinds of weird, quirky, and incongruous things that people like us (yes, I’m dragging you in as a co-conspirator) cannot get enough of:

  • Old churches and synagogues
  • Old gothic cemeteries
  • Insanely steep brick streets
  • LeBron James
  • Ancient looking stone steps that go seemingly nowhere
  • One of the best bike trails in the U.S.
  • Thomas Edison
  • A gargantuan freeway that carries no traffic
  • An apartment building with a swastika on it
  • Devil Strips (whatever the hell those are)

Intrigued? 

I was.  So I wandered around the other day and took a lot of pictures. After that, I sat down and decided to write about what I saw.

I’d like to invite you to read on and join me on a photographic journey through this amazing neighborhood.

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Temple Israel on Merriman Road: Akron’s original Jewish congregation (established in 1865) built this synagogue in 1911, at a time when Akron’s Jewish community was settling in West Hill and growing rapidly due to immigration.  This beautiful building is now for sale, as the congregation is in the process of moving to a new synagogue in Bath Township.

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St. Vincent Cemetery, on West Market Street, was established in 1850, by the church of St. Vincent de Paul, Akron’s first Roman Catholic parish. The cemetery is small, but culturally significant - commemorating the lives of the predominately Irish immigrants that comprised the parish at that time.

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The Balch Street Community Center is a neighborhood anchor.  Built in 1929, it originally served as the Jewish Community Center of Akron, which later relocated to its present-day home on White Pond Drive on Akron’s far west side.

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Know what a “Devil Strip” is?  If you don’t, you’re not from Akron.  Devil Strip is another one of our local quirks - it’s what we call the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street.  It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that that’s not what others (as in everyone else in the English-speaking world) call it.   

By the way, what the hell do you people call it?  Whatever term you use, I guarantee that it’s not as badass as “Devil Strip”.

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Bates Street is better known as Cadillac Hill, and is named after a nearby car dealership.  The 28% grade makes it the steepest street in the city.  It is not for the faint of heart.  I’ve only had the guts to walk it.  I value my life and the undercarriage of my vehicle too much to attempt tackling it by bike or by car.

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Downtown Akron, as seen from halfway up Cadillac Hill.

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Near the top of Cadillac Hill, the grade is so steep, you can’t even see the bottom.

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This is why the neighborhood is called “West Hill”. At the top of Bates Street, the residences are not much lower in elevation than downtown’s tallest buildings.

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One of West Hill’s many apartment buildings, located on Bates Street.

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St. Vincent parish on West Market Street has served as the gateway to the West Hill neighborhood since it was established in 1837 on what was then the outskirts of the city.

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St. Vincent Parish was established in 1837.  The present-day church building was completed in 1867.

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The stone-work at St. Vincent is truly incredible.  When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the sandstone on the church’s exterior was black.  I always thought that it was supposed to look like that, until it was restored years later, and I learned as an adult that the original sand-colored stone was actually stained black from all of the soot generated by the rubber and tire industry in Akron.

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St. Vincent, as viewed from West Market Street.

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Leprechaun Lane, off of South Maple Street, home of the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School “Irish”.

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St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, on South Maple Street - if you’re from Akron, it’s known simply as “St. V” (like “Devil Strip”, it’s another one of our local “tells”).  

I have a soft spot for St. V, because my mom graduated from, and later taught here.  You probably know it as the place where LeBron James came into his own as the best basketball player on the planet.

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The Glendale Steps are one of the most unique pedestrian amenities that I have ever seen.  Built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1936, they allowed residents of Walnut Street to descend a 200-foot slope to access Glendale Park at the bottom of the hill.  

Akron Ward 1 Councilman Rich Swirsky and a group of neighborhood residents have recently been working hard to clear the steps of vegetation and turn the area into a “food forest” with gardens and edible plant life.  Very cool.

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Glendale Cemetery’s Glendale Avenue entrance is truly one of the most spectacular sites in Akron, with its striking topography of steep wooded hills flanking a lush valley; a Gothic bell tower; a beautiful Gothic Civil War Memorial Chapel, completed in 1876; and a gorgeous caretaker’s mansion; all of which provide visitors with a stunning and somber greeting.

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Glendale Cemetery, established in 1839 as “Akron Rural Cemetery”, is one of America’s best examples of the “rural cemetery” movement, which strove to create a beautiful park-like, but still natural looking setting that honored the dead and provided solace and recreation for the living.

Replete with mausoleums designed in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Gothic architectural motifs, this Romantic-themed cemetery provided Akronites in the Victorian era with a beautiful place to celebrate the lives of the deceased, and was a popular place for picnics, concerts, and other outdoor recreational activities.

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The Mustill family mausoleum - resting place of Joseph and Sarah Mustill, owners of the grocery store (restored and still-standing today) at Lock 15 of the Ohio & Erie Canal where they provided dry goods to Akronites and weary travelers along the canal.

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Throughout the 19th Century, great care was exercised (and even greater expense incurred) in laying the departed to rest.  Many of Glendale’s mausoleums are incredibly ornate, both inside and out.

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Glendale’s design plan and landscape architecture, consisting of rolling hills and valleys, a mixture of various funerary motifs, and a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and other types of vegetation provide visitors with a contemplative and tranquil environment.

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Glendale is a veritable “Who’s Who” of 19th Century Akron, and is the final resting place of many of the influential WASPs from New England and Germans from Pennsylvania that helped found and settle the city.

Most of our storied “city fathers” are buried here, including A.M. Barber, a prominent banker and local merchant; John R. Buchtel, founder of Buchtel College (today known as the University of Akron); Alvin Voris, a Civil War general, judge, abolitionist, and legislator; and O.C. Barber, famous industrialist, founder of Akron City Hospital (today known as Summa), and namesake of the neighboring city of Barberton, which he helped become an industrial powerhouse.

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In the 20th Century, Glendale continued to serve as the final resting place of many of Akron’s most important, revered, and beloved public figures, such as Frank and Gertrude Seiberling.  Frank and his brother Charles founded Goodyear Tire & Rubber in Akron in 1898, which went on to become the largest tire manufacturer in the entire world.  It is the only one of the “Big 4” rubber companies still headquartered in Akron today, and the only one still under American-ownership.

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Thousands of veterans of America’s wars are buried at Glendale.  This section of the cemetery commemorates those who served in the Spanish-American War in 1898.

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One of the most fascinating characteristics of Glendale is the juxtaposition of the natural and urban environments that its vistas offer.

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Strolling through Glendale, one encounters name-after-name of notable residents from Akron’s past - and also its present.  The gravestone of well-known restaurateur Nick Anthe includes the glasses from the iconic sign at his North Hill restaurant.

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This obelisk marks the grave site of George E. Pierce, former mayor of Hudson, and founding president of Western Reserve College.  The college later moved to Cleveland, and you probably know it better as Case Western Reserve University.

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Glendale is a treasure-trove of gorgeous and austere statuary, like these beautiful weeping angels.

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One of Glendale’s larger sections serves as the final resting place for many members of Akron’s Jewish Community; most of whom settled on the city’s west side.  Akron’s Jewish population grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th century due to Eastern European immigration. Despite discrimination that has been, at times, quite overt, Akron’s Jews have been a significant and valued part of the city’s civic, institutional, and cultural life for over 150 years.

