The city of Cleveland has long been plagued by it’s rather unattractive nickname, “The Mistake by the Lake.” The discouraging epithet characterizing the city’s poor weather, abandoned infrastructure and high unemployment rates. Cleveland’s historic place as an industrial powerhouse, like many cities throughout the Rustbelt is now long gone. Widespread downsizing, abandonment and disinvestment have left these cities a shell of what they once were, coining the appropriate nickname of “Legacy Cities.” Planning for these declining cities has been the focus of Ohio based urban planner Hunter Morrison, most notably his efforts in the city of Cleveland.
In facing the challenges of a declining city, Morrison stresses that planners have to rethink their traditional role to best serve the historical and cultural values of their communities. These planners must manage change as oppose to guiding growth and development and dissociate themselves from the notion that a city’s decline equals a cities failure.
Morrison’s process of redefining the role of the planner for these cities can be summarized through seven essential tips.
1) Understand the Depth of the Political Challenge– Acknowledge the political hardships and encourage collaboration with other declining cities.
2) Understand the Power of Memory and Civic Identity– Help residents recognize their past and the multigenerational suffering of certain social groups and the steps needed for a future without such injustices.
3) Pursue a Planning Process That Enables Residents to Develop a Shared Vision for a Smaller City or Smaller Sections of a City- Assist residents in a new way of thinking, seeing vacant properties as opportunities rather than problems.
4) Engage with Anchor Institutions That Function as Urban Magnets– Embrace these institutions and create place specific development opportunities in surrounding neighborhoods.
5) Manage Neighborhood Change Strategically– Pick your battles, develop approaches other than redevelopment for specific neighborhoods, such as urban agriculture and other non-traditional urban uses.
6) Identify Legacy Assets and Rediscover the Urban Landscape– Ensure the future vision of the city encompasses the assets the city developed during its prime. Repurposing these “legacy landscapes” the planner can keep ties with the city’s history, while utilizing them for a sustainable future.
7) Get Rid of Visible Liabilities– On the contrary, planners need to rid the city of problem/ unused properties that discourage reinvestment and harbor criminal activity.
Morrison applied many of these principles (although his critics will be quick to point out his neglect of others) to re-energize the city of Cleveland and bring it back to the national stage. His work in Cleveland provides an example of his concept that “Legacy Cities must manage their realities in new ways that lead to reinvention rather than decline.”
Morrison, the former Cleveland planning director once used the analogy of “inviting people to dinner without having silverware,” to describe the city’s desire to attract visitors and capital, without first having the adequate infrastructure. This response was spurred in regards to the city’s plan to build a $700 million convention center and hotel complex in the city’s downtown lake front district. Morrison stated that this new complex would be the “next logical step” to complement the development of sport stadiums, The Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Plans for these as well as several other large scale developments were drafted to realize Morrison’s vision of using physical planning, or providing the silverware as a tool to revitalize Cleveland.
Reinvesting in downtown Cleveland through major projects was the focal point of Morrison’s 1992 award winning Civic Vision 2000 Plan. The plan’s goals were to initially provide large tourist attractions to bring in people from surrounding communities, thus increasing the areas hotel capacity. Then, once the appropriate infrastructure was in place, develop a regional and national convention industry, shifting the economy into the postindustrial realm. Publically funded in-fill housing developments soon followed, realizing the plan’s vision of transforming the deteriorating center and sprawling development pattern into a smaller, more concentrated city. The second part of the Civic Vision Plan was to create “neighborhood town centers.” These town centers were focused on large commercial retail concentrations mixed with high density urban housing, creating identifiable urban neighborhoods.
The Civic Vision Plan had been subject of major criticism; claiming that the plan was too focused on the physical development and failed to pursue a social equality agenda. One of the plans most prominent critics was Morrison’s predecessor and legendary equity planning advocate, Norman Krumholz. Krumholz ripped the plan stating, “(reshaping downtown) generated a lot of hype and some good press, but most people in the city will be doing worse.” Krumholz claimed the plan only considers the private sector’s needs and ignored key institutions; particularly schools, which are now in worse shape than before. Krumholz argued the money dedicated to Cleveland’s downtown, should of been spent on neighborhoods and decent affordable housing, echoing his own planning efforts emphasis on community.
In response to the plan’s perceived neglect of its neighborhoods, Morrison encourages his critics to realize the potential trickle down effect of investment from downtown to the neighborhoods. Referring back to Morrison’s dinner party analogy, perhaps he would see this as the dinner guests bringing the main course.
Hunter Morrison still serves the Rustbelt, currently acting as the Director for the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium Initiative. NOSCC is working with residents and local leaders to create a “vibrant, resilient, and sustainable future” for a 12- county region surrounding Cleveland, also now known as “The New American City.”