A Humane Cincinnati
Will the Queen City find a way to reorganize its urban layout?
Cincinnati, once the leading Midwestern city, is now only the third-largest in Ohio. A city of art, culture, and pork-processors, its less-than-hip reputation and less-than-mediocre sports teams have kept it in the shadows of Columbus and Cleveland.
Driving through it, Cincinnati looks like the usual Midwestern or Southern city, past its glory days and built to suit the automobile. But Cincinnati once had dense, walkable neighborhoods, appealing architecture, and a robust streetcar system. Like so many other cities, cars radically changed Cincinnati’s urban design. Its transformation into a car-dependent city enclosed by sprawling suburbia was typical of other cities in the 20th century.
The future, however, need not ape the past. With economic growth, new transplants, and a low cost of living, city leaders with some initiative could create in Cincinnati a model for mid-sized American cities to rebuild what previous generations of planners had destroyed.
But to change course, leaders must recognize how cars triumphed over Cincinnati’s pedestrians.
“Cincinnati is the typical story, which is that to make the city work better for automobiles, there were basically two generations of rebuilding roads,” David Stradling, professor of urban history at the University of Cincinnati, said. “One begins in the 1920s: That involves building things like thoroughfares, widening some streets, allowing surface roads. That is mildly destructive, but nothing compared to what happened in the 1960s and 1970s after the passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956.”
The construction of Interstate 71 divided the east side of Cincinnati from the city center and separated the white neighborhoods from black neighborhoods. It gave city officials an excuse to take the hammer to neighborhoods along its flood-prone riverfront. Interstate 75, built along the former Miami-Erie Canal, today siphons industrial and truck traffic in and out of the city.
Those interstates fueled the suburban exodus and cut through predominantly black neighborhoods. They also resulted in leaders deprioritizing the city itself and focusing more on the suburbs outside the city.
“I really think that the bigger problem that happened was the beltway,” said Jake Mecklenborg, author of Cincinnati’s Incomplete Subway. “I-275 in Cincinnati created a networking effect that couldn’t have existed otherwise…this linking of all these disparate areas.”
In Ohio, the construction of the beltway made it harder for cities to command the public’s interest. “It created competitors to the downtown,” Mecklenborg said. “There was no way that any downtown could compete.”
By making the suburbs less reliant on the city, the interstates allowed more businesses to set up shop away from the city and shift to the scattered suburbs. Earlier highways and turnpikes connected distant towns but stopped before the city limits, Stradling noted. That limited their power to reshape cities. Interstates, however, respected no such limits, and with the federal gas tax, had a built-in funding mechanism to boot.
What’s more, while public transportation and other line items in city and state budgets are subject to yearly haggling and horse-trading, highway expansion was able to do an end-run around such local concerns. The population shift to the suburbs that came about as a result reshaped what it meant to be civically minded.
“The vast majority of politically active Americans rely on their automobile and think of the loss that will come with the development of highways as being mostly somebody else’s loss and their gain—which is true,” Stradling said.
After suburbanization, city amenities and services once thought fit for investment and a point of civic pride were considered a waste of taxpayer dollars with little benefit to suburbanites. “Car dependency modifies public space and makes civic gathering [and] social cohesion much more difficult because we don’t encounter each other except for behind a windshield,” said Kea Wilson, senior editor at Streetsblog USA.
That’s not to say the four lanes brought no benefits to Cincinnati and other cities. The flight to suburbia may have kept more people tied, however weakly, to the city instead of moving to places more far-flung.
Cincinnati’s hills, which hem the city’s population into the basin, limited how much could be built within the city limits. The streetcar system spurred growth beyond the basin, and the construction of the interstates energized that movement and the desire of Cincinnatians for more space. A family with three kids leaving a one-bedroom apartment for the suburbs will significantly improve their quality of life.
“There’s plenty of people in the suburbs who are just happy being in the suburbs,” said Jeff Suess, author of Lost Cincinnati and Hidden History of Cincinnati, and a history columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer. “They don’t want to necessarily move back downtown. I don’t know why, frankly, that people think there’s only one way to live.”
Many changes were well-intentioned, if unwise. Pressure from other rising cities, and a desire to keep residents, pushed city leaders to spruce up the city with an eye toward suburbanites. “What happened with these freeways and things was also coinciding when Cincinnati was losing its power,” Suess said.
Cincinnati’s population peaked in 1950, and it was about that time that the roads became more car-friendly. It was all for nought. Between 1950 and 1980, Cincinnati hit a low point, as nearby suburbs grew and became wealthier and roads replaced neighborhoods. The city tried, and failed, to compete with other cities.