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The central portion of Glendale used to be known as Willow Lake.  The cemetery originally included a second lake and a stream.  All of these water features were eventually drained, as the city grew around the cemetery.  Today Glendale doesn’t include any water features. Restoring them would be a worthwhile project.

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Glendale does not contain a very large cross-section of Akron’s sizable population of Southern and Eastern Europeans - partly because many of these immigrants did not arrive until the 20th century, and partly because many of them were buried in the city’s Catholic cemeteries, such as Holy Cross.  If you look carefully, though, you can find some traces of the city’s significant cultural heritage of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

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St. Bernard Cemetery, which adjoins Glendale, was one of the first Catholic cemeteries in Akron, and serves as the final resting place of the early wave of Catholic immigrants that came to Akron, primarily from Bavaria.  Akron’s magnificent West High School, built in 1913, was once a cornerstone of the neighborhood, and can be seen in the background.  It was converted to senior citizen apartments in the 1980s.

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St. Bernard’s was originally a German Catholic parish, so you will find many German surnames on the graves located throughout the cemetery. 

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For years I didn’t realize that St. Bernard Cemetery was actually separate from Glendale.  The two cemeteries are adjacent to one another, and separated only by this fence, which contains a tiny portal that is navigated with some difficultly by someone that is 6’3”.  

The fence between Glendale and St. Bernard’s, and the separate section of Glendale devoted to Akron’s Jewish community, reminded me of how significant and powerful our various cultures and communal identities are, even in death.

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Only one thing marred my walk through Glendale Cemetery - the occasional whiff of raw sewage from Akron’s Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs).  

Water could be heard rushing through the sanitary sewers that are linked to the storm sewers.  The CSOs are a big problem for the city, its residents, and people throughout the Lake Erie watershed, because they were designed to allow raw sewage and stormwater to mix and be discharged into the Cuyahoga River after heavy rains.  

CSO problems are faced by nearly all major cities in Ohio, and by many cities across the United States.  The EPA has mandated that this environmental problem be fixed, which is good.  The federal government is not providing any financial assistance to fix this problem, which is bad.

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West Hill is connected to downtown Akron by the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, show here as it spans the Innerbelt Freeway.

This magnificent bike and pedestrian trail is currently 85-miles long, and will eventually span all the way from Lake Erie, in downtown Cleveland, to Dover in Tuscarawas County.  The trail follows the route of the Ohio & Erie Canal towpath where mules would pull the canal boats on their long journey between Lake Erie and the Ohio River.  

Akron was founded in 1825, and owes its early growth to the canal, which was begun that same year.  Akron benefited greatly from the canal, due to the city’s location on the continental divide separating the Great Lakes watershed from the Mississippi River watershed.  

Over a dozen canal locks were located in Akron, due to its steep topography.  The large number of locks meant that boats would take a long time to traverse the city - which was extremely good for business and for local merchants.

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The Towpath Trail crosses the Innerbelt Freeway in downtown Akron. This woefully underutilized roadway spans 675-feet (the length of over two football fields) from one side of its right-of-way to the other, cutting a huge swath through downtown Akron, and separating it from West Hill.  

This section of the Innerbelt was built in 1970 as a combined transportation/urban renewal project.  It failed miserably on both counts. 

It was never completed as planned (to connect State Route 8 and I-76/77), so it is virtually empty throughout much of the day, carrying only about one-quarter of the traffic that it was intended to.  I shot the photo at the top at 1:30 in the afternoon.

The Innerbelt also displaced thousands of people (many of them poor and African-American) and decimated the original street grid which used to seamlessly connect West Hill with downtown Akron.

Plans are underway to remove this portion of the freeway, replace it by rebuilding the two parallel service roads to carry the remaining traffic, and redevelop some 25 to 30 acres of land where the freeway currently sits.

Greater Akron’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, AMATS (the organization which I lead) has provided $5 million in federal transportation funds for the first phase of this project.

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When the Innerbelt is removed, one of the most significant design challenges that the City of Akron will face is seamlessly reconnecting downtown to West Hill.  In 1968, another major urban renewal project, Cascade Plaza, was constructed in concert with the Innerbelt.

Designed in a modernist/brutalist architectural style which has not aged well (it is hideous, in my opinion), the plaza was designed to “turn its back” to the freeway, and is elevated some 20-feet above the freeway service road, buttressed by a concrete wall.

Akron will need a team of visionary architects, urban planners, designers, and landscape architects to figure out how best to knit the tattered fabric of our urban core back together, and to create something beautiful, functional, and lovable in the process.  It is a design challenge worth pursuing.

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Immediately across the Innerbelt from Cascade Plaza, sits the tiny stub of a West Hill neighborhood known as Oak Park.  This once magnificent neighborhood was decimated by the construction of the Innerbelt freeway.  What looks like a dense, urban streetscape in this photo is, in fact, one of just four streets which remain.

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This beautiful house, called Oak Place, located on Dawes Avenue, was the home of Akron inventor Lewis Miller.  Thomas Edison married Lewis’ daughter, Mina, here at the house in 1886.  Today, the house is subdivided into nearly 20 apartments.  One of my best friends lived here in the early 2000s, and I always enjoyed my visits to this amazing place.

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As I said, Akron is a weird and quirky place, which is why those of us that live here love it so.  You may have noticed that this apartment building on King Drive has a swastika inlaid as part of the brick work just below the cornice. 

Wait.. .Run that by me again?  A swastika?  

This building was built in 1925 (predating Hitler’s rise to power) and the swastika is designed after the Hindu fashion (90 degree angle), rather than the Nazi fashion (45 degree angle).  

Nevertheless, I’m surprised that it survived World War II (it does look like someone may have removed some of the bricks in the top of the inlay).

I’ve always found this building a bit creepy.  But it’s definitely quirky.  And it’s definitely Akron.

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One of my absolute favorite things about the Oak Park neighborhood is the spectacular (and seldom seen first-hand) view of downtown Akron that it affords. You walk to the end of King Dr., and [BOOM!], there it is.

Now, if we could just do something about that crazy freeway…

Why…? The Most Powerful and Dangerous Question That You Can Ask

By Jason Segedy

August 25, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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The more I see
The less I know
About all the things I thought were wrong or right
and carved in stone
So, don’t ask me about War, Religion, or God
Love, or Sex, or Death
Because….
Everybody knows what’s going wrong with the world
But I don’t even know what’s going on in myself.

-The The, Slow Emotion Replay 

Pronouns and Adverbs

Why is the ultimate strategic question, and one with the potential to transform culture.  Nearly everything that we do that makes our world a better place ultimately seeks an honest answer to a question that begins with an explicit Why, or addresses a need that contains an implicit Why somewhere within it.

Conversely, most of the things that we do that end up making our world worse, skip past Why and jump right into Who, What, Where, and How. We either ignore Why altogether, or we ask it, and then cynically pull back, because we don’t like the answer that we might get. 

Who, What, Where (and, especially) How are the tactical questions.  They are the questions that we should be asking, and answering, only after we have addressed Why.  They are the trees.  Why is the forest. 

Where and What (thanks to the way that our pronouns and adverbs have evolved in modern English), can sometimes address an implicit Why

For example, the What in “Why are we here, and what is our purpose?” is a different type of What than “Let’s build a house – what (which) types of materials do we need?”

Similarly, the Where in “Why are we here, and where (whither) are we going?” is a different Where than “We are going to build a new grocery store – where should we put it?”

