walk this way: cle's most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods

It’s Saturday afternoon in Ohio City. The temperature is holding steady at a comfortable 65 degrees with blue skies overhead. Traffic is moving slowly in a respectful nod to the pedestrians and cyclists moving about the Market Square District. Customers fill the patios of local bars and restaurants, while others are shopping at the venerable West Side Market.
This is what a vibrant neighborhood is supposed to look like.
The same can be said for the Downtown and University Circle neighborhoods. Alongside Ohio City, these are Cleveland’s three most walkable neighborhoods according to Walk Score, an organization dedicated to promoting walkable neighborhoods. The scores are based on an algorithm that measures how easy it is to live a "car-light lifestyle" in a particular neighborhood.
Parks and Grids
Eric Wobser, Executive Director at Ohio City Inc., attributes the walkability of his neighborhood to the street grid and park system developed early on in Cleveland’s history. "Maybe even more important than that is we’ve done a great job of preserving the historic stock of both residential and commercial properties,” Wobser notes, adding, “We have a great system of parks throughout the neighborhood that create gathering points.”
It's an opinion echoed by Chris Bongorno of University Circle Inc. Bongorno credits his neighborhood's walkability to smart development over 120 years ago, which included a robust network of parks. History has shown that developers build around parks in a twofold effort of improving civic beauty while creating density, he explains. “We have a lot of people that spend their lunch walking around Wade Oval."
Safety First
Richey Piiparinen, a Senior Consultant at Strategic Urban Solutions with offices in Cleveland and Chicago, shares his thoughts on walkability from his home in the Edgewater neighborhood. “For me, it comes down to safety,” he says. “I live on Clifton. I’m trying to cross to get over Lake Avenue, and it’s six lanes coming off the highway. That’s not walkable. It’s directly impacting my ability to literally walk.”
Safety is an area very much on Joe Marinucci’s radar. As president of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA), Marniucci oversees the ambassador program, a team of yellow-shirted individuals working to keep the neighborhood clean and secure. “Having our cleanliness ambassadors working on the streets of Downtown Cleveland every day, removing graffiti, helping to identify problem areas with street lights that are out, has been a great addition as far as creating the reality that the streets are cleaner,” Marinucci notes. Cleanliness and the presence of the ambassadors alone make people feel safer and more comfortable on the street.
“Our safety ambassadors serve as the eyes and ears for the police,” he says. “Our experience over the last seven years is that people feel better walking in Downtown Cleveland as a result of the ambassadors.” A similar program has since taken root in Ohio City under Wobser’s watch.
Data-Driven Walkability
Piiparinen, however, argues for a more data-driven approach to walkability. He wants city leaders to invest in the intersections and corridors that put pedestrians in the dangerous path of cars. In support, Piiparinen points to the ongoing $3 million streetscape project in the Warehouse District that will expand sidewalks to allow for additional café seating. He wonders if the investment could be better spent where pedestrians don’t already feel safe.
Piiparinen asserts that he isn’t against beautification projects; he simply questions the motive. “Are you trying to increase commerce and rent in the name of so-called walkability, or to increase the quality of life for the people?”
In support of the progress already being made on that front, Marinucci points to the Bike Rack near E. Fourth, HealthLine investment, planned Public Square renovations, and ongoing studies to expand bike connections between Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods -- like the recently completed Hope Memorial Bridge’s bike lane.
Walk This Way (to the Amenities)
Ohio City is the model of walkability in Cleveland, says Piiparinen. “W. 25th gets crowded, but they have those pedestrian signs. I think [drivers] are getting into the idea that you have to stop at those crosswalks.”
Wobser agrees, adding that the neighborhood’s wayfinding system combined with amenities make Ohio City a complete neighborhood. "There are places to walk to: dry cleaner, grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants -- things people need.” A business locating in Ohio City immediately has 12,000 customers who can reach them on foot. And for the things beyond the borders, there's public transportation. “When you can jump on a bus where transit can get you pretty much everywhere in the City of Cleveland," Wobser says, "all that contributes to a culture of walkability.”
