Developing Safe and Effective Urban Transportation through Alternative Planning Strategies

October 21st, 2016

By Alex Highley, GOPC Project Associate

Implementing creative road planning standards can help Ohio’s local leaders who seek to build neighborhoods where travel by car, bus, bicycle, or foot is safe for everyone. In order to maximize the public’s benefit in using streets and sidewalks, cities around Ohio, the country, and the world have begun to reduce the width of street lanes and lower speed limits to improve safety for all roadway users.

Adjusting the width of street lanes creates room to introduce various modes of transportation or other amenities in that particular space.  For instance,  reducing each lane of a 4-lane road from 12 feet to 10 feet creates an extra 8 feet in width, which cities have converted into a dedicated bike lane or sidewalk protected by a buffer zone. Some cities have chosen to cut down lane space in order to create a row for parked cars, especially in retail and entertainment districts.

Research shows that narrower lanes are no more dangerous than wide roads, and in many cases are actually safer for drivers, bikers and walkers. With narrower roads, drivers are forced to be more mindful of the relative position of their car on the road and potential obstacles and are therefore more cautious while driving. Moreover, by reducing road lane width, cities are able lessen the distance pedestrians and bikers must travel to cross the street, which shrinks their risk of being struck by a vehicle. Such a change in traffic design and the added safety features are likely to encourage more people to choose to walk or bike as a result of feeling more secure when travelling on or near the road.

It is important to note that traffic engineers widely recognize the safe usage of 10-foot wide roads in areas where the speed limit does not exceed 35 miles per hour. In Ohio’s urban areas, most city roads operate with 35 miles per hour limits or less and could accommodate this change. Because not all drivers travel at the posted speed limit, traffic engineers design roads so that they still accommodate motorists travelling a few miles an hour over the speed limit.

In situations where road lane size cannot be reduced (due to other infrastructure considerations, financial constraints or political will), lowering speed limits can reduce the risk of injury or death for all users of the road; a 10 mph reduction in travelling speed is shown to have a significant effect on reducing the seriousness of a pedestrian’s sustained injury after having been hit by a vehicle. In Ohio, the Revised Code dictates the speed limit for a number of road types, including those that run through municipalities.  Many of main “in-town” arteries that connect a community have posted speed limits of 35 mph, even as these arteries become used by more and more bicyclists, transit users, and pedestrians. 

GOPC supports policies that enable communities to make their roadways safer for all users.  Giving communities more local control over posted speed limits and instituting Active Transportation policies that support and promote multimodal usage, results in safer streets, has minimal impact on the flow of cars, and often increases economic activity along the modified route. Learn more here about GOPC’s research and advocacy on this important issue!


Don’t Miss GOPC’s Upcoming Webinar on Ohio’s Small and Mid-Sized Legacy Cities

October 12th, 2016

In conjunction with the Ohio CDC Association, GOPC will co-host a Webinar on October 27th, 2016 from 10:00-11:30am that will examine how smaller legacy cities, from Akron to Zanesville, have fared over the last 15 years. GOPC will share best practices that smaller legacy cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast used to jumpstart revitalization and that community development practitioners can catalyze and implement.

GOPC recently presented on its latest work on small and mid-sized legacy cities at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference in Baltimore. To learn more about this, please check out our October 2016 Newsletter.


We hope you join us for the Webinar on October 27th – click here to sign up!


Ohio CDC



GOPC Joins 1,000 Change Makers from Across the Country at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference in Baltimore

October 10th, 2016

By Sheldon K. Johnson, GOPC Project Manager

Last week, Greater Ohio Policy Center staff and Board of Trustee members attended the Reclaiming Vacant Properties (RVP) Conference hosted by the Center for Community Progress. The theme of the conference was “In Service of People and Place” and aimed to take a deep look at how innovative reuse of vacant properties can improve the well-being of residents and the communities where they live.

GOPC had the opportunity to learn from local case studies and best practices from around the country that will inform our work of championing revitalization and sustainable growth in Ohio. We also were able to share our expertise with conference attendees. Board of Trustee member Ian Beniston, Executive Director of Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC), sat on a panel about Community-Based Stabilization Efforts. He shared details about how YNDC organizes Neighborhood Action Teams to engage volunteers for vacant property clean ups.