The tactical questions are generally easier for most of us to discuss.  This may sound counter-intuitive, but if you don’t believe me, go to a meeting where an important new initiative is being discussed, and see if you observe more people discussing the overall strategy, or the tactical minutiae. 

Say you’re discussing an upcoming public meeting, for example.  Don’t people tend to spend far more time agonizing over how to set up the room and position the chairs, than they spend on crafting the agenda? Don’t they tend to jump right into figuring out how to get people to attend the meeting, before they even ascertain whether holding a meeting is the best method for engaging people?

Here is a Why question for you:  Why do we do this? 

For it is when we decide to circumvent Why, and jump right into How, that we tend to get into trouble. 

Perhaps this is all a bit abstract.  Let’s get concrete.  

Acculturation

Ours is a culture that prefers to focus on HowHow is the quintessential American question. 

How is the question of big, concrete accomplishments.  It is the question of big business, applied science, and technology.  It is the question that put a man on the moon.  It is the question that fills the shelves at the grocery store.  It is the question that “gets shit done”.

We Americans tend not to like Why nearly as much as we like How

Why is the question for the academics, and the intellectuals, and the hand-wringers.  We see it as the slightly effete question, asked by those who teach, because they can’t “do”. 

But here’s the thing:  Why is the question that decides whether or not to put a man on the moon in the first place.  It is the question that decides what to put on the shelves at the grocery store – or whether to have a grocery store at all.

It is not a matter of choosing between Why and How, it is a matter of asking them in the correct order, and putting each one in its proper place.

Why is the question of the iconoclasts and the reformers.  It is the question of philosophy, art, and religion.  It is the question that undergirds our entire civilization, and orders and arranges our society.

It is the question that can make where we live a wonderful place, or a horrible place, depending on how we answer it; whether we are honestly seeking the truth when we ask it, and whether we are striving to answer it in keeping with the dictates of benevolence and justice.

With our cultural bias toward How and our disdain for Why, ours is often a reductionist, reactive, and utilitarian society.  As Oscar Wilde said, we tend to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. 

We pride ourselves upon our utilitarianism, which we see as efficient, effective, and practical.  But the irony of our knee-jerk utilitarianism is that we find ourselves living in a civilization that is increasingly inefficient, ineffective, and impractical. 

What is going on in our urban places today is a prime example of this – utilitarian, reactive, reductionist thinking which has resulted in inequality, racial segregation, the unraveling of our civic fabric, disorder, the decay of our built and natural environments, and fiscal crises of increasing severity.

Another irony of American culture, famous worldwide for its radical individualism, is that people do not ask Why nearly as often as you might think.  When it comes to the big philosophical and strategic questions, most people prefer to conform.  Our radical individualism, it turns out, is more a matter of style than it is of substance – a better predictor of how we might dress, than what we might think, as it turns out. 

Power, Danger, and Truth

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

-George Orwell

Why is a powerful, and dangerous, question.  Daring to ask it is risky.  Sticking around and trying to to answer it is riskier still.  At its core, it seeks not after efficiency, effectiveness, or utility; but rather, the truth, which is riskiest of all.

Why is powerful because, more than any other question, it challenges us to question our priorities, and to reexamine what we hold most dear.

It gets us into discussions about things like the nature of reality and epistemology (how we “know” what we know).  It seeks to uncover the truths about life, meaning, purpose, the world that we live in, the universe, and – perhaps the most frightening subject of all - ourselves. 

Why is the question behind all other questions.  It gets us thinking about first causes and the ultimate motives behind just about everything that we do, see, and experience.

It is the question that challenges the status-quo.  The status-quo does not like questions that begin with Why and it does not like the people that ask them. 

These people often do things that the status-quo considers inappropriate, illegal, or heretical, and they often end up marginalized, ostracized, abused, jailed, or dead. 

If you want to play it safe, by all means, never ask Why

A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.

-Various

Of course, even ships in harbor are not always safe, as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated.  The American ships that were out at sea were the ships that survived.  

So maybe failing to ask Why isn’t so safe after all.  

Three things commonly keep us from asking Why:  fear, fatalism, and force of habit - which is perhaps the most insidious of the three.

When we ask Why, we must be willing to seek after the truth wherever it may take us. 

Sometimes we don’t always want to know the truth.  It is often something that is more highly regarded in theory, than in practice.

Candor is a double-edged sword; it may heal or it may separate.

-Wilhelm Stekel

The truth can unite us like nothing else can, but it can also divide us more sharply than anything else. 

This is the reason that the great philosophers and moral teachers of humanity so often say things that recognize the divisive and difficult nature of truth.

Wise men and women have always understood the double-edged nature of the truths that emerge when we ask Why.  But they also have realized that seeking after these truths is where true freedom lies.  

Why is a question that gives those who are willing to engage with it the ability to focus their energy, clarify their purpose, and rally to take substantive action to transform their world.

But it is also a question that gives those who are unwilling to engage with it ample opportunity to use it to employ rhetorical sleights-of-hand in order to throw up endless roadblocks and distractions.  

And thus it is that philosophical questions which begin with Why often morph into rhetorical questions that begin with Why; so that what starts as an attempt to understand and solve a problem, simply results in the laying of blame, the drawing of ideological swords, and inaction.   

The question “Why should I care about the future of Detroit?”, for example, could either culminate in collective action to solve a shared problem, or it could degenerate into a search for scapegoats that simply ends in anger, recriminations, and despair. 

If you have the temerity to first ask, and then attempt to answer, the question Why, fasten your seatbelt, because you are going to be in for a bumpy ride.  But you are also going to experience a taste of true freedom, and will experience one of the things that makes life worth living - the opportunity to be a participant, and not simply a spectator, by working to change your world for the better.

Epilogue

“Why are we here?  What is our purpose?  How should we then live?”

If and when the scientists ever figure out every last detail pertaining to exactly How matter originated, How life began, and How these strange beings called homo sapiens came to be conscious, self-aware, and able to ask Why, they will still be no closer to answering the big questions that really matter.

These are the questions for the philosophers; not just the Philosophers (with a capital-P) in academia, but for each one of us that chooses to be a philosopher in the literal sense of the word – a lover of wisdom.

Why are we here? 

One answer to that question is to ask the question Why, and to seek the answers with honesty and integrity, wherever they may take us. 

When we summon the courage and the fortitude to do this, we will begin to learn to transform our world for the better; together, one person at a time.

Transforming Our Grey Towns

By Jason Segedy

July 8, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

There is a widespread belief that Americans hate cities. I think it is probable that Americans hate city failure, but, from the evidence, we certainly do not hate successful and vital city areas. 

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

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An abandoned house on York Street, up the street from where my grandparents (both the children of Sicilian immigrants) lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The neighborhood is suffering from increasing blight and abandonment - although hope remains, as a brand-new wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America is slowly breathing new life into portions of it.

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A vacant lot on Vesper Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, where my wife’s great-grandparents lived after moving here from West Virginia. Her grandparents lived just down the street.  Both of the houses where they used to live recently became meth labs and had to be torn down.

The Grey Town

In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, an allegorical meditation upon the afterlife, many of the dead are denizens of a shadowy city called the Grey Town, which is either purgatory or hell (depending on how long one chooses to stay there).  The people of the Grey Town are free to leave it any time that they wish, but most, in their state of near-total narcissism, choose to stay.  

