Cincinnati, formerly the largest city in the Midwest, is now the third-largest city in Ohio. Cincinnati, a city known for its art, culture and pig-processors has been pushed to the back of Columbus and Cleveland by its reputation as a less-than hip place and its lackluster sports teams.
Cincinnati, when viewed from the road, looks like any other Midwestern or Southern town, built for the automobile and past its glory years. Cincinnati used to have dense, walkable neighborhood, attractive architecture, and an extensive streetcar system. Cincinnati’s urban planning was radically altered by cars, just like in so many other cities. The transformation of Cincinnati into a car dependent city, surrounded by sprawling suburbs, was common to other cities during the 20th century.
But the future does not have to be a copy of the past. Cincinnati could be a model city for other mid-sized American towns, with its economic growth, low cost of living and new transplants.
To change direction, leaders need to recognize that cars have dominated Cinicinnati pedestrians.
David Stradling is a professor of urban history and he said that the story of Cincinnati is typical. There were two generations of road reconstructions to improve the city for automobiles. The first begins in the 1920s. This involves building thoroughfares, allowing surface road access, and widening streets. This is only mildly destructive compared to the destruction that occurred in the 1960s & 1970s following the passage of Interstate Highway Act 1956.
It was built to separate the white and black neighborhoods in Cincinnati. The city could use it as an excuse to raze neighborhoods along its flood-prone Riverfront. Interstate 75, which was built along the old Miami-Erie Canal today, is the main route for industrial and truck traffic into and out of the City.
These interstates have accelerated the suburban exodus, and they cut through mostly black neighborhoods. These interstates also led to leaders putting the suburbs above the city and prioritizing them.
Jake Mecklenborg is the author of Cincinnati’s Incomplete Subway. “I-275 created in Cincinnati a network effect that could not have existed without it…this linking of these disparate areas.”
The construction of the Beltway in Ohio made it difficult for cities to capture the attention of the public. Mecklenborg stated that the beltway created competition for downtown. “There was no downtown that could compete.”
The interstates made the suburbs less dependent on the city. This allowed for more businesses to move away from the city to the suburban areas. Stradling pointed out that earlier highways and turnstiles connected distant towns, but they stopped just before the city limit. This limited their ability to shape cities. Interstates did not have such limitations, and the federal gasoline tax was a funding mechanism that they could use.
While public transportation, and other budget items, are the subject of yearly negotiations and horse-trading in cities and states, highway expansion has been able to get around local concerns. As a result, the population shifted to suburbs and re-shaped what civic responsibility meant.
Stradling stated that “the vast majority of political active Americans depend on their automobiles and see the highway development as a loss to them and a gain for others.” This is indeed true.
After suburbanization, services and amenities that were once regarded as worthy of investment and a source of civic pride became a waste of tax dollars and of little value to suburbanites. “Car dependence modifies public spaces and makes civic gatherings [and] social cohesiveness much more difficult, because we don’t meet each other except behind a glass,” said Kea WILSON, senior editor of Streetsblog USA.
It’s not that the four-lane highways didn’t bring benefits to Cincinnati or other cities. It’s possible that the flight to suburbia kept people more firmly rooted in their cities, even if it was a weaker tie.
Cincinnati’s hills, that hemmed the city’s residents into the basin, restricted how much could be constructed within city limits. The streetcar system sparked growth outside the basin and the construction on the interstates fuelled that movement. The quality of life for a family with three children who move from a one-bedroom flat to the suburbs is significantly improved.
Jeff Suess is the author of Lost Cincinnati and Hidden History of Cincinnati. He also writes a history column for Cincinnati Enquirer. They don’t necessarily want to move back downtown. “I don’t understand why people believe there is only one way of living.”
Many of the changes made were well-intentioned but unwise. City leaders were pushed by other cities that were growing and the desire to retain residents to improve the city. “What happened to these freeways coincided with Cincinnati losing its power,” Suess explained.
