The Many Futures of Lakewood, Ohio
In the months before the pandemic struck, the typical home in Lakewood, Ohio—a small city next to Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie—still sold for under $200,000. But last May, the median home price crested $300,000 for the first time, marking a 50 percent jump in just over two years. Now city leaders are grappling with questions around housing affordability as the “City of Beautiful Homes” tries to ensure it remains an affordable, welcoming place for all.
Recently, Lakewood staff have had the chance to explore these issues by piloting a scenario planning toolkit commissioned by the Lincoln Institute. The toolkit is designed specifically for small to midsized legacy cities like Lakewood that have experienced substantial economic decline in the past half century.
Former Lincoln Institute Visiting Fellow Arnab Chakraborty organized the workshop with Alison Goebel, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC), and Shawn Leininger, Lakewood's planning director. Chakraborty, who was recently named dean of the University of Utah College of Architecture and Planning, co-wrote the scenario planning toolkit for legacy cities with University of Illinois graduate student Emma Walters, offering step-by-step guidance and tools for communities with limited growth and resources.
Scenario planning—which helps communities identify potential futures so they can better prepare for the unknown—is often used in major cities or in a large-scale, regional context, Chakraborty says, and is typically based on an assumption of growth. But this type of planning isn’t fundamentally about growth, Chakraborty says, it’s about change: “Scenario planning has its origins in business and military planning, where it's used for all sorts of reasons—including thinking about possible loss and how to manage it.” That makes it surprisingly well-suited to legacy cities, once the principles are calibrated to their needs.
Rather than scripting the contours of their expansion, legacy cities face a very different set of challenges, Chakraborty says, from halting population loss to managing vacancies to paying for infrastructure without overburdening seniors and low-income residents. In Lakewood, where population loss has leveled off in recent years (having fallen from a peak of 70,000 to around 50,000 today) and out-of-state investors are snapping up homes, one of the biggest concerns is ensuring that the community retains its status “as a place where people can find a home they can afford, whether they are owning or renting,” writes Mayor Meghan George. “Lakewood’s pilot use of this toolkit is helping to develop a national model for legacy cities . . . that are working to address issues impacting their communities, such as market pressures pushing prices higher and raising concerns for affordability.”
A Toolkit Test Drive
After the Lincoln Institute selected Lakewood as a pilot community, GOPC and Chakraborty worked with city staff members to identify a focal question to anchor the daylong workshop.
“They considered questions around housing vacancy, housing affordability, zoning, infrastructure,” Chakraborty says. “But the question that seemed to tie all of these together and hit at a central concern for the community was the question of housing affordability.”
“One of the things Lakewood has always prided itself on is we are a community for everybody,” said Leininger, the planning director. But huge increases in home prices—and rents, in a city where roughly half the residents don’t own a home—are making it harder for some longtime residents to stay, and for new ones to move or settle down here.
After settling on that focal point, Lakewood’s team identified local organizations that play a big role in the housing space—lenders, developers, housing advocates, shelters—and invited their leaders to attend the workshop. Involving a range of perspectives and lived experiences is key to the process, says Ryan Handy, a policy analyst at the Lincoln Institute who helps run the organization’s Consortium for Scenario Planning. “Exploratory scenario planning is not forecasting, it's not based on data or research,” she says. “It's intended to be informed by people’s community understanding and knowledge.”
Then, they imagined different ways that a couple of big “driving forces”—trends a city can’t really control, such as population or economic growth—might interact, to create a set of possible futures for the group to consider together. In this case, four scenarios emerged, based on different combinations of economic growth and housing affordability: one in which booming economic growth brought an influx of new residents but drove up rents and home prices; one where strong economic growth was accompanied by rapid, abundant development and housing accessibility programs, keeping homes affordable; another where home prices stayed elevated despite a recession due to limited availability; and finally, a 2008-style bottoming out, with an economic downturn yielding an oversupply of cheap, vacant housing.
In more standard planning processes, Chakraborty says, communities “pick one scenario as the vision of the future they desire, and put all the eggs in that basket. Exploratory scenario planning principles suggest sort of stepping away from that idea, and looking at multiple possibilities and thinking about what might work in all of these scenarios.”
Into the Unknown
It took some time to get workshop participants comfortable with the concept of exploratory scenario planning, says Goebel of GOPC. Some had trouble at first thinking beyond the confines of current realities. But the workshop sparked some important realizations among Lakewood staff and other participants, she says.
For starters, it helped the participants identify priority areas for taking action. “That workshop made it very concrete, really kind of clarified where different partners could plug in, and so they felt like the conversation moved into a very productive next phase” that will lead to policy change, Goebel says. Given the city's large population of renters and the increase in out-of-town landlords, enhanced code enforcement emerged as an important strategy to protect the existing stock of affordably priced housing under any scenario.
The workshop also catalyzed specific action on a zoning change that city officials had been considering for some time. Currently, 46 percent of Lakewood is zoned to allow two-family homes, but a 1996 regulation made it illegal to expand an existing single-family to a two-family, even on such lots. “After the workshop, it became clear that was a very urgent thing that they needed to do,” Goebel says. The planning department proposed a repeal of the 1996 rule to the city council in March, along with an ordinance expanding the maximum lot area coverage from 25 to 35 percent, to allow for more two-family conversions and accessory dwelling units.
“We’re basically unlocking the right that is already provided by the zoning district by taking away that restriction, and then at the same time opening up a little bit more lot coverage,” Leininger explained to the council—which voted to refer the changes to the Planning Commission and the Department of Planning and Development.
As Lakewood works on an affordable housing action plan coming out of the scenario planning process, Chakraborty will write up a use case demonstrating how exploratory scenario planning can apply to a smaller city, as opposed to a major metropolis. These updates to the toolkit will provide other legacy cities with an even more robust resource, he says: “I think this project is filling a real gap in existing practice.”
Handy says the Consortium for Scenario Planning will continue to develop exploratory scenario planning resources—informed by the Lakewood workshop and other pilot programs taking place this spring—that small, less-resourced communities will ideally be able to use without the benefit of a big staff, outside help, or paid consultants. Another partner on the project, the Lincoln Institute’s Legacy Cities Initiative—a national network of community and government leaders working to revive older industrial centers—also hopes to bring scenario planning to other legacy communities.
“Ideally, exploratory scenario planning is a perfect fit for these places, because it doesn't require outside experts, or data, or high staff capacity … but this approach really hasn't been fully tested in those cities yet,” Handy says. “The Lakewood toolkit test made really important strides in that direction.”
The Lakewood workshop was one of several global scenario planning exercises the Lincoln Institute is running this year in conjunction with recently commissioned research, in locations including the Colorado River Basin, Wisconsin, Hudson Valley, Peru, South Africa, and Palestine. To learn more about scenario planning or request scenario planning assistance, visit the Consortium for Scenario Planning site or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jon Gorey is a staff writer for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Lead image: View of Cleveland from Lakewood Park, Lakewood, Ohio. Credit: Erik Drost via Flickr CC BY 2.0.