The Grey Town is a place where (unlike Earth) anyone can get any material possession that they wish (although not of very good quality) simply by imagining it.  Unable to cooperate (or even to coexist) with others, each person finds their neighbors so intolerable that they simply wish themselves a new house, and continually move further and further outward from the town’s center, leaving nothing but abandoned buildings behind.  

As each person continues to act in (what they mistakenly think is) their own self-interest, all semblance of community, civic life, social cohesion, and basic human kindness is lost; as the town continues to grow exponentially, ultimately consuming millions and millions of square miles, with an astronomically large central area of abandonment surrounded by a thinly-settled, ever-expanding urban fringe, populated by inhabitants that are increasingly estranged from one another.

What they end up creating is, quite literally, hell - a lonely and hopeless place extending out into infinity, in which each person freely chooses to remain utterly and completely self-centered.  It is a place of self-imprisonment, where the metaphorical door is locked from the inside:

"It seems the deuce of a town," I volunteered, "and that’s what I can’t understand. The parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?"

 ”Not at all,” said my neighbour. “The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours - and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.”

"Leaving more and more empty streets?"

“That’s right. And time’s sort of odd here. That place where we caught the bus is thousands of miles from the Civic Centre where all the newcomers arrive from earth. All the people you’ve met were living near the bus stop: but they’d taken centuries - of our time - to get there, by gradual removals.”

"And what about the earlier arrivals? I mean - there must be people who came from earth to your town even longer ago."

"That’s right. There are. They’ve been moving on and on. Getting further apart. They’re so far off by now that they could never think of coming to the bus stop at all. Astronomical distances. There’s a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still. That’s one of the disappointments. I thought you’d meet interesting historical characters. But you don’t: they’re too far away."

"Would they get to the bus stop in time, if they ever set out?"

"Well-theoretically. But it’d be a distance of light-years. And they wouldn’t want to by now…

"Wouldn’t want to?"

"That’s right…

"Then the town will go on spreading indefinitely?" I said.

"That’s right…" 

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Lewis’s description is powerful, regardless of whether you are the least bit religious, spiritual, or believe in an afterlife - for its power comes from what it says about human nature in the here and now.  

His description is sobering:  a town full of people who are so completely self-deluded and estranged from one another, that they think they are acting in their own self-interest, when in fact, they are actually destroying the place that they live, and along with it, any chance that they will ever have for real happiness.

For those of us that live in shrinking cities in the Rust Belt, in regions with negative net-population growth and continued outward expansion that are simultaneously suffering from widespread abandonment, Lewis’s allegory is more than a little bit disturbing in its familiarity.

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A dilapidated house on Carpenter Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Increasing Abandonment in Northeast Ohio

Brent Larkin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote two pieces recently, discussing the many problems associated with the ever-increasing spread of blight, vacancy, and abandonment in Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs.  

Larkin makes the case that this problem and its antecedents are not limited to the ones that are commonly perceived as only affecting city residents - crime, poverty, hopelessness, inequality, and paying more in taxes for less in services.  He reminds us that the holistic, interconnected nature of our modern world means that everyone in our region is ultimately affected by the abandonment of our urban core areas, in one way or another.

I addressed this same issue recently in a blog post discussing population loss in our region:

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself.  As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

But it is not just city residents that are affected by decline.  The health of the entire region suffers as a result.  The shrinking tax and resource base of City “A”, is not simply counteracted by economic growth in nearby cities “B” and “C”.  In a region anchored by a declining central city surrounded by dozens of separate municipalities, the redundant duplication and proliferation of local government services (education, public safety, public utilities, transportation infrastructure, social services) ends up costing all taxpayers more. 

The worst-case scenario is a shrinking central city and a shrinking region with an overall population decline, coupled with continued central city abandonment and continued outward expansion.  In a region like this, there is not only more costly “stuff” (redundant public services and physical infrastructure) than there needs to be, but there is more “stuff” with ever fewer taxpayers to pay for it.

It’s an issue that is hauntingly familiar to every resident of a shrinking Rust Belt city.  The statistics on abandonment in places like Akron, Toledo, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cleveland, Flint, Gary, Youngstown, and Detroit range from the sobering to the horrifying.  

As I’ve written before, there are explicable, rational reasons for why these cities are experiencing such high levels of abandonment - although no one seems to be able to agree on precisely what they are.

But I’m not so sure that agreeing on why the abandonment of our core city neighborhoods is occurring is all that important.  Yes, there is a logic (that I cannot argue with) behind the notion that understanding the root causes of the problem is important if we are going to address it.  

On the other hand, I would argue that even if we perfectly understood why the problem is occurring (and for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we could adequately understand such a complex socioeconomic phenomenon), I’m not sure that we would be any further along the path toward actually doing something to change it.

In my experience, the discussion of why our cities are being abandoned is largely a useless distraction, and I continue to believe that those who are the most dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how these problems came about in the first place, also happen to be those that are the least interested in actually doing something to solve the problems.

So what should we do about the decline of our cities and the abandonment of our neighborhoods?

The first step is for people to be aware of the magnitude of our vacant and abandoned property problem in Northeast Ohio.

The term “awareness” is itself, multifaceted.  It entails: a) knowledge of the facts; b) acknowledgement that these facts translate into an actual problem that we should be concerned with; and c) a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something to address the problem.

I would argue that (a) is somewhat widespread; (b) is debated by some, with many more people in our region simply living in denial; and c) is still virtually non-existent.

When I say that people lack a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something about the problem, I don’t mean that we simply need to throw lots of public money at the problem, or create a bunch of new, intrusive government rules and regulations, or transfer wealth from some communities to other communities.  

I mean that citizens from all sectors, and all walks of life, from all over the region need to recognize their shared destiny as one civic community, and work together in myriad ways great and small (most of them yet-to-be-determined, because we don’t feel the collective sense of urgency yet) to solve an incredibly complicated, mutual problem that manifests itself in different ways, in many different places.

A common reaction to the abandonment of our city neighborhoods is the belief that it will somehow correct itself, and goes something like this: “Well, eventually the free-market will assert itself, and people working in the private sector will be able to buy these properties so cheaply that they will swoop in and rebuild the neighborhoods.”

This has happened here and there, to be sure, but it is very much the exception, rather than the rule.  For every gentrifying neighborhood like Ohio City, Tremont, or Highland Square, we have a dozen neighborhoods that are disintegrating before our very eyes.

There are a couple of problems with the theory that the free market will save the day.  For one, the market value of many of these properties is already at (or near) $0, and they can’t get any cheaper.  So it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents.

For another, the abandonment of our cities is largely a consequence of the free-market doing what it does, as it has always done it.

But, it is equally a consequence of short-sighted public policy decisions regarding infrastructure, education, housing, and other social services.  

And, of course, we can’t leave out the untold billions of individual choices, great and small, which are incrementally making our cities places that are either becoming better to live in, or becoming worse.

If the free market were solely the answer (and I do believe, incidentally, that it is part of the answer), then the problem would already be solving itself.

But it isn’t.

Clearly, something needs to alter the behavior of the free market.  Just as clearly, our current public policy regimen is not working either, and needs to be altered as well. Ditto for our societal priorities and many of our present-day cultural norms regarding the individual, society, and place.

But how?  And, just as importantly, altered to do what?

Well, that’s a great question.  Because what do we want to see happen in our cities?  What is our vision for what they should look like in the future.

I’m not sure that we have one.

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An abandoned warehouse on Cuyahoga Street in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Today’s Reality in Akron

Here in Akron, where I live, the problems of vacant and abandoned property, disinvestment, and depopulation get a little bit worse every day.

