News: Separate, Unequal

Urban consultant pitches regional cooperation to combat inequality

Nov 8, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Poverty is also part of suburban sprawl, according to Myron Orfield.

In the past two decades, land development in Greater Cincinnati grew so much faster than its population that the region is now like a two-child family in a five-bedroom home, according to Myron Orfield.

From 1970 to 1990 Greater Cincinnati's urbanized land — the area with roads, water and sewers — increased five times as quickly as its population.

Some residents simply sought larger houses with bigger backyards in quieter neighborhoods near new jobs. But some left primarily to get away from increasingly poorer neighborhoods and school districts, according to Orfield, a Minnesota state senator and urban consultant hired by Citizens for Civic Renewal to study the Tristate's development pattern.

Those who fled poverty had good reasons, he says.

"Children that grow up in concentrated poverty have severe opportunity disadvantages," Orfield says.

Children growing up in concentrated poverty are more likely to drop out of high school and get pregnant, no matter their race or economic background. Diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS are more common, as is crime, Orfield says.

Orfield returned Oct. 29-30 to unveil his glossy 24-page report, "Cincinnati Metropatterns." He unveiled some of his findings in the spring during a series of meetings (see Sharing the Wealth issue of March 15-21, 2001).

Orfield wrapped up his recent visit by speaking to a crowd of more than 150 people at Holy Name Roman Catholic Church in Walnut Hills, one of eight presentations in two days.

The report details a high degree of inequality and racial segregation and a fractured municipal structure in the 12-county Tristate region.

For example, one measure of inequality is the tax capacity ratio. It's a measure of the difference between the commercial and income tax base available to the Tristate's richest 5 percent and poorest 5 percent of communities. In the Tristate, there's a huge gap between the haves and have-nots.

"The national average is 7-to-1 ... You're 25-to-1 and growing," Orfield says.

Only the Tampa region has a higher degree of inequality.

Orfield believes this and other conditions helped fuel the Tristate's sprawling pattern of development and high concentration of poverty in older cities such as Newport, Covington, Hamilton and Cincinnati. But poverty isn't staying put, Orfield says. It's spreading into older suburbs such as Lockland and Mount Healthy.

Although the new suburbs have low poverty rates, some of them are having trouble maintaining the low tax rates, high levels of services and good schools that attract residents, according to Orfield. This leads these cities and townships to angle for jobs and retail projects, such as malls.

This expansion of the Tristate comes with many costs, not the least of which is building the roads, sewers and schools needed to support the new communities. Meanwhile, existing roads and sewers in the urban core go underused.

The cost of white flight
If nothing changes, Greater Cincinnati can count on poverty spreading outward and continuing to drive residents away from the urban core — or at least those who can afford to leave, Orfield says.

Orfield doesn't recommend specific changes but does suggest a few broad areas that need to be examined, including regional sharing of local tax revenues. Ohio communities already share 10 percent of local tax dollars, but that's low compared to other states and regions. More sharing would lessen the pressure for every community to attract a business and residential tax base.

Another area for study is establishing regional cooperation on spending for roads, sewers and other development projects — a way to "keep alive what we have and recycle what we've built before we build new," Orfield says.

Citizens for Civic Renewal plans to have four more public sessions with Orfield in coming months, hoping to spark a serious examination of Greater Cincinnati's development patterns.

There's a lot of meat in "Cincinnati Metropatterns," says Ron Miller, director of the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission.

Miller's main question is about poverty. Is Orfield advocating reducing the amount of poverty in the region or lowering the density of poverty, which could mean shifting it from one community to another? Miller also wants more details on some of the studies and sources Orfield cites.

Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin wonders how Orfield could say older suburbs are being hurt by poverty and that poverty in the older cities needs to be deconcentrated. For Dowlin, good jobs and home ownership — not "big brother"-style social engineering — are a route out of poverty.

Dowlin is concerned about the difficulty of making use of old industrial sites, or brownfields.

Miller and his staff have been laying the groundwork for regional cooperation for more than a year with the Hamilton County Planning Partnership, which now includes municipalities representing 90 percent of the county's population. Work is underway on storm-water issues.

Ohio Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. (R-Cincinnati), whose district includes Hyde Park and Mount Lookout, hasn't heard Orfield speak, but he's never understood why people would want to spend hours each week commuting to work.

Michael Fisher, president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, recently traveled to Japan to talk with leaders of 20 of the 100 Japanese-owned businesses in the Tristate. Fisher says he was struck by the way these companies look at the Tristate as a region — not as a collection of big and small cities, counties and townships. They paid a lot of attention to the region's transportation network and arts programs, he says.

PNC Ohio President John T. Taylor says the numbers and maps in "Cincinnati Metropatterns" were valuable and thought-provoking.

"I don't think there was anything to be skeptical about," Taylor says

Tristate communities are obviously interdependent, according to Taylor.

"You can't be interdependent and not have cooperation," he says.

For a free copy of Cincinnati Metropatterns, call Citizens for Civic Renewal at 513-458-6736 or e-mail them at [email protected]. Visit MARC's web site at