GOPC’s former Executive Director, Lavea Brachman, spoke on a panel focused on creating state policy change to support innovative solutions to fighting blight. Brachman also joined current GOPC staff member Torey Hollingsworth to host a presentation and discussion on the report they co-authored about revitalizing small and mid-sized legacy cities. Representatives from several cities included in the study attended the presentation. Check out GOPC’s upcoming October newsletter for a more detailed summary of Hollingsworth and Brachman’s presentation. You can find the newsletter here.

In addition to a variety of informative panel sessions the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference also included several engaging plenary sessions. The second day of the conference opened with a breakfast keynote address by Representative Dan Kildee (D-MI). Rep. Kildee addressed the conference the day after Congress voted to provide $170 million in aid to address the Flint water crisis. Kildee, a Flint native, used his remarks to highlight the importance of water and sewer system upgrades (a key issue that GOPC focuses on in Ohio). He also discussed how landbanking and infrastructure investments are key to community revitalization.

dan kildee - ccp

Dan Kildee - Photo Credit: Center for Community Progress

The RVP conference closed with a keynote address from Dr. Matthew Desmond, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and author of the bestselling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond summarized the ethnographic study of low income renters and landlords in Milwaukee, WI that he wrote about in Evicted. He focused largely on the story of Arleen Beale and her two sons as they struggled to stay in safe and affordable housing. Desmond argued that Arleen’s story is representative of many people’s, and that concrete solutions for increasing affordable housing are needed.

matthew desmond - ccp

Matthew Desmond - Photo Credit: Center for Community Progress

The Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference was a great opportunity for GOPC to connect with partners doing similar work across the country and to reinforce the importance of our work. Attending conferences like these empowers our staff to be better prepared to continue advocating for and building a Greater Ohio!


Glenn College Forum Highlights Improvements Necessary to Sustain Water, Transportation Infrastructure

September 26th, 2016

By Jason Warner, GOPC Manager of Government Affairs

This month, GOPC was pleased to join with our colleagues at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) as a part of a panel discussion at the Glenn College Leadership Forum at The Ohio State University. The panel, Keeping Things Flowing: Water and Transportation Needs in the 21st Century, focused on the growing concern about infrastructure deterioration in the state and addressed ways in which local and state governments can identity and implement innovative strategies to take on these twin crises head-on.

Jon Honeck, Ph.D., Senior Policy Fellow with GOPC, presented on Ohio’s Water and Sewer infrastructure needs, with special focus on a growing issue that often is overlooked when considering this critical utility service, stormwater infrastructure. Most of Ohio’s water and sewer infrastructure was installed in the late 19th and early 20th Century, and especially in major metropolitan downtown areas, the systems have not been updated to meet the needs of growing populations and demands of the 21st Century. This is especially true of stormwater systems. With some studies suggesting that rain events are now producing more precipitation than they did even 20 to 30 years earlier, aging sewer systems that combine wastewater and stormwater are often overwhelmed, resulting in releases of raw sewage from aging systems into rivers and streams.

JH Glenn College3

Photo Credit: John Glenn College of Public Affairs

Estimates show that Ohio needs $14.1 billion for wastewater treatment upgrades alone between 2012 and 2032, in addition to another $12.1 billion for upgrades and replacing to the state’s drinking water systems over 20 years. That is a total of $26.2 billion in infrastructure needs in just 20 years, and that does not include costs to identify and replace lead pipes, which service an estimated 650,000 homes and businesses in the state.

Coming up with the necessary funding to upgrade this aging infrastructure is complicated by the elimination of federal grants for water and sewer systems in the 1980’s. The feds now provide revolving loans to local governments to assist in system repairs and upgrades, but local communities facing economic problems must repay the loans over time, which is an challenge many small communities in the state cannot afford.  

Among the potential solutions that could help to mitigate this future crisis that Honeck discussed during the forum include new financial tools which could provide either credit enhancements or loan guarantees for small communities that lack necessary funding resources, regionalization of water systems that encourages smaller communities to band together and pool limited resources to better afford work which needs to be done, public-private partnerships, and increased state funding in revolving loan funds and grant programs. 