It’s an issue that has perhaps been more difficult for those of us living here to see as clearly as those living in other shrinking cities do - for a couple of reasons.

Compared to our neighbors in Cleveland and Youngstown, we have been relatively untouched by the scourge of abandonment and massive disinvestment in our neighborhoods.  Yes, we’ve seen our share of abandoned properties (there are roughly 2,300 right now) and population loss - we’ve lost 31% of our peak population, declining from 290,000 residents in 1960, to 199,000 residents today.

But most of the population decline has been very gradual, and has been relatively dispersed throughout the city.  Even our most distressed neighborhoods are nowhere close to experiencing the scope and scale of the abandonment that is seen across large swaths of Cleveland or Youngstown.

While I personally believe that a lot of this is due to a strong civic leadership culture and a solid history of successful public and private collaborations, some of it is also due to “dumb luck” - historical factors largely beyond our control.

Akron is a newer city than Cleveland and Youngstown.  By the time that Akron began to grow in earnest (around 1910, when the rubber and tire industry exploded), Cleveland was already a very large, established city; and Youngstown was well on its way to becoming one.  

Akron was also able to annex many neighborhoods that were developed between 1920 and 1960, while many similar neighborhoods in Greater Cleveland and Youngstown ended up in outlying communities.

In addition to containing a newer stock of housing, Akron had the advantage of being home to not just tens of thousands of blue collar industrial workers, but to the white collar industrial workforce, which numbered in the thousands.  

Unlike Youngstown, which contained numerous steel mills that were headquartered elsewhere, Akron was home to the production facilities and headquarters of four Fortune 500 rubber and tire manufacturers (Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, and General Tire).

This fact was incredibly significant for the city’s neighborhoods and for the quality of its housing stock, because the numerous executives, managers, engineers, scientists, and other highly-paid workers all built extremely nice houses within the city limits, especially in the neighborhoods located throughout the northwestern quadrant of the city (not coincidentally, uphill and upwind from the noxious air pollution generated by the rubber and tire plants).

To this day, roughly one-quarter of the City of Akron (primarily in the northwest) is still composed of neighborhoods that meet or exceed the levels of education and wealth found in all but the most affluent suburban communities.

So we’ve had a lot of advantages, and we have managed to weather the abandoned housing storm storm pretty well.

But our time is coming, and the chinks in our armor are appearing. They are easy to spot, especially if you know where to look.

Akron has enjoyed strong, visionary leadership from Mayor Plusquellic for close to 30 years now, and it has paid-off, especially in terms of the city’s economic prospects relative to its Rust Belt peers.  Job retention and economic development have been fairly robust compared to other cities in the region (the retention of the Goodyear corporate headquarters and the Bridgestone/Firestone Technical Center, serving as two recent examples).

The city has also done an admirable job of keeping up with the increasingly vexing problem of vacancy and abandonment, and has been quite proactive when it comes to tearing down abandoned properties.

While all of this is extremely important, I would argue that tearing down abandoned properties is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for creating a strong, healthy, and vibrant community that people want to call home.

So, we’ve done pretty well with job retention and economic development, and we’ve done pretty well at tearing down houses.

But what about keeping people here?  Cities are first-and-foremost a place for people to live - and our population continues to decline.

The 2000s were a wake-up call in that respect.  After losing a fairly modest 6,000 residents in the 1990s, we lost nearly 18,000 residents in the 2000s.

Why?  I think a lot of it has to do with housing supply and demand. There is an over-supply of housing that people do not want, and an under-supply of housing that people do want.

Akron was the fastest growing city in the United States between 1910 and 1920, exploding from a population of 69,000 to 208,000 in that one decade.  This means that a very large proportion of the city’s housing stock, which was built during those boom years, turns 100 years old this decade.

Lots of that old housing is blighted, vacant, or abandoned, and much of it is being torn down right now - and at a much faster rate than new housing is being built.  

So, we will continue to lose population unless we figure out how to do more than simply tear houses down - we need to figure out how to rebuild our neighborhoods from the ground up.  It’s simple math: less occupied housing units + less people per household = less people.

No matter how great of a city this is to live in (and it most certainly is), no matter how much we do right (and we do a lot that is) we will inexorably continue to lose population if we don’t learn how to build lots of marketable new housing.

Yes, a city can succeed if it is smaller.  Yes, things like urban gardening, and open space have their place.  But I would argue that for a city our size, with the types of everyday neighborhood amenities that we have come to enjoy and are currently in the process of losing (grocery stores, neighborhood retail, restaurants, doctor’s offices, churches, synagogues, schools, etc.) it is paramount that we figure out how to grow our population again:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again….

But the USA doesn’t need more architectural fashion statements, moral status posturing, or art stunts. It needs places to live that are worth caring about and compatible with the capital and material resources that we can expect to retain going forward, which are liable to be scarcer than what we’re accustomed to.

I don’t think there’s any question that we have to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape: walkable cities, towns, and villages, located on waterways and, if we are fortunate, connected by rail lines. These urban places will exist on a much smaller scale than what is familiar to us now, built on a much finer grain. They will have to be connected to farming and food-growing places. A return to human scale will surely lead to a restored regard for artistry in building, since the streetscape will be experienced at walking speed.

-James Howard Kunstler

Our only possible means for growing our population are: 1) increase average household size; 2) rehabilitate/renovate existing housing; and/or 3) build new housing.

Long-term demographic trends tell us that option #1 isn’t going to be happening anywhere in the United States.  As for option #2, however you feel about historic preservation (and that’s a topic for a separate blog post), it is clear that it’s an option that becomes more difficult (and impractical on a large scale) every year, as more structures succumb to the wrecking ball.

That leaves us with option #3.  We need to develop a replicable, scalable model for learning how to rebuild entire neighborhoods (both housing and commercial structures).  I think that Akron has the human capital, and the innovative and collaborative culture to pioneer something that we could transfer to other shrinking cities in the Rust Belt.

But we have to get intentional about it.  It’s not going to happen on its own.  On the ground, here in Akron, I don’t see much awareness of this fact yet.  I think that we still think that things are going to somehow take care of themselves.  We have not yet recognized that the greatest challenge of the 21st Century in this town is going to be to learn how to embark upon an ambitious, comprehensive, coordinated, collaborative effort to rebuild large parts of our city.

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The abandoned corner of Cuyahoga Street and Mustill Street, just up the street from where my Sicilian immigrant great-grandparents lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

Thinking Big, But Doing Small

But when I say “ambitious”, I’m talking about something that is the polar opposite of urban renewal.  It’s not a top-down, big government, command-and-control, out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new approach.  

I’m talking about something that is human-scaled, context sensitive, and collaborative - something that requires public, philanthropic, non-profit, and private sector leadership, in partnership with everyday people working together, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time, to rebuild and transform their community.  

I’m not sure exactly what that looks like yet.  But I’m starting to get a general idea…

Several weeks ago, I had the distinct privilege to meet Jason Roberts of The Better Block.  The entire premise of Jason’s work is to take one block at a time, start small, and actually do something.  It could be some temporary new bike lanes; it could be some temporary street art, or street furniture; it could be a makeshift coffee shop, or art gallery, or beer garden.  The important thing is to do something new in a neighborhood, let people see it, let people experience it, and, most importantly - let them participate in actually creating it.  People build, borrow, or (as a last resort) buy the materials that they need to transform their block.  The process of working together to build something is even more important than what is physically built, because what is really built are relationships and a sense of community.