Cincinnati’s population peaked around 1950. Around that time, the roads were made more car-friendly. All for nothing. Cincinnati reached a low between 1950 and 1980 as the suburbs around it grew, became richer, and roads replaced neighborhood. The city failed to compete with other large cities.
Mecklenborg stated that “Cincinnati’s city fathers failed to realize that their ultimate goal shouldn’t be to compete with other cities like Chicago that have endless flat land where industries can expand in any direction, but rather to recognize that Cincinnati has many special features and that they could position it as a tourism-oriented destination.”
It would have taken a lot of planning to come up with a plan without hindsight. Mecklenborg says that if they hadn’t, Cincinnati might have been the New Orleans, San Francisco or Montreal of Midwest.
photographs from the city a hundred years ago are compelling, even if it seems far-fetched. Cincinnati’s early car urbanism is reminiscent of dense, walkable communities that are in high demand today. It’s much easier to remove a fence than it is to construct one. Even if the public demands it, it will be difficult to rebuild what has been lost.
Mecklenborg stated, “Even if this were physically rebuilt it would not be the same.” “It is not a family or working class issue; it is being driven by retirees and young professionals.”
The structures and designs from yesterday may not be able to adapt to today’s needs.
Stradling stated that it is difficult to retrofit suburban communities so they are truly walkable. Older urban neighborhoods are usually walkable in some way. It’s no coincidence, I believe, that gentrification occurs in neighborhoods where buildings can be changed building by building but not on the street.
Financing townhouse renovations on an individual basis is quicker and easier than changing street layout. If the Department of Transportation of the State owns the street instead of the City, then forget it.
Politics over the streetcar or bus network, or efforts to make pedestrian-friendly improvements, can kill plans to restore dense and walkable neighborhoods even before they reach the city council.
Cincinnati may still have some hope. Aftab Purval, the mayor of Cincinnati, spoke about a “paradigm change” and looked forward 100 years to the future of his city.
Pureval said to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy that “if we want to do this right, we need to review and reform our land use policy.” He explained that a modern Cincinnati “looks like an urban, diverse area with good public transport and investment in public art.”
The city is considering reforming its de facto bans against duplexes, apartment buildings and changing the minimum parking requirements. It also wants to encourage more development near bus routes. If these changes are possible in Cincinnati then they can be made anywhere.
City leaders could make great progress by copying low-cost, high-impact initiatives from other cities. Wilson cited Austin and Minneapolis as examples of cities that have eliminated parking minimums. He also mentioned programs in Denver, Jersey City and Denver.
But scale and focus are important. Too much effort could lead to mediocre results and mediocre changes. “Everyone wants to improve something so they are like ‘Oh let’s all do this for this street. Let’s also do this for the one here and do this’, but it is like — there are limited resources,” Suess explained. If you are developing another area, then you will not be paying attention to the other one.
Another potential danger is to copy what other cities are doing. This approach has been used in the past and betrayed the town.
Skywalks were built between 1970 and 1990 in Cincinnati to connect 15 downtown blocks, making the workday of office workers easier. Unintentionally, people were pulled away from the shops in the street. Suess explained that “that one fix created a completely different problem.” was demolished less than 10 years after the last skywalk construction. Only one remains.
The city leaders were even worse when it came to sports subsidies. They struck the “worst stadium financing deal” in the 1990s with the Bengals at a taxpayer cost of over $1.1 billion.
It is impossible to connect and rebuild a typical American town that has been overrun by cars. This has not been done anywhere else than in a few neighborhood.
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Jack Heffron, a writer of The Cincinnati Anthology essays about the Queen City, wrote: “You did better than most of your competitors with less talent.” “That’s Cincinnati way.”
Cincinnati is indeed a city of culture. Cincinnati is a city that excels in arts and culture. From a huge Oktoberfest to the Cincinnati May Festival – the largest choral event in the Western Hemisphere – the city does more than its share. Cincinnati was a center for artists during the expansion of the United States westward.
Cincinnati, both in the city and the suburbs, could once again be a center of affordable humane urbanism.