Thea Walsh, the Director of Transportation Systems and Funding at MORPC, next provided an overview of Ohio’s transportation infrastructure and the needs it faces in order to maintain the state’s competitive edge.  Ohio’s interstate highway system is the 12th largest in the nation, and ranks 5th in overall traffic volume and 4th in truck traffic volume. Ohio boasts the 2nd largest inventory of bridges in the nation.  Beyond roadways, Ohio also ranks 4th nationally in freight rail mileage, hosting 35 freight railroads and 5,305 miles of rail.

Despite these impressive statistics, the American Society of Civil Engineers has graded Ohio’s 125,000 plus miles of roads a ‘D’, finding that 43% of Ohio’s roadways are in critical, poor, or fair condition. Of greater concern is a finding that 2,242 of the state’s 27,015 bridges (8% of total bridges), are structurally deficient. The overall cost to motorists in the state, the personal cost of driving on roads in need of repair, is $3.3 billion per year, which amounts to $413 per motorist.

Ohio receives a significant portion of its overall transportation funding from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which constitutes 45.1% of the Ohio Department of Transportation Revenue (FY12-14), while 32.9% is generated from the state motor fuel tax. The Federal Highway Trust Fund is supported from the federal gas tax, currently 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline. That rate has remained unchanged since 1993. The state motor fuel tax is 28 cents per gallon of gasoline, and has remained unchanged since 2005. Moreover, because of constitutional limitations, this fuel tax revenue may only be used for highway construction, which precludes its usage toward public transportation projects. GOPC is constantly seeking ways of funding and modernizing all modes of transportation, including transit, biking, and walking.

Because the Federal Highway Administration has estimated that $170 billion in capital investment is needed annually to improve only roadways nationwide, it will be necessary in the future to increase revenue in order to make the required improvements. This will likely include raising fuel taxes, but also involve alternative sources of revenue as automobiles are becoming more fuel efficient and more vehicles that run on alternative sources (hybrid, electric) are operating on roadways.

One alternative that was discussed is a pilot program underway in the state of Oregon where individuals have volunteered to have tracking devices installed in their vehicles to track the number of miles they are traveling, and then paying per-mile fees to help fund highway and road construction and improvement. Other alternatives include the construction of new tolled infrastructure, an alternative that has been discussed to fund improvements on the Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati (Ohio has approved the toll bridge, Kentucky has not) and public private partnerships.

It was clear from the discussion that difficult decisions will need to be made in the months and years ahead. Investment in the state’s critical infrastructure, including drinking water, stormwater, and transportation, is necessary for two reasons. First, it is of paramount importance to ensure public health and safety. Without improvement to the state’s water systems, Ohio runs the risk of seeing repeats of the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan caused by lead contamination in the city’s water system, or the tragic failing of critical infrastructure such as the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis several years ago. Secondly, these systems are of critical importance to our state’s economy. Ohio is at the center of the nation’s economic livelihood, located within a day’s drive of 50 percent of the country’s population, with tens of thousands of jobs tied to transportation, manufacturing, and logistics. Investment in quality water and transportation systems will ensure Ohio’s economic stability in the years ahead.


View the PowerPoint presentation here


Remaking Cities After Abandonment Lecture Emphasizes Role of Community Efforts

September 16th, 2016

By Alex Highley, GOPC Project Associate

This past Wednesday, the Knowlton School of Architecture at the Ohio State University hosted a lecture by Margaret Dewar, a University of Michigan professor teaching at the Taubman College of Architecture. Dewar focuses her research on economic development, housing, and urban planning and she investigates the ways planners seek to ameliorate population and employment loss. During the lecture, Dewar outlined three main questions that she seeks to answer as part of her research:

  • What does a city become after abandonment?
  • What makes a difference in what a city becomes after abandonment?
  • What should a city become after abandonment?

The theme of Dewar’s research findings is that even in the cases of extraordinary shock marked by the collapse of government and a plunge in housing values, social groups and institutions make significant strides in community building. According to Dewar, this concept is important to understand given that prior research had only concluded that community efforts could produce smaller-scale change, such as inducing a decrease in crime.