At a recent event in Akron, Jason talked about the need (especially in the community-development professions - planning, engineering, economic development, public administration) to learn how to think small, and to implement modest, low-cost improvements that can lead to transformative changes later on.  

Instead of simply talking about intangible future plans that will never be realized due to fiscal considerations or bureaucracy, people work together to accomplish small things that they can actually see and touch; and learn to savor that first taste of success, which leads to building the kind of trust and inspiring the type of hope that it takes to transform an entire city.

It’s a simple, but incredibly powerful and profound concept - get people working together on small, but significant and visible projects in their own community, and watch the trust build, see the relationships develop and grow, and watch the hope begin to infect other people throughout the community.

The Better Block concept isn’t a panacea.  But that’s kind of the point - there is no panacea.  We need to start somewhere.  The work of rebuilding our cities begins one person at a time, one block at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time.  When a grassroots effort like The Better Block is coupled with visionary and innovative leadership from the public sector, the private sector, non-profits, and the philanthropic community, the results can be truly transformative.

I am looking forward to being a part of it here in Akron - and I’ll be sure to keep you posted as it moves forward.

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A potential Better Block location on Jefferson Avenue in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Aster Avenue in Akron’s Firestone Park neighborhood.

Quick Take: Transportation, Equality, and Freedom

By Jason Segedy

June 20, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Flight Memorial Drive, Copley Township (Montrose)

Something’s going on, a change is taking place
Children smiling in the street have gone without a trace
This street used to be full, it used to make me smile

And nothing I could say
Could ever make them see the light
Now apathy is happy that
It won without a fight

Think for a minute, stop for a minute

The Housemartins, Think for a Minute

I just returned from the 8-80: The Doable Cities Forum in Chicago, hosted by the Knight Foundation, which focused on the need to go back to creating traditional, human-scaled places in our cities that can be navigated easily on foot and by bicycle.

It was a great event, and it was encouraging to see people from all across the country talking about (and more importantly - doing something about) this issue.

It got me thinking about transportation; specifically the automobile, and its relationship to equality and freedom.  What do those terms really mean in a transportation context? 

Our transportation system today is so dominated by the automobile, that we have largely lost the ability to have a detached perspective on the ways in which it has shaped our society.  

Cars are a wonderful convenience for many of us, but they are primarily considered such a great convenience, because we have collectively built a society where we have to travel long distances, and therefore need cars. 

The very rationale for their convenience is a bit of a circular argument, and it’s worth considering that it hasn’t always been that way.

The prevalence of the automobile has blinded most of us to the profound inconvenience that an auto-dominated society has created for those that cannot drive. Our over-reliance upon cars is both a cause and an effect of systemic inequality in our transportation system.  

When automobile usage became widespread, one of the biggest selling points was that cars allowed each individual to have more freedom (at least those that could afford to own one).  

But have cars really delivered on that promise?  Yes, they still provide many of us with a fairly quick and convenient way to get to where we need to go.  But again, they are convenient primarily because we have spread our homes, jobs, and other activities out all over the landscape (because we had cars, and cheap gasoline, and therefore we could) and now most of us are in a position where we have to drive to virtually everything whether we want to or not. 

Before the automobile was invented, most people had a fairly convenient and quick way to get where they needed to go - it was called walking. Cities and towns were built to be navigated easily on foot, and barring long trips to distant locales, most people could get to almost everywhere they needed to go in 20 minutes, just like most of us can today - but without having to own or operate a car.  

In the early 20th century, for example, cities and towns were built in a manner which gave most people the freedom to get virtually wherever they needed to go by using their own two feet.  Bicycles, streetcars, and trains were available for longer trips, where walking was not practical.  The amount of money spent (by the individual and by society) on transportation was a fraction of what it is today.

So, how much freedom do cars really provide us with?  And at what cost?

There is an old cliche that says “freedom isn’t free”.  The same logic can be applied to much of the freedom that cars provide.  Yes, cars provide real, tangible benefits to those of us (myself included) that use them, but these benefits also come with real, tangible (and intangible) costs to individuals and to society as a whole. 

As a culture, we have greatly overemphasized the benefits and drastically downplayed the costs.  

So, what are the costs?  

Well, to begin in strictly monetary terms, there is the privately incurred average annual cost of owning and operating a car, which now stands at nearly $10,000 per year, per vehicle.

Then there is the publicly incurred cost of transportation.  Federal, state, and local governments spend an estimated $310 billion on transportation each year; the vast majority of which goes to build and maintain the roads and bridges which make our auto-dominated transportation system possible.

And these are just the quantifiable and explicit monetary costs that we incur to support this social arrangement.  

The implicit social and environmental costs are less easy to quantify, but are perhaps even more significant: the weakening of our sense-of-place, the loss of community, the lack of social cohesion; inequality and lost economic opportunity for those that don’t drive; the 34,000 Americans that are killed each year in motor vehicle crashes, the additional 2.2 million Americans that are injured; the damage to our air quality, our water quality, and our ecology - to name just a few.

Yes, cars give us freedom, but we end up paying a high price for it.  It is a price that we should question more often - especially those of us that are responsible for planning, financing, and building our transportation system.

A technological advance that appears not to threaten freedom often turns out to threaten it very seriously later on.

For example, consider motorized transport. A walking man formerly could go where he pleased, go at his own pace without observing any traffic regulations, and was independent of technological support-systems.

When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man’s freedom. They took no freedom away from the walking man, no one had to have an automobile if he didn’t want one, and anyone who did choose to buy an automobile could travel much faster and farther than a walking man.

But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man’s freedom of locomotion. When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one’s own pace one’s movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price.

Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation. Or else they must use public transportation, in which case they have even less control over their own movement than when driving a car.

Even the walker’s freedom is now greatly restricted. In the city he continually has to stop to wait for traffic lights that are designed mainly to serve auto traffic. In the country, motor traffic makes it dangerous and unpleasant to walk along the highway.

(Note this important point that we have just illustrated with the case of motorized transport: When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.)

-Industrial Society and Its Future

It is difficult to argue with the logic that technology (in this case, the automobile) has had many unintended consequences, and that a machine that promised us freedom, has simultaneously limited the freedom of both those who use it, and those who do not.

Yes, the car has helped us cover long distances more effectively.  But it has also made us travel long distances for things that we didn’t always have to - a loaf of bread, a haircut, a postage stamp, or a box of nails.  

The point of this post is not to demonize people that drive. It is to challenge each one of us to think about our federal, state, and local transportation policy framework; our default cultural orientation; and the law of unintended consequences.

Cars are important, and they will remain a vital mode of transportation for the foreseeable future.  But we would do well to question our over-dependence on them, especially at a time when driverless cars are getting far more media attention than the more sensible idea of a return to human-scaled urban design that will help us relate more harmoniously with our built and natural environments, with one another, and that would give us more transportation choices.  

It’s all about balance.  I drove to work today, but I walked to lunch, and I am going to ride my bike to an event tonight.  We should resist the false choices offered to us by the ideologues who tell us that our only two options are either abolishing cars altogether, or a continued spending spree on highway construction and urban sprawl.    

We should think long and hard about the reality of the fact that we’ve reordered our entire society; our built environment; even our very way of life, to serve this machine that we were told would serve us.  

