Conventional Planning May Be Contributing to Cleveland's Decline

Samuel Staley's picture
Blogger has launched a multipart series of videos on how the city of Cleveland can turn itself around using free-market approaches and limited government reforms. Unfortunately, the video format didn't provide enough time to explore the ways economic decline fundamentally challenges the concept and practice of urban planning in older cities. In a companion analysis, I discuss whether cities facing more complex and dynamic development environments need less conventional planning and more flexible, market-oriented land-use regulation such as the framework in play in Houston, Texas.

Ironically, the complexity of urban redevelopment projects and infill-development in  already built-up cities-demands a nimble, flexible and expeditious regulatory process to minimize development costs and allow the market to adapt quickly to more finely grained tastes for housing. Conventional development regulation, in contrast, is heavily dependent on end-state zoning and negotiated outcomes for projects large and small, simply gets in the way.

Zoning maps in cities large and small have become detailed and prescriptive, giving planning commission more discretion over land and, consequently, increasing the uncertainty of the regulatory process. I surveyed 32 cities Ohio's major metropolitan areas in the 1990s and found the average city (population averaging 65,281) had 17 zoning districts, including seven residential districts, and five commercial districts. Cleveland's land development regulations include 13 general chapters of the land-use and planning code, 30 chapters of the zoning code and 17 chapters describing various use districts (including nine separate residential districts such as single family, "limited" single family, two family, townhouse, multifamily, "limited" multifamily, residence-office).

Compounding the problem is the implicit assumption driving the planning process is that zoning plans for growth. Cleveland is trying to manage decline. Cleveland's zoning code reflects a bygone era of a large city that was the economic engine for the region. Cleveland ranked as the nation's fifth largest city in 1920. The 52-floor Terminal Tower stood as the tallest building outside New York City when it was built in 1930 (and held that record until 1964). As World War II ended, Cleveland's city population breached 900,000.

Yet, by 2008, the city's population had plummeted to less than half the number at its peak and its national population rank had fallen to 40th. By 2008, only one fifth of the metropolitan area population lived in the city of Cleveland as outlying cities in Cuyahoga County grew is absolute and relative terms along with suburban counties such as Lake, Geauga, Lorain, and Medina.

Within the city, the effects were palpable. In 1960, near the city's peak, 26 of Cleveland's 36 neighborhoods had population densities exceeding 10,000 people per square mile. Six neighborhoods had populations near or exceeding 20,000 people per square mile. By 2000, none of Cleveland's neighborhoods had population densities exceeding 15,000 people per square mile and just six had densities over 10,000 people per square mile.

Cleveland's experience, in my view, bears testimony to the increasing impracticality of zoning-based land use regulation rooted in master planning. Cities have been unable to effectively determine what land uses need to be where using long-range comprehensive planning because the future cannot be forecasted with reliability, political wishfulness often trumps sound data analysis, and economic and social dynamics shift constantly.

The effect is to create a highly uncertain, process-driven approval process that limits innovation and adaptation in the housing market with a bias toward protecting the status quo. Uncertainty in the approval process discourages new housing development. Land use transitions-whether to lower urban densities or from empty warehouses to residential lofts and condominiums-squeeze already thin profit margins and can easily make profitable development little more than wishful thinking.

The alternative is a regulatory approach more closely resembling Houston, Texas. Houston focuses more on infrastructure-based performance standards and puts a premium on processing applications administratively. Since the city of 2.2 million people does not have zoning, the neighborhoods transition based on the demand for certain types of land uses and functions. The result is a planning process that allows high-rise residential buildings and mixed-use projects to be built and leased within a year of purchasing the property. The city's swift approval allows the urban real-estate market to adapt quickly and innovatively to changing demand in older urban areas, promote infill, and contributes to the resilience of the city's housing market.

The Houston model is not a panacea for urban decline. But, more often than not, conventional planning and zoning is doing more harm than good in older cities by imposing a static, end-state vision for land use that allows change only under very cumbersome procedures that make cities inhospitable places to invest and do business. Freeing up the land market is more likely to foster the kind of investment needed to encourage revitalization than sticking to the conventional, if safe, path.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.



Michael Lewyn's picture

Good point but overstated

I certainly agree that Cleveland would probably be better off with Houston's level of regulation or even less- maybe such a devastated city needs to be a kind of "housing opportunity zone" with roughly the level of land use regulation prevailing in, say, Somalia.

But I don't think even the best planning policy is likely to turn Cleveland into Houston, because Cleveland's problems are part of a regionwide decline, and Houston's growth is part of a regionwide boom. More heavily regulated cities such as Dallas and San Antonio are also growing; on the other hand, most industrial cities in the upper Midwest are declining (with the exception of Indianapolis and Columbus; I have no idea whether those cities are any more developer-friendly than Cleveland).