Dewar lamented that during the mortgage foreclosure crisis in Detroit during the last decade, local leadership demonstrated little in the way of support for citizen resilience. Instead of imploring citizens to stay in their homes and rebuild their communities in the midst of a widespread crisis, the previous Detroit mayor tried to clear people out of their houses because city services were so insufficient. In Dewar’s view, these services should have been restructured so that people would have more incentive to remain and persevere in rebuilding their neighborhoods. For instance, citizens could have found creative ways to combine their garbage each week in order to have more efficient garbage collection services when cuts needed to be made.

Dewar highlighted the need for governments to prioritize community development corporations (CDCs) when seeking to rebuild neighborhoods that have suffered from recent abandonment. GOPC partners with CDC associations around Ohio and likewise recognizes the important work they contribute to community investment and redevelopment. Dewar also stressed the cost savings that cities can benefit through transitioning to green stormwater infrastructure. GOPC is constantly researching and discovering new ways for local governments to finance and modernize their sewer and water infrastructure.

DetroitSkyline wikicommons Cropped

Detroit, Michigan. Source: Wikicommons


Check out GOPC’s Partner Conferences this Fall!

September 2nd, 2016

GOPC’s partners are hosting exciting conferences this fall. These conferences will examine different facets of community revitalization and strategies for stabilizing and rebuilding our communities.  Additionally, GOPC and long-time partner, Ohio CDC Association will be co-hosting a webinar in October. Check out the descriptions below and click on the links to register!

The Dialogue in Detroit Conference will go from September 13 to 16, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. This Conference will bring together professionals, decision-makers and academics from America’s Legacy Cities, where long-term population loss and economic restructuring present difficult challenges for the future of astounding historic resources and significant cultural heritage.  This Conference is sponsored by the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, and Wayne State University. This conference is a follow up to one at which GOPC keynoted in Cleveland in 2015.

Detroit dialogue


From September 28-30, 2016, The Center for Community Progress will be hosting the Reclaiming Vacant Properties (RVP) Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. Themed “In Service of People and Place,” the seventh RVP will take a deep look at how work to reclaim vacant properties can improve the wellbeing of residents and the places they call home.  Former GOPC Executive Director, Lavea Brachman will be speaking on the Creating State Policy Change to Support Blight-Fighting Innovation panel and GOPC will be leading a small group workshop on small and medium sized legacy cities.



The Ohio CDC Association will be hosting the Passion for Progress Conference October 13-14, 2016. Taking place in Athens, Ohio, this annual conference will showcase the revitalization occurring throughout the region. GOPC will be attending and learning the latest and greatest in the community development field.

CDC Association


Finally, GOPC and Ohio CDC Association will co-host a Webinar on October 27, 2016 from 10:00-11:30am. This webinar will explore the findings of a recent report by Greater Ohio Policy Center that examined how smaller legacy cities, from Akron to Zanesville, fared over the last 15 years. GOPC will share best practices that smaller legacy cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast used to jumpstart revitalization and that community development and public sector leaders can put into practice in their own communities. 

Join us on October 27th here!


Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Publishes GOPC Article on Revitalization of Legacy Cities

June 6th, 2016

By Lavea Brachman, GOPC Executive Director and Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Researcher

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has published a Greater Ohio Policy Center article on the revitalization of America’s small- and medium-sized legacy cities. Beginning on page 7 of its Summer 2016 Communities and Banking magazine, the article describes several promising resilience strategies for legacy cities, based on GOPC’s data analysis. The article also highlights Case Studies from Worcester, Massachusetts; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Syracuse, New York; and Akron, Ohio of recent economic recovery practices.

Visit the Article Here

Downtown overhead

This article is part of broader research that GOPC is conducting on the health of small- and medium-sized legacy cities across the country.

To read the Article, please go Here



Ohio General Assembly Passes House Bill 512 to Reform Water Testing Procedures

June 2nd, 2016

By Jon Honeck, GOPC Senior Policy Fellow

Before leaving on its summer break, the Ohio General Assembly passed House Bill 512, a major reform to Ohio’s drinking water regulations that will tighten lead notification and testing requirements, tighten the requirements for lead-free plumbing fixtures, and provide more flexibility to the Ohio EPA and the Ohio Water Development Authority to support public drinking water and wastewater treatment infrastructure.  The bill passed with strong bipartisan support in the wake of the well-publicized crises involving lead in drinking water supplies in Flint, MI, and Sebring, OH.  The American Water Works Association estimates that there are 6.1 million lead service drinking water supply lines still in place across the nation, including many in Ohio.  With proper corrosion control methods, many of the issues with lead pipes can be avoided, although the ultimate answer is to replace these lead lines over time.  We hope that this same bipartisan spirit will carry forward into the fall and 2017 as the state grapples with important water infrastructure and water quality issues. 