“What the city fathers of Cincinnati failed to understand was that the end-all be-all aim for Cincinnati really shouldn’t have been to compete with cities that had the endless flat land like Chicago, where an industry can expand in all directions, but instead to sort of recognize that, hey, the city has all these special things about it and they could actually position it as a tourist-oriented place,” Mecklenborg said.
It would have been a difficult plan to devise without the benefit of hindsight, to be sure. But if they had, Mecklenborg argues, Cincinnati could have become the New Orleans, San Francisco, or Montreal of the Midwest.
Though it sounds far-fetched, photos of the city from a century ago make a compelling argument. Though one must ignore the horse waste, the street urchins, and the Dickensian-style poverty to see it, Cincinnati’s early-car urbanism looks a lot like dense, walkable neighborhoods that are now in high demand. Unfortunately, it’s easier to tear down a fence than to build one. Reconstructing what was lost will be arduous, even if the populace demands it.
“Even if we were to physically rebuild this thing, it really wouldn’t be the same at all,” Mecklenborg said. “It’s not family- or working-class motivated; it’s being motivated by retirees or young professionals.”
It’s also not clear whether the structures and designs of yesterday will be adaptable to the needs of today.
“It’s difficult to retrofit some suburban communities into something that’s truly walkable,” Stradling said. “Older urban neighborhoods are almost always walkable to some degree. And I think it’s not a coincidence that gentrification happens in those kinds of neighborhoods that can be physically transformed building by building, but don’t need to be transformed on the street level.”
Financing a townhouse renovation on an individual level is easier and quicker than changing the street layout. And if the state Department of Transportation owns the road instead of the city, forget it.
Political wrangling over streetcar or bus infrastructure, or attempts to make pedestrian-friendly changes, can kill well-laid plans to restore dense, walkable neighborhoods before they even reach city council.
Even so, Cincinnati might have hope. Mayor Aftab Pureval spoke of a “paradigm shift” and looked ahead 100 years into the city’s future.
“If we’re going to get this right, then we have to have a comprehensive review and reform of our land use policies,” Pureval told the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. A modern Cincinnati, he explained, “looks like a dense, diverse neighborhood that’s walkable, with good public transportation and investments in public art.”
Reforming the city’s de facto bans on duplexes and apartment buildings, changing its minimum parking requirements, and green-lighting more development along bus lines are all on the table. And if those changes are possible in Cincinnati, they’re possible everywhere.
Finding low-cost and high-impact initiatives to copy from other cities could help city leaders make significant progress in making those changes. Wilson pointed to Austin and Minneapolis abolishing parking minimums, and other programs in Denver and Jersey City.
Scale and focus matter, though. Trying to do too much could mean second-rate changes and third-rate results. “Everybody wants to improve something, so instead of dedicating it to one space, they’re like, ‘Oh, let’s do what everyone did for this street, let’s do it for this one over here, and do that,’ and it’s like — the resources are finite,” Suess said. “If you’re starting to develop another area, you're not paying attention to this other one, and it starts dropping off.”
Copying what’s trendy in other cities is another potential danger, as that approach has betrayed the city in the past.
Skywalks, built in Cincinnati between the 1970s and 1990s, were supposed to link fifteen downtown blocks to make the daily routine of office workers easier. One unintended effect was the pulling of people away from shops on the street. “That one fix caused a different problem,” Suess said. Less than a decade after the last skywalk was constructed, demolition followed—and only one survives.
City leaders did even worse with sports subsidies. In the 1990s, they struck “the worst stadium financing deal ever” with the Bengals, at a total taxpayer cost of more than $1.1 billion by 2026.
The task at hand, of reconnecting and rebuilding a typical American city overwhelmed by cars, is a black box. No place has yet found success in doing so beyond in a few neighborhoods.
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“You did far better with less talent than most of your opponents,” the writer Jack Heffron wrote of baseball great Pete Rose in The Cincinnati Anthology, a series of essays on the Queen City. “That’s the Cincinnati way.”
That’s the Cincinnati way, indeed. The city punches above its weight for arts and culture, from a massive Oktoberfest to the Cincinnati May Festival, the largest choral gathering in the Western hemisphere. Cincinnati was an early center for artists as the United States expanded westward.
If city leaders size up the task at hand, Cincinnati could again stand out on the map: as an affordable center for humane urbanism, in the metro and in the suburbs.