A fascinating new "movement" has emerged in the past few years: coalitions of inner "first ring" suburbs around some of our older, large cities. The idea has spread quickly in states like Ohio, with First Suburbs coalitions in the Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Cincinnati metro areas.
Merrie Stillpass (leftmost, standing), a planner from Amberley, Ohio -- a spacious, well-tended suburb -- invited several members of the Cincinnati First Suburbs Coalition to get together with me at her house.
Chuck Kamine (third from left, seated), Mayor of Amberley Village is currently serving as President of the consortium of 21 suburbs. As Chuck explained, the communities are pretty much built out -- which is what makes them "first ring" suburbs. While there's considerable differences among the 21 suburbs in terms of their size, wealth, and economic base, they've found a number of common issues.
One example Chuck described is legislative advocacy. The First Suburbs Coalition is supporting a bill to "fast track" the taking of "tax dead" land. It turns out that many older suburbs share the problem of absorbing costs of abandoned properties -- from the costs of keeping them mown to the expense of resolving title issues. These properties can create blighted conditions, impacting the rest of the community. The fast track legislation would make it easier for towns and villages to deal with this.
[photos that follow, from top to bottom: homes in first-ring suburb of Silverton; commercial block in Silverton; bus to Kenwood shopping center; breakfasters in Montgomery]
Frank Davis (second from left, standing in photo), Community Development Director for the first ring suburb of Montgomery explained that the idea of a "unigov" -- that is, a unified countywide government -- is not politically feasible in the Cincinnati area. On the other hand, voluntary cooperation through a coalition like First Suburbs can achieve at least some of the same results. As Frank put it, it has given the 21 communities "the ability to collaborate and generate political clout" and get problems solved.
When you realize that the population of the first ring suburbs in Hamilton County totals 175,000 you can understand that this political clout is real -- especially when they work in conjunction with the state's other First Suburbs coaltions (as on the Fast Track bill).
The Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission provides staff support. As Caroline Statkus (rightmost, standing in group photo) of the RPC staff explained, the First Suburbs Coalition is also now a 501(c)(3) organization, giving it more flexibility.
Catalina Landivar-Simon (leftmost, seated in group photo) also spoke of how the Coalition helped the very small, economically distressed suburb of Elmwood Place (with a population of just 2,700 in under 1/2 a square mile).
Being part of the Coalition allows Elmwood Place to be plugged into what has become a kind of support network of neighboring communities.
Frank referred to this as "building linkages that make sense." Several of those at our meeting pointed to the "spin off" benefits already occurring through networking. This has ranged from joint arts initiatives to something as basic (but often controversial) as merging neighboring fire departments. Other possible ideas for the future include creating a land bank and drafting model ordinances that can be shared by several communities.
Efficiencies resulting from voluntary cooperation can also appeal to people of all political stripes, a benefit of the first suburbs approach.
All told, the First Suburbs Coalition is a great example of what communities can do when they work together, instead of apart.