Under the bill, homeowners must be notified within two business days of lead laboratory test results received by a community water system.  If the lab results show a lead level above the applicable threshold then the water system must provide information about the availability of health screening and lead blood level testing in the area to the homeowner and notify all customers that the system has exceeded acceptable lead levels within two business days, and provide information about lead testing to all customers within 5 business days.  Within 18 months of the notification of about excessive lead levels, the system must submit a revised corrosion control treatment plan to the Ohio EPA.  A revised corrosion control plan requirement is also triggered if a system changes sources of water supply, makes substantial changes to treatment, or operates outside the limits for certain metals or chemicals. Each water system is also required to map parts of its service area that are likely to contain lead lines.

Many Ohio cities are engaged in multi-year capital projects to fix combined sewer overflows and replacing aging water infrastructure.  The Water Pollution Control Loan Fund, which is controlled by the Ohio EPA, provided over $700 million in revolving loans in 2015 for these purposes.  The Fund receives an annual capitalization grant from the U.S. EPA so it can provide below-market interest rates to projects that are a high priority for the state and local partners. House Bill 512 broadened the scope of the WPCLF’s authority to match recent changes in federal law.  New funding purposes include energy conservation and efficiency at wastewater treatment plants (which use enormous amounts of electric power), watershed management, recapture or treatment of stormwater, and decentralized sewer systems to assist smaller, more isolated rural areas.  In addition, loan terms for the WPCLF are increased from 20 to 30 years, making them more affordable for borrowers.  These changes make it easier to develop creative approaches to managing the water treatment system. 

As Greater Ohio pointed out in Phase I of its ongoing infrastructure project, the state’s needs are vast and the financial capacity of many water utilities is stretched to its limit.  We will make further policy recommendations on this point in 2016. 


Managing Stormwater: GOPC Attends Great Water Cities Conference

May 16th, 2016

By Jon Honeck, GOPC Senior Policy Fellow


On May 12, 2016, the Water Environment Federation ( held its “Great Water Cities 2016: Rainfall to Results in Action” conference in Chicago, IL.  The focus of the conference was creating a holistic approach to managing stormwater in the 21st Century, and the panel discussions were organized around recommendations from WEF’s Rainfall to Results report.  Attendees included water utility water leaders and industry representatives from across the country and as far away as Australia.  GOPC’s Jon Honeck, Senior Policy Fellow, attended as part of our ongoing water and sewer infrastructure project to find new strategies to modernize Ohio’s aging infrastructure. 


Stormwater management is an issue that accompanies growing urbanization. Urbanization creates thousands of acres of impervious surfaces and removes the ability of the natural landscape to absorb water when it rains.  Unfortunately, many U.S. cities in the early 20th century constructed “combined” sewer systems that mixed rain water and sewage water in the same tunnels, causing raw sewage to discharge into waterways during heavy rains.  In recent decades, EPA enforcement of the Clean Water Act has forced cities around the country, including many in Ohio, to separate their combined sewer systems and find ways to hold millions of gallons of rainwater temporarily out of the sewer system.  This is often accomplished by building deep storage tunnels, which are extremely expensive capital projects that take years to complete.  New approaches, such as using “green infrastructure” that restores that ability of the landscape to capture stormwater runoff, are now taking center stage as cities look for ways to lower costs and provide more effective solutions.


Stormwater Utilities

There is an emerging consensus among water industry experts that the field needs a new paradigm, called a “stormwater utility,” and that governmental regulatory frameworks and planning approaches need to change to support this.  Traditional municipal utilities have been organized around drinking water or sewer systems, each with their own user charges, infrastructure, and performance expectations.  Stormwater management in its own right was usually an afterthought, except insofar as it was needed for basic flood control.  A stormwater utility could take many forms, depending on the state and local regulations and needs, but the basic concept is an entity that can work on a large scale, across individual municipalities in a metro area, and even across an entire watershed, to plan and implement stormwater management. 