Our generation’s challenge is to create a balanced transportation system that works for all of our citizens - rich and poor; young and old; urban, suburban, and rural.  It is not about getting rid of the automobile, it is about returning to a situation in which it is our servant, and not our master.

The following photos offer some examples of how we’ve lost that sense of balance.

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Northside District, Akron

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State Route 18, Bath Township (Montrose)

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Brookwall Drive, Copley Township (Montrose)

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

By Jason Segedy

May 22, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Cascade Plaza, Akron (completed 1968) - A place with the all of the human warmth of a Soviet gulag, and a living humility lesson for urban planners

Hilary went to her death
Because she couldn’t think of anything to say
Everybody thought that she was boring, so they never listened anyway.

-Belle & Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns writes a great post today about the planning profession, its future, and some of its present challenges.

Excerpt:

We need the planning profession to not only be relevant but we need planners to be leaders in our communities. The current planning paradigm is stuck in 1950’s thinking. It is old, stodgy and defensive. It not only clings to dogmatic beliefs about zoning, projections and centralized planning but fails in the most important duty of any credentialed profession: to systematically challenge itself to improve.

APA comes across as less concerned about great planners and great places than in ensuring continued employment for their dues-paying members (and collecting said dues). 

His critique is spot-on.  The urban planning profession does a lot of good work, but Chuck is absolutely correct when he says that we are stuck in 1950s thinking; and are, far too often, defensive, dogmatic, unapproachable, inflexible, and needlessly abstruse*.

*See: I could have simply said “difficult to understand”

As a profession, we are generally followers, rather than leaders; risk-averse; and poor communicators.  

Indeed, our three greatest weaknesses as a profession are in the realm of: 1) public policy leadership; 2) risk-taking; and 3) authentic, substantive, two-way communication.

Leadership

Take public policy leadership, for example.  Even now, after spending the past 19 years as an urban planner, I am still continually struck by how rare it is to hear or see a planning official actually offer a substantive subjective opinion on anything.

Planners make plenty of definitive statements when it comes to objective matters (e.g. “the code does not allow for that use”; “the design manual clearly states that these lanes must be 12 feet wide”; “the benefit/cost ratio of the project is sufficient to justify public investment”).  

But you hear nary a peep from most planners on matters that they consider to be the least bit subjective.  

Subjectivity is not a dirty word.  It is an inescapable reality of decision-making.  

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that objective criteria are not subjectively chosen.

The code doesn’t allow for that use, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that that use was a bad idea at that location.  

The design manual states that those lanes must be 12 feet wide, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that wide lanes are better than narrow lanes on that type of road.

All of these supposedly objective criteria reflect someone’s subjective value judgments about what is important. This doesn’t by any means invalidate them, but it should remind us that measures like the “cost-effectiveness” of a project are predicated upon subjective value judgments of what “effectiveness” means.

None of the supposedly “objective” tools that planners use came down from Mount Sinai carved into stone tablets.  They are all rooted in someone’s subjective opinions.

This should be self-evident, but, far-too-often, it is not.

I would argue that it is your job as an urban planner to have clear opinions on urban planning and development issues.  This doesn’t mean that your opinions are the most important ones, or that they are always right, or that they should be written in blood, or carved into those selfsame stone tablets, or that you can never change your mind; but the very essence of public policy leadership is the ability to say “I think that ‘this’ is better (or worse) than ‘that’, and here’s why”.

Then, let the debate begin…

We do elected officials and the general public a grave disservice when we shirk this particular responsibility.

I hear many planners dismiss the entire notion of public policy leadership with statements like “Well, yes, but we only play an advisory role, anyway…And it is the job of others to decide.”

Well, of course.  So what’s your point?

First of all, if you are an adviser, then for the love of God, you should be advising people.  

Secondly, since when was it only the people with the formal, official power to change things, that were the ones who actually changed them?

In reality, hasn’t it often been the precise opposite?  

Those with the formal power to lead, and to change things, have often been the very people that most vigorously enforced the status quo, and kept things from changing.

Think about it: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement…

Most of the people in this world that have changed it for the better were precisely those that did not have the formal power to change it.  In fact, many of them did things to that were considered inappropriate, illegal, or heretical, and they were often ostracized, abused, jailed, or killed for their trouble.

It is safe to say that few urban planners are going to end up jailed or martyred for their beliefs.  So what is stopping us from becoming thought leaders?

Risk-Taking

It is often fear that is stopping us.  Most urban planners are risk-averse. 

In a battle, or in mountain climbing, there is often one thing which it takes a lot of pluck to do; but it is also, in the long run, the safest thing to do. If you funk it, you will find yourself, hours later, in far worse danger. The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.

-C.S. Lewis

I am fond of saying that the best humility lesson for today’s urban planners is a five-minute meditation upon the fact that our primary job is fixing the mistakes that urban planners made 40 years ago.  It will be all too easy for us to fall into the exact same trap.

At first blush, this would appear to imply that our risk-averse, conservative professional tendencies are justified.  But I would argue that it should lead us to the exact opposite conclusion.

Trends are an inescapable fact of life.  They are not going anywhere anytime soon.  Some trends leave lasting positive impacts, and are healthy reactions to things that truly need to change; some trends leave no impact whatsoever, and are harmless fads; while other trends leave lasting negative impacts, and in retrospect prove to be huge mistakes.

The history of urban planning is full of examples of all three types of trends.  The simple lesson for planners is that we can’t escape from any of these trends simply by staying risk averse.  

It is our job to try to sift through them, figure out which is which, and to do our best to embrace and promote the first type of (positive) trend; to not concern ourselves too much one-way-or-the-other with the second type of (neutral) trend; and to actively resist and fight against the third type of (negative) trend.

This means that we need to be smart, savvy, and vigilant; to provide leadership; to exercise good judgment, and to demonstrate humility at the same time.

We need courage, integrity, and honesty; recognizing that it is not primarily our job to try to look good, or to tell people what they want to hear so they will like us, or to seem smart, clever, or important; but, instead, to tell the truth - to elected officials, to the general public, and to ourselves.

In fact, it is precisely our fear, and our unwillingness to take risks, that ensures that our profession will continue to be marginalized, and considered unimportant by most people.

The job is about helping people, and about making their lives better.  If you are an urban planner, and this is not primarily what you are concerned with, you should clear out your desk immediately and go do something else, because that’s the job. That’s what it’s all about.  The rest is just a bunch of paperwork and technical details.

Which leads me to my last point…

Communication

It’s about people.  

Urban planners, as a general rule, are poor communicators.  This is unfortunate, because (like most jobs) communication is the single most important skill that you can possess.  It is not a substitute for other skills, but it is indispensable if you want to be effective at what you do.

This is especially true in a profession that involves ideas and concepts.  The success of your ideas or concepts is heavily dependent upon your ability to effectively communicate them.

One of the saddest ironies of the urban planning profession is that although it is fundamentally about people and places (two things that most people have a profound personal interest in) we end up managing to boil nearly all of the life out of it, and transform it into one of the most boring and obscure endeavors that there is.

But men love abstract reasoning and neat systematization so much that they think nothing of distorting the truth, closing their eyes and ears to contrary evidence to preserve their logical constructions.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The reasons for why this is the case could fill another entire blog post, but suffice it to say that much of it has occurred through a mixture of professional arrogance, an affinity for abstraction, sheer ignorance, and a lack of simple human empathy for our constituents.  