Cleveland's growth issue is part of larger issue as you mention. No local public policy will make it that much more attractive to business, make the climate any better, replace old infrastructure, reduce labor union power, or grow mountains. To me, "good planning" in Cleveland means "embracing decline". This is also true in Detroit and some other places in the region. Indy is indeed different, but Indiana is far better run, in my opinion, under Daniels than Michy or Ohio. They are far more business friendly and financially prudent and thus have a nicer city with a better downtown with all of the housing affordability benefits. Even if manufacturing was to miraculously return to the US on a large scale, would those companies move to Cleveland? I doubt it - they would go to Tennessee and Georgia and Texas and other cheap land, low wage, right to work-like states.

Michael Lewyn's picture

But remember Columbus as well as Indianapolis

Columbus too is growing, and has the same state government as Cleveland. So I don't think enlightened state government is what has spelled the difference between Columbus/Indy and Cleveland- especially since the trends in all three cities have been going on for decades, under five or ten governors.

It seems to me that at least part of the difference is simply that Columbus and Indianapolis are elastic cities (i.e. have annexed chunks of suburbia)- but I'm not sure its all the difference.

I agree too

It might be worth looking into the correlation by city, between "business friendly", low tax, low wage, "right to work" policies; and low regulation of land supply leading to cheap land. They certainly all go along together when it comes to attracting business and industry and workers; I think cities that have the one, tend to have the others too.

Maybe if the whole of the USA had policies like Houston, it would not have lost so much industry to Asia? Why would this have been a bad thing for the planet? The industry in Asia operates far less efficiently than in Houston.

Someone else above commented that Houston is often regarded as a "worst model" for transport outcomes. I very much doubt that this is fair; flexible uses of land are the most powerful reducers of average travel distances.

But what we are also up against, is that people who are located the most conveniently to work, shopping, school, recreation, and so on, actually tend to make a lot MORE trips simply "because they can". For example, the rising incidence of people who go home for lunch, can actually cancel out the "reduction" in VMT's that arises from convenience of location to work. (Source: Colin Clark: "Regional and Urban Location", 1982)

I suspect that Houstoners have it very, very good in their lifestyles; including the most affordable inner city accomodation for students and artists; which leads to inner city life of a "vibrancy" that is wished for by many other city politicians, but mostly priced out of existence by land and development regulation.

Losing Industry To Asia

"Maybe if the whole of the USA had policies like Houston, it would not have lost so much industry to Asia"

Average factory wage in China is 64 cents per hour.

People tend to blame every problem on the subject that they are most interested in. But there is no way you can blame loss of US factory jobs on zoning laws rather than on differing factory wage levels.

Charles Siegel

What I actually said

Charles, I said " would not have lost SO MUCH industry to Asia......"

Of course there are multiple factors affecting business location decisions, and my point was that low cost land was an attraction, along with low taxes, less regulatory obstruction, "right to work", and so on. My point also was that in many cases, cities have got the whole lot "right" or "wrong"; and it is easy to see who is gaining and who is losing population and employment.

The "Rust Belt" States though, have been hurt more by the gradual entrenching of priviledge by the unions in important industries. The irony surely does not escape us, that anyone who still has their $70 per hour production line job in Detroit will be doing very, very nicely thank you, out of the extremely low cost of property.

Form Based Codes

"Conventional development regulation, in contrast, is heavily dependent on end-state zoning and negotiated outcomes for projects large and small, simply gets in the way. Zoning maps in cities large and small have become detailed and prescriptive, giving planning commission more discretion over land and, consequently, increasing the uncertainty of the regulatory process.

I would say the alternative is to use form-based codes, with development by right if you conform to the code. The New Urbanist method rather than Houston's method.

Cleveland could also have benefited from an Urban Growth Boundary. The population of the entire metropolitan area has remained roughly stable for decades, but hundreds of thousands of people have moved from the city to auto-dependent suburbs.

Charles Siegel

Michael Lewyn's picture


I've always thought that the case for an growth boundary is strongest in a stagnant, low-price region like Cleveland- yet they only get implemented in high-growth regions, where (a) a central city might be able to prosper without one and (b) concerns about rising house prices are more legitimate.

Why is this?

Why is the case for a growth boundary in a stagnant, low-price region like Cleveland a strong one? Why do you think they only get implemented in high-growth regions?

Growth boundaries and stagnation, Ironic indeed

Michael, it is worth looking at whether growth boundaries have done any good in the economically devastated north of England. They have 30% unemployment (some of it third generation) AND "seriously unaffordable" housing.

One of the effects of this, is that "public housing" is a further disincentive to employment. Why should someone on a welfare benefit get a job at all, when they will lose their "free" house and have to buy one that will swallow up more than half their new income in mortgage repayments?

Another effect is that the cost to the taxpayer, of "public" housing, is very much higher than it needs to be. So is any purchase of land by the public authorities for any reason whatever.

If the North of England had a freer market in land, approximating Detroit's, they too should have $20,000 houses. Not 300,000 "pound sterling" houses representing the bottom end of the market. This is NOT how to rejuvenate an economic disaster area.

