The Recovery of Downtown vs Cleveland and Cincinnati Part #1


Columbus’ downtown has seen many many changes, especially over the last decade. Developments like the Arena District, Columbus Commons, the Scioto Mile and more have brought new life to the area. Dozens of new restaurants have opened the past year or two alone, and a new grocery store will be opening for area residents in February. More developments coming up include the Scioto River restoration project that will create acres of new Downtown park space and pathways, and the redevelopment of the Scioto Peninsula behind COSI should connect the two sides of the river. All of this had led to rising population, now approaching 7,000. More than 1,000 residential units are currently under construction and more is on the way. So the question I was wondering is how has population been changing not only in Columbus’ downtown, but in comparison to Cleveland and Cincinnati. Both of those cities have also seen major projects in their downtown cores and are seeing an uptick in their downtown populations.

First, I examined the 1950 city limits for all three cities. This was the last census year before sprawl really took hold and changed the city dynamics and growth patterns. 1950 is also when most cities in Ohio reached their peak urban population, so I thought it would be interesting to see how those old boundaries had changed over the years. I went to the US census website and began to look up all the census tracts that existed in each city in 1950. Those would represent my base area that I would use to see the changes in the city core. All of the 3-Cs have grown beyond those 1950 boundaries, especially Columbus, but these areas were the hardest hit when the urban decline came the last 50-60 years while the suburbs grew. The results are both sobering and hopeful.

Population by year for the area within the 1950 city limits.

1950 Boundary Population Change 1950-2010
Cincinnati: -225,489
Cleveland: -536,351
Columbus: -141,319

1950 Boundary Population % Change 1950-2010
Cincinnati: -44.7%
Cleveland: -58.6%
Columbus: -37.6%

So what do these numbers show? Well, it’s clear that all 3 cities had urban core population declines the past 60 years just like just about every other city in the nation did. This was mostly a result of the suburban movement.
In Cleveland, the rate of loss had gradually been slowing down since the 1970s, but suddenly skyrocketed again in the 2000s. I’m not sure what exactly caused this. The double recessions made it more difficult for people to move, so if anything, the losses should’ve not accelerated. Cleveland lost over 90,000 people in its urban core from 2000-2010, the highest lost by % and total of any Ohio city.
In Cincinnati, population loss had peaked in the 1970s and the rate of loss fell substantially the following decade. However, the past 2 decades have actually seen a gradual acceleration of losses. The 2000-2010 period saw the second biggest total loss for the urban core.
For Columbus, it’s been the opposite picture. Like the other 2-Cs, losses peaked in the 1970s. Since then, the urban core losses have been in gradual decline. The 2000-2010 period had the smallest rate and total loss of any decade the past 60 years.

So interesting results, but these numbers don’t show any trends of what’s going on inside the 1950 boundaries, especially not the relatively small part that would be the downtowns. So let’s break the numbers down to the tract level.

# of Tracts in 1950*
Cincinnat: 107
Cleveland: 201
Columbus: 48

*The number of tracts changed from 1950 on as some were split or consolidated. This made it more complicated, but luckily the Census gives lists on how tracts changed over time, so one can figure out what tract became what and reasonably keep up with the same boundaries that existed in 1950.

So with this breakdown, we can see more of the trends within the 1950 boundaries. In Cincinnati, a long decline was followed by a recovery in 1990, only to have the next 20 years show an increasing decline. The 2010 census showed the fewest number of tracts growing on record. This is the worst performance of the 3-Cs. Cleveland also had a steep decline followed by a recovery, but it too declined more at the last census, but not nearly to the low point it reached in the 1970s and 1980s.

Meanwhile, Columbus also faced an initial steep decline and barely had any tracts growing during the 1970s. Since then, the trend has been up. The 16 growing tracts in 2010 were the highest since the 1940s. This is the best performance of the 3-Cs, and Columbus had the highest % of growing tracts in its core. Still, those 16 represent less than 1/3rd of the total tracts within the 1950 boundaries. So while there appears to be recovery ongoing in Columbus, especially compared to Cleveland and Cincinnati, it’s not where it needs to be.

So let’s look to the future. All these tracts are trending in certain directions themselves. While they may be losing now, they may be trending toward an eventual gain, and vice versa. If we follow the trends ongoing for the urban core tracts, where might the picture look like in say, 2020?

Tract Trends for Those Tracts Growing in Population in 2010

Trends are listed from what, in my opinion are the most positive to the most negative.

Growing in both 2000 and 2010, but Growth Accelerating Over Time and % of Total Tracts
Cincinnati: 0- 0%
Cleveland: 7- 4.6%
Columbus: 5- 11.3%

Shrinking in 2000 but Growing in 2010 and % of Total Tracts
Cincinnati: 10- 9.5%
Cleveland: 20- 13.1%
Columbus: 10- 18.9%

Growing in both 2000 and 2010, but Growth Slowing Over Time and % of Total Tracts
Cincinnati: 1- 1.0%
Cleveland: 1- 0.7%
Columbus: 1- 1.9%

Shrinking in both 2000 and 2010, but Loss Slowing Over Time and % of Total
Cincinnati: 28- 26.7%
Cleveland: 21- 13.7%
Columbus: 15- 28.3%

These tracts are those most likely to switch to positive growth come 2020. This is arguably one of the more positive trends and may deserve to be bumped a bit higher on the list.

Growing in 2000 but Shrinking in 2010 and % of Total
Cincinnati: 18- 17.1%
Cleveland: 42- 27.5%
Columbus: 5- 9.4%

Shrinking in both 2000 and 2010, but Loss Accelerating and % of Total
Cincinnati: 48- 45.7%
Cleveland: 93- 60.8%
Columbus: 17- 32.1%

These are the worst of the worst tracts, likely representing the most declined parts of the urban core. It’s pretty surprising to see that almost 2/3rds of Cleveland’s tracts are in this condition.

The tract trends paint a very interesting picture about each city’s urban core future. If we expanded these trends to the next census in 2020, this is what you might see.

All this information, however, deals with the entire urban core. What about just the Central Business Districts, or the downtown ares for each city? In Part #2, I will examine those numbers and trends for the very heart of these cities.