One of the keys to the paradigm shift is the concept of stormwater runoff as a commodity that has a price.  Districts around the country are implementing dedicated stormwater fees to create an ongoing revenue source for operation and maintenance.  Afternoon speaker Howard Neukrug (Senior Fellow at the U.S. Water Alliance) who implemented Philadelphia’s nationally renowned green infrastructure program, noted that the foundation of the city’s program was a parcel-based stormwater fee and redevelopment regulations that require capture of the first 1.5 inches of rainfall from new or renovated buildings.  Sometimes existing regulatory arrangements make it difficult for utilities to work on scale commensurate with the need.  Morning panelist Karen Sands, Director of Sustainability for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, related that MMSD has an aggressive green infrastructure program, but in order to meet its stormwater capture targets by 2035, the district would have to spend at an annual rate 18 times higher than its current level.  MMSD is now looking at other public private partnerships as a potential solution. 

In other areas of the country, federal and state regulatory frameworks create an urgent need for local governments to cooperate.  As explained by panelist L. Preston Bryant, Senior V.P. of McGuireWoods Consulting and former Secretary of the Virginia Department of Natural Resources, Virginia law treats the US EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) regulation for Chesapeake Bay as a joint responsibility between the state and local governments and this has spurred regional collaboration.  The state of Virginia also has a Stormwater Local Assistance Fund as part of its EPA clean water revolving loan program that will pay for up to 50% of the costs of local projects.  The state of Maryland also has a stormwater law to help protect the Chesapeake.  Prince George’s County, MD, is an example of a county that moved ahead with a stormwater fee that is being used to fund a public-private partnership that is aggressively creating green infrastructure. 

Asset Management

Asset management for both capital projects and human resources was another theme of the conference.  It is obvious that there are a variety of approaches to maintaining green infrastructure and that there is no agreement on best, or even standard, practice. David St. Pierre, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, explained that MWRD shares the initial installation costs with local governments and then maintains agreements in which the local governments are responsible for long-term maintenance.  In Baltimore, Randy Chow, Director of the Baltimore Department of Public Works explained that the department wants neighborhood organizations to play a role in maintaining green infrastructure. Korey Gray, Business Development Officer of DC Water, described how the city public works department helps to maintain green infrastructure in Washington.  

Several of the afternoon panelists presented visions of both optimism and pessimism about the future adaptability of water utilities in general.  On an optimistic note, Marcus Quigley, CEO and Founder of Opti, a data analysis firm, noted that rapid advances in the field of sensor technology were making it possible to have real time monitoring and control of individual assets, leading to the potential for huge gains in efficiencies from existing infrastructure.  On a more pessimistic note, William Stowe, CEO and General Manager of Des Moines Water Works discussed his organization’s decision to file suite against upstream quasi-governmental water management organizations for allowing agricultural runoff (excessive nitrates) to pollute the Des Moines River.  In his view, as long as industrial agriculture remains outside of the EPA stormwater and pollution control framework, agricultural areas in the Midwest will have to invest heavily in equipment to clean excessive nitrates from their drinking water, leading to excessive financial burdens on urban residents.

The conference made it clear that stormwater management is a dynamic, emerging field in which information-sharing across geographies and across professional boundaries is essential.   There is a real desire for innovation and experimentation as local utilities try different approaches.  The need for creativity will become even more important as the 21st Century matures and the effects of climate change are felt more acutely. 

Water Resilient Cities Conference Offers Innovative Solutions to Water Infrastructure

May 5th, 2016

By Jon Honeck, Senior Policy Fellow, and Colleen Durfee, Research Intern

Greater Ohio Policy center recently attended Cleveland State University’s Water Resilient Cities conference. From April 21st to the 22nd professionals, practitioners, community development organizations, and academics gathered to discuss the current state of water infrastructure in the Great Lakes region. The innovations, needs, consequences, and potential growth of Great Lakes cities depend heavily on water infrastructure, its maintenance, modernization, and adaptation to more variable climate patterns. How do we protect our natural water bodies when faced with the desire for economic and community growth? The conversation between the themes of regional growth, natural resource protection, and looming effects of climate change is one of paramount importance when considering the future of the Great Lakes region.