Is Houston really a good example?

Houston may be able to respond quickly to changing market forces but the fact it has no zoning bylaw might help explain why it is regularly held up as the worst City in North America in transport planning terms. It is often quoted as the only city in North America that successfully builds its way out of congestion. I haven't been there but I would guess the lack zoning may play some part in creating one of America's most auto dependent cities. Development at any cost?

Tim Barton


It seems that non-Clevelanders often assume that Clevelanders are waiting for an answer from the outside about what our next steps should be.

You Don't Know Cleveland

While you make some very valid assumptions with regard to the barriers of zoning policies it should be noted that had it not been for these very policies the foreclosure crisis would have been far worse. Houston benefits from growing population, broad economic variables and strong state support.

Another factor is that Houston and similar areas have a 12-month construction season. Cleveland has a 9-10 month construction season so build and lease within in a year is difficult.

Also understand that in areas like Cleveland, 'white flight' and then sprawl had more to do with central city decline than zoning policies.

Zoning is not the problem in Cleveland, it is a combination of mindset and race. The mindset is one that canibalizes and rebukes its young while looking and paying elsewhere for answers. Race although not the problem it once was is still the foundation of the way Cleveland has been structured; physically, culturally, economically and intellectually.

You want real solutions to Cleveland ask real Clevelanders.

Race and Urban Land Values

Colin Clark discusses this in "Regional and Urban Location", pointing out that urban "ghettoes" did indeed create local kinks and dips in natural land value progressions from the center to the edge of the urban area.

The cheap land always came first, and was then kept cheap over extremely long periods by the presence of the Ghetto. No ghetto ever started on higher cost land which was then dragged down in value. Colin Clark strongly condemned "urban renewal" policies that deprive low income earners of the "affordable" option. If he was alive today, he would condemn urban limits for doing the same thing.

Another brief curiosity; (we are talking about painful history here) he also pointed out that in the early stages of influx of African-Americans and Latinos into an area due to its affordability, prices could be driven up quite sharply initially before succumbing to the racial prejudice, white flight problem and dropping again. Colin Clark puts this down to African-Americans and Latinos frequently living at much higher numbers of people per room.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Why Cleveland could use a UGB but doesn't get one

Re HRPlanner's question:

A declining city like Cleveland would benefit from a UGB to protect the city and the inner suburbs from further decline. By contrast, in a booming metro area there is enough population growth to go around, so a prosperous core and inner suburbs can coexist with lots of suburban growth.

Also, the strongest argument against UGBs (concern over housing prices) is much weaker in a city where housing values tend to go down as often as up.

So why do booming metro areas get UGBs instead of dying ones? My somewhat-educated guess: maybe the major impetus for such policies comes from environmentalists worried about preserving rural areas, and such rural areas are under more development pressure in a booming region. By contrast, if you want to find rural life in, say, Buffalo, you don't have to drive that far so the political pressure for an UGB is not so great. Also, stagnant regions are in northern states with a greater tradition of local autonomy.

Cleveland And The Argument For Smart Growth

Maybe it has something to do with the conventional argument for Smart Growth: "growth is inevitable, so we should accommodate it in the way that does least damage." That argument doesn't apply in places like Cleveland, where growth is not inevitable.

The conventional argument is not a very good argument for smart growth.

Much better to argue that an urban growth boundary reduces transportation costs, gives people more livable neighborhoods, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, preserves open space, and so on - arguments that apply to Cleveland as much as to anywhere else.

Of course, in Cleveland, there is the additional argument that is protects the city from decline, as Michael says.

Charles Siegel

UGB's can make sense

I think UGB's (there is an acronym for everything it seems) make sense in many regards, including capping sprawl and protecting natural resources.

Clarifying your statement


So, are you saying that UGB's protect a city like Cleveland because they prevent migration of city residents out of the city and into new suburban development?

Models where UGB was used successfully to prevent decline

Are there examples of cities successully using a UGB to prevent decline???

Michael Lewyn's picture

no real examples

HRPlanner asks whether an UGB has been used to prevent decline.

My point was that it hasn't ever been tried as far as I know in a declining city situation, with the possible exception of Portland. Portland did lose a small amount of population in the 1960s and 1970s - but by no stretch of the imagination was their situation analogous to a Cleveland or a Buffalo.

demand is the problem, not regulation

I think the author has some good points, but is missing the big picture. There is no development in Cleveland because there is no demand. We all know the reasons why: the departure of industrial jobs overseas, domestic migration to the Sun Belt, social issues in the inner city, etc.

If a developer wanted to build a thousand units of new housing in Cleveland--or for that matter, in Buffalo or Detroit or Philadelphia--you can be sure that the city government would remove any zoning obstacles that stand in the way of making that project happen. But this won't happen until housing demand in these places comes back to life. Zoning isn't the problem; the problem is that fewer people want to live there.

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