"Start Small, and Make a Lot of Noise": How to Improve a Neighborhood from the Bottom Up


Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

The growth of American suburbia began with a bang, not a whimper. In the 1950s and 1960s, we built new residential subdivisions and commercial strips on the fringes of every major U.S. city—and we built them fast. Unprecedentedly so.

Many of these places are struggling today. Home values are stagnant, as the modest mid-century houses don’t command a premium in today’s market. The schools aren’t what they once were. There is decaying infrastructure and rampant retail vacancies. There was no such thing as a Complete Streets movement in 1960, so these first-generation suburbs also tend to be dominated by dangerous stroads and lack even such basic pedestrian accommodations as sidewalks.

Colerain Township, Ohio, on the edge of Cincinnati, is one such place. A 2016 essay by Johnny Sanphillippo spotlights many of the area’s problems. Yet could a place like Colerain also have underappreciated assets, and a brighter future than it gets credit for?

John Yung thinks so. Yung is an urban planner and a senior project executive at Urban Fast Forward, a consulting firm doing some of the more interesting and creative revitalization work out there today. Urban Fast Forward does commercial real estate and planning consulting aimed at helping communities develop and move toward a vision. This work includes placemaking, tactical urbanism, zoning changes, but also, crucially, storytelling. A story that the members of a community buy into is like a brand: it helps them identify and build on their strengths.

What a place like Colerain’s Northbrook neighborhood has in spades is social capital. Its working- and middle-class residents are passionate about the community and have organized quite effectively to take action on quality-of-life issues such as crime and traffic calming. Sidewalks converging on the site of what used to be a neighborhood pool are physical evidence of the history of efforts to create on-the-ground community: “There’s a desire in Northbrook to be connected,” says Yung. And that stems from the fact that they used to be more connected than they are now.”

And that level of organic community engagement, says Yung, is everything.

Utopian “sprawl repair” schemes aren’t up to the task of a place like Colerain Township—there’s just too much of it, and not a hot enough market to interest deep-pocketed developers. Plus, such top-down efforts would transform the place into something unrecognizable. There are things that can be done from the bottom up, though. Northbrook has opportunities, Yung says, to create local businesses and initiatives—“indicators of neighborhood authenticity” and to preserve those that exist.

“We’re going to have to do things that are more incremental and more intentional, in order to establish a story for Northbrook to move forward.”

There’s a desire in Northbrook to be connected. And that stems from the fact that they used to be more connected than they are now.

Urban Fast Forward has worked with Northbrook to improve its housing stock—collaborating with a county-level land bank and the Port Authority to create a community-based housing rehab organization. They’ve also undertaken placemaking efforts. The community recently purchased land for a playground made of car tires, butterfly haven. Individual efforts may seem modest, but the combined effect, Yung hopes, will be meaningful.

How do you build traction with this sort of bottom-up, scrappy approach? “Start small, and make a lot of noise.”

Yung also discusses the broader challenges not just for Northbrook but for the Cincinnati metro area as a whole. Although Cincinnati has underrated urban neighborhoods and a growing art and food scene, Yung says, there is still the challenge of attracting political buy-in to a different vision of the future that is currently muted or absent. The state DOT remains set on expanding highways. Pedestrian deaths are at an all-time high. Cincinnati’s municipal leadership has neglected the streetcar line the city built (for better or worse) at great expense. Yung describes this shortsightedness as going to great lengths to build a swimming pool and then only filling it halfway.

The things that the city needs to do to get it back on track wouldn’t even be that expensive—but they have to do them.

The energy to change that conversation isn’t coming from the top down. It’s coming from the bottom up: through the advocacy of groups like UrbanCincy, and through the on-the-ground work of firms like Urban Fast Forward to demonstrate what is possible, even in places that are easy for an outsider to write off.

(Cover photo: A tire playground similar to one Yung describes in Northbrook, Ohio. Photo credit: US Dept. of Defense.)