The Water Innovation Keynote address was delivered by Hillary Brown, a Fellow at the American Institute of Architects and Professor at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at CUNY.  Dr. Brown showed numerous examples of cities around the world are creating innovative solutions to water infrastructure needs while lowering the carbon footprint of a treatment facility or sometimes parts of a city.  Some of the most innovative practices include on-site reuse of wastewater and stormwater in large buildings and mixed use districts.  These areas are taken “off the grid” in terms of their water use and save energy through decentralized treatment systems that do not have to move water long distances.  Other examples showed treatment facilities finding ways to maximize opportunities for co-generating energy:

  • In Japan, a water utility placed acres of solar panels in its adjacent reservoir, generating electricity for the facility but also lowering evaporation from the reservoir.  The water also helps to cool the solar panels.
  • In Lille, France, a utility is recovering biogas from wastewater and other organic waste to produce biogas for the municipal bus system.
  • In Oakland, CA, a utility has constructed a biodigestion facility that generates electricity from sewage;
  • In Vancouver, Canada, heat from wastewater is being used to heat a residential district.
  • In Mankato, MN, treated wastewater is being used for cooling a traditional power plant.

In order to fully promote these types of opportunities, Dr. Brown advocates for the inclusion of specific clean energy principles in the award formulas of state infrastructure banks or state drinking water or wastewater revolving funds.  These principles include: supporting mixed land use, mitigating CO2 production, incorporating green infrastructure, integrating social and energy benefits, and including climate adaptation measures.


In the third panel session, Professor Richard Norton from the University of Michigan demonstrated the variability and vulnerability due to climate change and development patterns on Lake Michigan’s shores. He made an interesting point that like the world’s oceans, the Great Lakes will change water levels due to climate change. However, these changes have a very different timeline than those of saltwater coastlines and therefore are more difficult to track. There is no daily tide on lakeshores as there is on our salt-water coasts. The Great Lakes ebb and flow at a variability of several meters over the course of a decade, not several hours. This variability is fairly normal. It’s the severity of the high and low levels that are anticipated due the accumulated effects of drier summers and wetter, warmer, winters over long periods of time. For example, between 1980 and 2000, Lake Michigan gained over 200 feet of beach frontage. Many property owners see this as a gain in real estate but each municipality on lakeshores has different zoning ordinances and city codes regarding lakeshore development practices.

Dr. Norton showed an example of a property owner’s development decision that highlights the vulnerability of lake shore development and the conflicts that sometimes manifest between private property owners and city zoning officials and planners. It is difficult to dissuade someone from developing on their property when for the past several years they had access to hundreds of feet of lakeshore frontage. Dr. Norton showed satellite images of Lake Michigan’s shoreline from the 1930s, 1960s, and 2000s. They varied by hundreds of feet of beach frontage – about two meters change in lake depth. The property owner decided to build a multimillion-dollar home closer to the shoreline but against the city’s guidance. Years later, the shoreline rose and nearly ran right up against the outside walls of the home. The homeowner asked for permission to build a sea wall to protect his home against the rising water and the city denied it. Eventually, the home was lifted from its foundation and moved further back from the shoreline to avoid flooding. If the water level continued to rise as it very well might, the home would be almost completely under water. The take away from Dr. Norton’s presentation is that lakeshore coasts and their communities need to understand the variability and timeline of water levels for great lakes. Development along lake shorelines is very different from that of saltwater coastal areas and in the coming decades of higher variability, lakeshores will be even more vulnerable to severe rises and falls in the water lines.

GOPC is in the midst of a multi-year project on Ohio’s water and sewer infrastructure.  The Phase I report, released in Fall 2015, analyzed infrastructure needs and gaps, and our recent report on “green” infrastructure describes how cities in Ohio and around the country are using innovative and less costly approaches for stormwater control. Our current work focuses on identifying best practices in infrastructure financing that can be adapted to Ohio.   Some examples of financing tools include credit enhancements or loan guarantees for cities without debt capacity, state infrastructure banks or other methods to pool financing needs, additional state investments in revolving loan funds or grant programs, incentives for regionalization and shared services among water and sewer systems, improved funding for integrated watershed management, and public-private partnerships.