In speaking with Marinucci, Bongorno, Wobser and Piiparinen, it becomes clear that to ensure Cleveland’s long-term growth, the most important feat is to link together multiple walkable neighborhoods. “To become pedestrian-friendly and a walkable city, we can’t think of it necessarily as a neighborhood by neighborhood basis,” Wobser explains. “We have to start thinking about how neighborhoods connect to each other,” and that means utilizing public transportation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings. To do this, Wobser would like a little assistance from the State.
A Little Help?
“I think the state is pitiful compared to how other states invest in public transportation,” Wobser asserts. “We need the state to embrace public transportation and historic preservation. I think that’s something that will allow for the level of connectivity Cleveland needs.”
Looking at the stats, it’s hard to argue. The state of Ohio spends just one percent of its transportation budget on public transportation. Considering that about 35 percent of Clevelanders don’t own a car, according to Green City Blue Lake, that is egregiously imbalanced.
And while it’s comforting to look at Ohio City, Downtown and University Circle as signs that the culture of walkability is spreading, many other largely impoverished neighborhoods suffer greatly in that department. Kinsman, for instance, ranks as the 34th most walkable area, earning a “car-dependent” rating from Walk Score. Perhaps not coincidentally, the median household income there is $8,641. The saying, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link,” comes to mind.
Room for Improvement
Of course, even the most walkable neighbs can use improvement. For Ohio City that means expanding upon an already successful formula to push walkability west along Lorain Avenue toward Detroit Shoreway. “If you give people something to walk to, I think you’ll see more vibrancy.”
University Circle’s recent Uptown development offers Ohio City a prime example. “We still had a number of surface parking lots in key places,” recalls Bongorno. Typically, pedestrians are unattracted to what urban planners call “missing teeth,” referring to surface parking lots. With that in mind, University Circle decided to build the Uptown development on surface lots.
“We wanted to build developments that would be in ever greater demand [than the surface parking],” Bongorno explains. “We used architecture that is dynamic and exciting, and brought storefronts to the street.” In mind throughout development was the mantra that the “pedestrian should be treated as the primary mode of transportation.” The result has been an economic boom fueled in large part by the HealthLine -- an attribute Bongorno believes contributes significantly to making Euclid Avenue a complete street.
Though Bongorno still sees retailers in Northeast Ohio focused on vehicular counts, he ultimately believes more are paying attention to pedestrian and bicycle activity. “Those are the very local audiences that offer a greater returning population,” he believes, noting Uptown was developed with that specifically in mind. “Uptown is very dependent on the walk-up crowds of the residences and anchor institutions.”
But University Circle still sees room for improvement, eyeing a 200-car parking lot on the eastern edge of the neighborhood for a mixed-use development project that Bongorno believes will encourage people to walk between University Circle and Little Italy.
Changing American Culture
While these neighborhoods provide hope, there’s little doubt the region needs a broader cultural conversation about walkability. “America is about speed, efficiency and fastness,” Piiparinen quips. “If you want a more European subculture of biking and walking, you’re talking about changing broad cultural patterns.”
Though that sounds like a tall order, Piiparinen reminds us that Cleveland was built to be walkable. “People live next to each other. [Cleveland] was built on an old streetcar system, so the capability is there."
As trends show a decrease in miles driven across the country, cities are developing for increased walkability to better position themselves as an attractive destination for both professionals and businesses. As baby boomers retire, more and more young professionals are filling the workforce gaps. That means the competition for new talent will only increase between cities. Cities that cater to YPs will attract the talent they need to in turn attract new businesses.

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by joe baur.

Joe Baur is an author, writer and filmmaker who has worked for a variety of local and national publications including Matador Network, Yahoo! Travel, National Geographic and BBC Travel. In addition to freelance writing, he is the author of Best Hikes Near Cleveland and director of numerous travelogues from across the globe. You'll currently find him working in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, because spending the first year of marriage where others vacation seemed like a good idea.