Northside Community Land Use Plan
For decades, change in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Northside often tore down community bonds instead of building them up. Two major highways built in the 1960s and 1970s cut the neighborhood off from bordering communities. A railroad running through it was abandoned, and the manufacturing sector that had sustained the neighborhood for so long slowly withered.
At the same time, the neighborhood developed a reputation as an urban village where everyone was accepted: black and white, gay and straight, old and young. Northside's grand old homes attracted rehabbers while its more modest housing remained affordable. The neighborhood's business district attracted a mix of merchants, from hip restaurants and record stores to storefront churches, an old-fashioned pharmacy and a grocery store for African immigrants.
When the City of Cincinnati overhauled its zoning code for the first time in more than 40 years, Northside residents and business owners saw an opportunity to evaluate their neighborhood from the bottom up. They set out to create a land-use plan that included not only recommendations for zoning and development, but also a vision for preserving and enhancing their quality of life.
"What we were trying to do is develop a plan for our grandchildren, working holistically and charting a course for the next generation," says Tim Jeckering, an architect who served as president of the Northside Community Council during the development of the land-use plan.
Northside approached the Community Building Institute in 2003 for help creating the plan. The neighborhood had a team of professionals who had already committed to working on the plan: architects, urban planners, a real-estate broker, a design student. They knocked on doors, handed out surveys and held a series of community meetings and planning sessions. The level of interest surprised and encouraged Todd Kinskey, a professional planner and Northside resident who served on the steering committee.
"It was very exciting as a professional planner to see neighbors rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in deciding what the future of their neighborhood should be," Kinskey says. "The more people you can involve and the more people you get to accept a plan – you empower the neighborhood to feel like they’re part of shaping the future of the community."
CBI associate director Liz Blume facilitated meetings where residents pored over maps, formulated goals and weighed compromises in their differing visions. Blume, a professional planner, advised them of legal and planning issues and challenged them on some assumptions, but in the end the decisions were all the work of neighborhood residents.
"At times I'd say, professionally this is the advice I'd give you, but ultimately it's your choice," she says. "You have to bring your background and expertise to the table, but you also have to remember you're only one voice at the table."
As members continued their work, some surprises emerged. While the neighborhood is densely populated and thoroughly urban, it is surrounded by greenspace: parks, nature preserves, Mt. Airy Forest and Spring Grove Cemetery . Connecting and preserving that green space was a shared priority of most of the people who participated in the process. Housing and commercial development emerged as two important priorities.
Participants also focused on the cultural and human needs of the community, and they emphasized improving the quality of life by focusing on education, youth, safety and crime. It wasn't a typical land-use plan, but it reflected to a remarkable degree the people who lived and worked there.
"Once we said, what assets do you want to build on, (residents) said, 'It's a very tolerant neighborhood, it's very diverse, we want to maintain and improve the quality of life,'" Blume says. "It starts with assets, and while that sounds like such a simple thing, it's a fundamentally different way of looking at the process."