A desirable place to live

For decades, we’ve heard from Cleveland Heights officials that we need new, well-heeled residents to expand our population and, with it, the city's tax base. The current mayor and most council members have bought into this idea as well.

Cleveland Heights' population peaked in the early 1960s at a little over 61,000. Sixty years later, the 2020 census counted just 45,215 residents—due to smaller family sizes, loss of jobs in the region, and white flight, among other things.

In addition to population shrinkage, since the 1980s cities like ours have experienced drastic cuts in federal and state funding. Thus, the past three decades have seen a tightening of municipal budgets and corresponding reductions in staff and programs.

Looking to restore lost population as a fix for financial duress can lead to a focus on the presumed needs, tastes and preferences of the people the city seeks to attract, with less attention to serving and retaining those of us who are already here. Besides, is this aspiration even realistic?

We think not, and Joanna Ganning of Cleveland State University agrees: "[P]opulation growth is the wrong goal. . . . For Cleveland and other Shrinking Cities, improving quality of life for the people who have chosen to live here has to take priority." ("Population growth isn't the path to change Northeast Ohio needs," Crain's Cleveland Business, Dec. 11, 2023.)

Planning, Ganning explains, is often "based in hope and ideology rather than reality. The result? Decades of wasted spending on projects designed to attract outsiders, who rarely come and less often stay, especially if the flow of public subsidies stops.” [Emphasis ours.]

A more recent truism is that climate refugees will bolster our population. The Great Lakes states, with access to abundant freshwater, are often identified as "climate havens" for those fleeing rising sea levels, hurricanes and heat.

But Kate Yoder of Grist points out that our part of the world is hardly immune to the effects of climate change, as we discovered last summer, when smoke from Canadian wildfires made the air here dangerous to breathe. In addition, "[w]ith dam failures and overflows from combined sewer and stormwater systems common, the region is unprepared to handle the volume of water now coursing in."

Yoder cites a report from the National Climate Assessment, stating, "There’s not yet enough data to 'make a strong statement' on how climate change might drive migration to the Midwest." Instead, scholars believe that people who must relocate may move to safer places within their home regions. (“Why ‘climate havens’ might be closer to home than you’d think,” Grist.org, Nov. 20, 2023.)

We doubt that the thinly veiled gentrification schemes continually promoted by our elected officials will work any better now than they have over the past six decades.

Expecting our city's population to rebound to baby boom levels may be a pipe dream, but the one thing that could draw newcomers is to improve the quality of life for current residents. That will require superb public services, such as actually enforcing housing codes, and resolving resident complaints promptly, in addition to revitalizing neglected neighborhoods, restoring the tree canopy, and upgrading parks and recreation facilities—all with an eye on climate adaptability and social and economic equity.

A city dedicated to the well-being of its people is a desirable place to live. If we can achieve that, others will want to join us.

REMINDER: Join the 11th Annual Cleveland Heights Democracy Day Public Hearing on Thursday, June 13, at 6 p.m., in Council Chambers at City Hall. For details, consult the city calendar or contact Greg Coleridge at 216-255-2184 or ohio@movetoamend.org.

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg

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

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Volume 17, Issue 6, Posted 8:59 AM, 05.29.2024