Too often, we end up blaming the victim, and when our ideas, or concepts, or intentions are misunderstood; we are far too quick to criticize elected officials or members of the general public (intentionally or not) as being ill-informed, unenlightened, or disengaged.

Here’s a hint: when virtually no one seems to be able to understand what you are saying, perhaps it is time to look in the mirror and consider the fact that you may need to change your approach.

When no one seems to be able to get excited about what you are doing, or promoting, or planning, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the way that you are doing things.

When people are complaining on a regular basis that you are not listening to them, that they do not have a voice, and that you are just going through the motions, perhaps it is time to consider that they may be right.

Urban planning, done well, is one of the most engaging, exciting, and invigorating of all human pursuits.  It is the stuff of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Library of Alexandria, Central Park, the Eiffel Tower, Greenwich Village, and Rockefeller Center.  

At its highest and best, it is about the diverse and wondrous array of people that comprise our society; and about the incredible places and spaces in which they live, work, and play.  At bottom, these are things that every person is interested in, because everyone interacts with other people, and everyone exists within time and space.

Urban planning doesn’t have to be all about lifeless charts, and graphs, and maps, and budgets, and zoning codes, and design manuals, and forecasts, and plans, and other similar abstractions. These are simply tools.  They are means to an end.  Far too often, we portray them as ends in themselves.  And when we do, we only have ourselves to blame.

Chuck Marohn is right:  the most important duty of any credentialed profession is not to ensure continued employment for its due-paying members; it is to systematically challenge itself to improve.

Implementing a Vision For Public Transit In Northeast Ohio

By Jason Segedy

May 13, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Marc Lefkowitz of GreenCityBlueLake was kind enough to ask me to share my views on the future of public transit in Northeast Ohio with him.

Because I think it such an important topic, I’d like to share some of the same thoughts here at Notes from the Underground.

Q: Do we need a big, transformative vision for transit in Northeast Ohio, or do we manage the best we can within our current realities and chip away at needs as they arise?

I think we need a little bit of both:

I think we do need a big-picture vision for transit, both at the metro-by-metro (Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown) level, but also at the regional (12 county level). 

The key elements of the big-picture vision should involve the following: a) how can we improve cross-county express service between our core cities and our job centers - this should include express bus in the short term and commuter rail in the longer term; b) how can we improve cross-county local service for shorter trips (e.g. going from Bedford to Macedonia); c) how can we make transferring/transitioning from one RTA to the other as seamless, easy, and convenient as possible; and d) how can we improve the sharing of services (and service) between RTAs so that their county sales tax based sources of revenue are not such an impediment to providing service across county lines.

I think we also need a finely-grained, locally-oriented, service-oriented approach to transit fundamentals that is geared toward improving service, attracting “choice” ridership, and improving public transit’s image in the region. 

I would argue that most of these things are not very expensive monetarily, but they do involve a lot of time, energy, creativity, and hard work. 

The kind of things that I have in mind would involve the RTAs focusing even more on things like improving rider safety (mostly perception of safety); ease-of-use (using smart phone technology to give real-time travel information and for electronic fare payment); improving transit waiting environments; improving walkability and bikability to transit stops; and working more closely with local governments and private developers to improve signage, wayfinding, and to institute transit-friendly urban design. 

In Greater Akron, 90% of transit passengers earn less than $20,000 per year, and our level of “choice” (non-transit dependent) riders is extremely low.  A focus on these fundamentals wouldn’t necessarily lead to a sea-change in choice ridership, but it would certainly help a lot, and it would have the equally important benefit of improving service for existing passengers.

Q: What does a bold vision for transit in Northeast Ohio look like? 

I covered the “bold vision” a little bit in the first part of my answer to question #1, but I’ll elaborate a little bit more on two issues I didn’t directly address.

I think a bold vision entails two things:

First, the recognition, realization, and internalization of the fact that the county lines don’t matter to potential transit passengers.  Therefore, each RTA should be operated and administered with this fact in mind, and conduct its business accordingly. 

There are lots of trips between Bedford and Macedonia and between Twinsburg and Solon, for example.  Who is serving these?  Conversely, express connections between core cities and job centers are not very good.  There are good reasons for this (fiscal, administrative, etc.) but we have to do better. 

I think that the state needs to get involved in funding inter-city transit service (Canton-Akron; Akron-Cleveland, etc.) and that a transit counterpart to the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) should be created that would provide general revenue funding for this. 

Second, the vision entails the recognition that land use, economic development, and transportation policy at the state, regional, and local level is generally geared toward undermining the efficacy of transit in nearly every way. 

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if we were just talking about free-market competition between one mode of travel versus another, but it is a lot more than that.  Our current way of doing business in Northeast Ohio has negative ramifications on the natural environment and the built environment; it wastes energy, wastes money, leads to greater inequality, leads to more disinvestment and abandonment in our core cities, and it costs taxpayers far too much. 

I blog about this issue in much greater detail herebut suffice it to say that if we continue with the land use, economic development, transportation status quo, we will never ever have a viable public transportation system.  Period.  

From a public policy standpoint, we have to quit encouraging people and businesses to spread out from our core cities and inner suburbs.  It’s impossible to have a cost-effective, robust, competitive, and useful public transportation system serve a region that is built at a semi-rural population density, and that is essentially what we have in Northeast Ohio - a semi-rural region, from a built-environment standpoint. 

Brooklyn, New York, for example, is roughly the same land area as the City of Akron, and it has 11 times more people.  And we’re talking two “central cities” here.  I’m not advocating that we build at New York style population densities, but we must recognize that when we get below the population density of an Akron, or Cleveland, or Cleveland Heights, or Cuyahoga Falls, it becomes virtually impossible to make transit work, especially when you don’t have significant traffic congestion or parking costs - and we don’t.

So we need to learn to reinvest in our core cities and inner suburbs - by building new higher-density housing, and encouraging business development and job creation in these places. 

Ohio’s statewide transportation policy and investment decisions are a huge impediment to public transit, in this respect.  I think we are fooling ourselves if we think that we can do things like spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to widen I-271, widen I-77, and build the Opportunity Corridor, and simultaneously make transit more attractive and viable.  It can’t be done.  State transportation decisions seriously undermine efforts to reinvest in transit and in transit-friendly places.  We have to stop doing it.

Q: If Northeast Ohio had a new, large infusion of capital funds, what investment(s) in transit would you like to see?

I’d like to see most of these funds go to the “transit fundamentals” that I identified above.  I think doing 1000 small things really well, is so much more important than doing one or two large, high-visibility projects. 

As much as I am a supporter of (eventually) establishing a passenger rail system, I think it would be foolish to build a commuter rail system without getting the transit fundamentals right (not just the transit “service” fundamentals, but - even more importantly - the land use, economic development, and statewide transportation investment fundamentals). 

From the neighborhood, to the local government, to the region, to the state, leaders (elected and otherwise) need to understand the holistic nature of how highway expansion and also non-transportation related decisions can negatively impact the viability of public transit. 

The challenge for sustainability advocates is to advance and articulate a vision for land use and economic development in the region that everyday people can understand and support, which will create the conditions where big capital transit projects can actually succeed and thrive. 

If we try to avoid this political reality simply for the symbolic sake of saying that we built a large capital transit project (like commuter rail) without doing the due diligence to set it up for success, we will set transit back even further, when it fails to attract sufficient ridership, and the taxpaying public justifiably responds with “I told you sos”.