Living in a city that's striped by highways and surrounded by the longest beltway in the United States, it would seem — on the surface anyway — that Cincinnatians have a passion for getting from point A to point B in their cars.
However, the region's impressive system of roads might not be telling the full story of what citizens actually want. Recent research shows an increased demand for hyper-local, "20-minute" communities where citizens can access neighborhood amenities like stores, parks and entertainment in just a short walk.
Steve Johns is the Planning Services Administrator for the Community Planning Services Division of Hamilton County Planning and Development. He says that he has witnessed this increased demand for more walkable communities with diverse amenities.
PDS Planning Services Administrator Steve Johns“People don’t want to have to drive for every last thing," says Johns. "We long for the old days of Hyde Park where you could get all your convenience items in the neighborhood. In the county, there are places that are looking for this and know they have a market around it. Neighborhoods like Madeira and Montgomery, they know that the reason people move there is because of that lifestyle.”
Aside from convenience, spending less time in the car has many benefits for individuals. Johns says that communities that are walkable are friendlier and closer — both literally and figuratively.
“People are longing for a sense of community. When you’re in a car, you’re with the people in the car. With walking, it’s a little more random. Particularly for millennials, there are environmental concerns when you’re driving everywhere.”
Placing amenities within walking distance has an impact on the health of individuals as well as the environment. Citizens that are walking to neighborhood destinations are increasing their daily physical activity and saving the atmosphere from toxic car emissions.
Johns and his team believe programming is the key to repopulating community streets with businesses and people. Neighborhood leadership should encourage their residents to consider the resources available to them.
“You see Walnut Hills with the Walk on Woodburn events or Final Friday on Main Street in Over-the Rhine,” says Johns. “You need some programming to get people thinking about this place as a ‘center’ again.”
As far from the urban core as Cleves, communities all over Hamilton County are attempting to develop their shared spaces to make them more appealing to and accessible by the people who live there.
“Out in the county, these neighborhoods have ‘good bones,’ as we say,” Johns says. “They have a main street, the school is still there, the city hall is still there. There’s still a nucleus functioning.”
Streetcar recalls past, foretells future of urban neighborhoods
Brad Hughes agrees that many of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods still have the potential to be walkable. Hughes and his wife Karen own the artisan cookware store Artichoke in OTR, adjacent to Findlay Market.Brad and Karen Hughes, owners of Artichoke
“I’ve lived here most of my life and I’ve loved how the different neighborhoods are separate from each other,” says Hughes. “These neighborhoods were built before cars, built to be places where you could walk to the store. You don’t have to leave for everything.”
As small business owners in OTR, the Hugheses appreciate the efforts to ditch our reliance on cars, especially downtown. Downtown is an obvious place to encourage walkable streets with plenty of places to go and things to see.
One of the major changes to downtown’s viability as a place to live, work and play is the Cincinnati Bell Connector. Hughes says when they were looking at places to open their business, they insisted on a location on the streetcar line. The couple got just that, as Artichoke is only a few steps from a streetcar stop.
“We believed the streetcar would be a way for people to do their shopping,” says Hughes. “A week doesn’t go by that someone was on the streetcar, noticed our shop and come in.”
Transport and easy access keys to affordable housing
Known in local circles as “Mr. Streetcar,” John Schneider is an expert on downtown development who helped lay the groundwork for Cincinnati’s CB Connector. As the first transportation committee chairman of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., Schneider has led the vision for downtown’s repopulation and revitalization for many years. And as a longtime resident of downtown, he personally understands the impact the streetcar has had on his neighborhood’s development.
“We go to Findlay Market every other week and go to Kroger on weeks in between,” says Schneider. “One of the only reasons we leave 45202 is to get groceries. When the new Kroger is built on Walnut, I’m not so sure we’ll even do that anymore.”
Schneider says that downtown was already pretty walkable before the advent of the streetcar. “You can live your whole life downtown. There are more doctors down here all the time, a zillion places to eat, a hardware store, a pharmacy, the library — so we can meet all of our needs within a pretty small walking radius right now.”
Meanwhile, the introduction of the streetcar in 2016 helped further expand downtown residents' access to amenities.
“The biggest thing the streetcar has done is to offer more things to more people,” says Schneider. “It’s essentially erased the border wall that Central Parkway used to be. It’s opened the aperture to more choices. It’s opened up choices people never had before to go places and buy things for themselves when they were limited before.”
There’s hope that transport options like the streetcar will make living downtown more affordable, too. The theory is that a decreased reliance on cars will eventually lead to eliminating the need to own a car.
“If you don’t spend money on a car, then you can control the affordability of a house,” says Schneider. “When you can divert resources people are spending on cars and make that money available for housing, that’s the kind of fundamental shift cities need to encourage people to do.”
Efforts continue outside of Cincy's downtown core
Although downtown and OTR may be close to being entirely walkable, what about communities that don’t have the benefit of the streetcar?
The Village of Silverton, located about 10 miles east of downtown, is an example of a community working hard to make their business district more attractive and walkable. Village Manager Tom Carroll says Silverton has a long tradition of a family-owned business district that citizens can walk to and enjoy.
Silverton Village Manager Tom Carroll“Restaurants and bars and small businesses are destinations for families to walk to,” says Carroll. “You want a neighborhood business district to have places where you can get a sandwich, pizza, ice cream or a drink. We don’t have chain restaurants, they’re family-owned businesses.”
Silverton has ambitions to expand its neighborhood business district with a $30 million office and retail space on Montgomery Road, as well as 205 new luxury apartments. Aside from the new buildings, Carroll says that Silverton will work on improving the space it already has. The village is working with ArtWorks to create a new mural across the street from Women Writing for a Change on Plainfield Road.
“Aesthetics play a key role in a business district — no one wants to walk past things that seem rough or too industrial,” Carroll says.
In addition to aesthetic upgrades, Silverton is replacing and repairing sidewalks that have become uneven or broken over the years. A recently awarded $100,000 grant will help repair two blocks of sidewalk and connect the municipal building to the proposed development. Carroll says he hopes the repaired sidewalk will increase foot traffic to make Silverton an even closer, friendlier community.
“We want to make all of our sidewalks even and accessible,” he says. “We’re making our spaces safe, attractive and welcoming for everyone.”