After the COVID-19 pandemic, what will the future of American communities look like? Will they be distant, dense, tribal, communal, gated, borderless, diverse, homogenous?
For the last two centuries, American cities and neighborhoods have been a mixed bag of all the above and, since the last half of the 20th century, communities and cultures have been mostly connected by two things: highways and television. Today, our connections are much diversified thanks to the advent of the internet and our investment in parks and trails that stitch communities together with threads of green.
A century ago, three urban designers — from France, the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively — developed concepts for the future of cities, which played out to varying degrees in cities around the world. In the post-COVID-19 era, some of their ideas may find relevance again.
Le Corbusier and “Cite Radieuse”
On the heels of the global economic depression and pandemic of a century ago, a Swiss-born architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who went by the French name Le Corbusier, dedicated himself to improving the quality of life for working-class residents of higher density cities. He made Paris his architectural sandbox and in his plans, Ville Contemporaine and Ville Radieuse, envisioned contemporary radiant cities, which were essentially cities of higher office density surrounded by lower residential density encircled and interconnected by parks. Corbu’s radiant city offered stone and steel modular housing that could be built off-site and transported to a community. Enduring economic hardship and the need for more affordable housing may make this aspect of Le Corbusier’s city in a park concept more of a reality in post-pandemic global cities.
Frank Lloyd Wright and “Broadacre Cities”
Funded by department store magnet Edgar Kaufmann and developed by his students at his Taliesin studio, the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright first presented his Broadacre City concept in his controversial book, “The Disappearing City,” in 1932. Wright had adopted the Henry George concept of an acre of land for every American but relied on a government partner that didn’t materialize as land grantor and instead became a highway builder.
Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City Movement
At the turn of the 20th century, British city planner Ebenezer Howard advanced the Garden City Movement from the egalitarian precept that people of varying income levels should live together harmoniously with nature. Sir Howard advocated for greenbelts around and through towns that were connected by transit to the center city. Each community had enough local economic base to be self-sufficient and provided jobs for residents at all levels of the economic spectrum. Greenbelt cities of Greendale, Wisconsin; Greenbelt, Maryland (near D.C.); and Greenhills, Ohio (near Cincinnati), are commonly referenced as American manifestations of Howard’s Garden City, as are Shaker Heights and Parma in Greater Cleveland.
The future of Northeast Ohio communities can be vibrant because of the foundation of strengths we stand on. We have one of the greatest greenbelts in the country: the Metroparks system, known locally as the Emerald Necklace. The 87-mile, multipurpose path known as the Towpath Trail on the Cuyahoga River is near complete. We have a legacy of transit connected communities, the largest source of fresh water on the planet; world-class medical, education, arts and cultural institutions; and a community of nonprofits and for-profit organizations dedicated to creating greater digital connectivity.
What if Northeast Ohio built off of those strengths to produce post-pandemic quality connected communities? In University Circle, we’ve been fostering the concept of a “complete community,” where great schools, medical care, jobs, transit and parks are all accessible within a 20-minute walk. We’ve adopted the best of Le Corbusier’s city in the park, channeled urbanist Jane Jacobs by opting for walkability over separation, and we’ve adapted to the Garden City by opening up to Rockefeller Park, which connects us to Lake Erie and the Metroparks. Many of our residents prioritize high speed and reliable internet service over all other building amenities, but we know we have work to do to bridge the digital divide for many of our neighbors.
I believe Northeast Ohio’s post-pandemic community future depends on one thing: connection. We have the legacy advantage of quality schools, a diverse economic base of jobs and centers of medical excellence that could be leveraged to build healthy communities. We have a transit base that could vault us to a successful intermodal transportation future; one of the nation’s greatest park systems that could be accessed by a community trail network like no other; and, finally, a Great Lake that could serve as a the central organizing mechanism for a sustainable future built on proximate access to fresh water.
The post-pandemic community of the future is right in front of us on latitude 41 — where the Cuyahoga River meets Lake Erie — in 59 communities surrounded by a great greenbelt and a whole lot more to connect to.
Chris Ronayne is president of University Circle Inc. and chairman of the Canalway Partners Board of Directors. He is the former Cleveland planning director.