How to make policy that benefits a whole city

In the U.S., riches, influence and political power have been flowing upward, from workers to the wealthy, for at least four decades. The “trickle down” theory has proven to be a sham, creating unprecedented wealth and income inequality. This weakens not only the economy, but democracy itself.

Cleveland Heights, unlike most residential communities, is something of a microcosm of the country. While most suburbs are racially and economically homogeneous, our city’s population is diverse. Cleveland Heights over time, however, has become quite segregated by neighborhood. As in the U.S. as a whole, our wealthiest areas are mostly white, while our poorest are more likely home to people of color. This is not unvarying: some African Americans reside in our mansion districts, and many whites live in the more distressed parts of town. Still, it holds generally true.

In our June column, we suggested some small ways to address the glaring inequities between the Severance and Noble neighborhoods and the rest of Cleveland Heights. Improving conditions for those who have the least produces a safer, healthier and more cohesive community for everyone. Enhancements to the most desirable neighborhoods have no effect on distressed areas. But consistent, material improvements to struggling neighborhoods ripple out to the betterment of all.

Put another way, a better Fairmount Boulevard or Scarborough Road will not result in a better Noble district, but a better Noble district will lead to a better Cleveland Heights for residents on Fairmount and Scarborough, and throughout the city—and will even enhance the region beyond our city limits.

At its June meeting, the CH Planning Commission watched a brief presentation on “equity planning” by Kathryn Hexter of CHN Housing Partners. According to the American Planning Association, “planning for equity” is a way to seek social justice by redressing past harm, and by listening to all, especially those with the least power. Equity cannot be accomplished as an afterthought; it must be built into the planning process from the outset.

Equity is an established concept in city planning, but could the goal of a more just and inclusive community be infused through all of the city’s policies and practices? To elected officials, citizen commissioners and staff alike, shouldn’t the aspirational slogan “All are welcome” mean steadily increasing access, opportunity and safety for everyone?

What would it mean if economic and racial justice were guiding visions across city departments, from planning to economic development, building and housing, communications, law, safety and the court? The recent appointment of the Racial Justice Task Force and new police department initiatives show some movement in this direction. 

Environmental justice is essential to equity planning. It is no accident that the Arco dump was directly adjacent to the Noble neighborhood, not Cedar Fairmount. Correcting such blatant injustices is essential. Moreover, environmental sustainability is a second and equally important set of principles that benefit everyone, and should inform city policies and projects.

The city already plants tree-lawn trees, free of charge, for any homeowner who asks. Adding native plants to our median strips and parks would reduce mowing, improving air quality and providing wildlife habitat. Expanding our tree canopy, reducing stormwater runoff, purchasing hybrid and electric vehicles, converting city buildings (beyond the Community Center) to renewable power—all would help to mitigate the effects of climate change. (And how about restoring the native plantings in the Cumberland parking lot?)

Economic, racial and environmental justice, and environmental sustainability: these principles are the foundation for universal benefits. We hope they will guide our city into its second century.

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at

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Volume 14, Issue 8, Posted 3:11 PM, 07.30.2021