Hunter Morrison: Tech Belt

Redefining Our Region’s Mental Maps

Urban planners, geographers and other social scientists routinely refer to “mental maps” when describing how people and communities perceive themselves and their physical relationship to surrounding communities and the broader world. On an individual level a mental map is an internal image of one’s own world and one’s place in it. At a community level, the mental map is a shared set of definitions about the geography of their community.

Those of us who grew up in long established communities like Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown and Pittsburgh are well familiar with “mental maps” even if we don’t often use the term. Clevelanders to this day describe themselves as “Eastsiders” or “Westsiders” using a definition of community geography that dates from the founding of the city in 1796 when the Cuyahoga River was the dividing line between the lands controlled by the fledgling United States government and the lands still controlled by Native American tribes. Only in recent decades, with the completion of the interstate highway system, have people from one side of Greater Cleveland ventured routinely (and without concerns that their “passport needed stamping” or their car would be stolen by hooligans from the other side) to enjoy the restaurants of Tremont or the night life of Coventry.

Likewise Youngstown natives over the age of 30 routinely refer to their high school (Rayen, Chaney, East or South) to determine what side of town–and by definition, what ethnic, faith and family background–each belongs to. And in each of our communities the local book stores carry personal histories of the “old neighborhood” recounting the tales of extended families, long-gone amusement parks and simpler times before the days of television, freeways, suburbs, sprawl–and, most recently, economic meltdown.

As people grow, their mental maps of self, neighborhood and the wider world change. The same can be said of communities. Changes in telecommunication, transportation, and economic structures bring about changes in both individual and collective mental maps. While that process of change is gradual in times of prosperity and economic stability, it accelerates in times of economic disruption and transformation when individuals, firms and communities all seek answers to their respective position in an uncertain world.

Change is in the wind in Northeast Ohio and Southwest Pennsylvania. And, not surprisingly, new mental maps are vying for attention as our region’s leaders struggle to make sense of place and adjust to new national and global economic and demographic landscapes.

This “new world order” is being defined by global economic competition and environmental depredation and by profound changes in demographic patterns and national infrastructure priorities at the national level. To thrive in this changing world, our region must take a long view–looking 30 years ahead to new economic patterns rather than looking back to the world of heavy industry that peaked and began to decline more than 30 years ago.

Between now and 2040, our nation will absorb another 100 million people. Only India, with its population of 1.18 Billion, will add population more quickly than the United States. According to Arthur Nelson and Robert Lang of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, the majority of this population growth will be accommodated with just 20 “megapolitan areas” which currently contain the bulk of the nation’s population. See link here.

Megapolitans are, in essence, the Combined Statistical Areas of the 21st Century. Like CSA’s megapolitans are defined by empirical evidence of overlapping commuting patterns. The country’s 20 megapolitan regions are already home to about 60% of all Americans and account for nearly 70% of our gross domestic product. Nelson and Lang project that this economic dominance will only intensify by 2040.

Northeast Ohio and Southwest Pennsylvania together constitute one of the 20 megapolitans Lang and Nelson have identified. They call this region the “Steel Corridor,” a name that evokes its proud past but unfortunately does not point to a promising or particularly innovative and prosperous future. In 2007 Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan (OH-17) his counterpart in Pennsylvania, Congressman Jason Altmire (PA-04), tired of the continuing reference to the industrial past, coined the term “Tech Belt” and, in October 2007, convened the first “Tech Belt Summit,” inviting the region’s business and civic leaders to meet at Youngstown State University and begin to explore the shared future of this region.

The Tech Belt is, indeed, an impressively large region. Lang and Nelson note that our megapolitan region is home to 7.1 million people. It is larger than Ohio’s other megapolitan, the “Ohio Valley,” anchored by Columbus and Cincinnati (5.3 million) and is approximately the same scale as the “Carolina Piedmont,” anchored by Charlotte and Raleigh (7.0 million), the “Georgia Piedmont,” surrounding Atlanta (6.9 million), the “Florida Corridor,” linking Tampa and Orlando (7.8 million) and the “Greater Metroplex” of Dallas-Ft. Worth and Oklahoma City (7.9 million).

Lang and Nelson suggest that despite its impressive scale, our region will likely remain the nation’s slowest growing megapolitan well into this century. As a consequence, our region will be the least likely to benefit from the nation’s projected population growth.

These projection give rise to several important questions: How can our region compete for its share of the nation’s growth in population and wealth? How can its communities compete against communities in faster growing megapolitans as places to live, work and invest? What role should the region’s governments, business and union organizations and universities play in advancing our understanding the threats and opportunities lying ahead?

Many across this bi-state region are beginning to ask these questions. Three related–but as yet only loosely linked–regional initiatives are underway: The Tech Belt Initiative and here. The Regional Learning Network and The Tech Belt Train, the Ohio Department of Transportation’s proposal to connect Cleveland, Youngstown and Pittsburgh to the proposed National High Speed Rail system, here,¬†and here.

Youngstown and its political, academic and business leadership have been in the center of each effort, providing both thought leadership and a “third place” to meet and discuss the future of geography know, in earlier times, as the “Steel Belt” and the “Rust Belt” but now defining itself as the “Tech Belt.” We will discuss each initiative in greater detail in subsequent posts.

Hunter Morrison is Director of Youngstown State University’s Office of Campus Planning and Community Partnerships. This office is responsible for implementing the University’s Centennial Campus Master Plan and for developing and sustaining effective community development partnerships with the City of Youngstown, the Youngstown business community, and local development organizations operating in the University’s immediate off campus. Prior to assuming this post in 2007, Mr. Morrison served as the Director of the University’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies (2002-2007). These centers provide applied research and technical assistance to governments and non-profit organizations in Northeast Ohio and serve as one of the University’s primary vehicles for interface with the surrounding community.

Mr. Morrison served as Director of the Cleveland City Planning Department from 1980 to 2002 and was responsible for Civic Vision 2000. Under his leadership, the department prepared master plans and urban design guidelines for major catalytic projects including Jacobs Field, Gund Arena, Cleveland Brown’s Stadium, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Playhouse Square Theatre.

Watch a recent video interview with Hunter by clicking on the photo above and hear how new mental maps are vying for our attention as our “Tech Belt” competes with 20 other “megapolitan areas.” Driving this point home, the Regional Learning Network, a collaboration between Cleveland, Youngstown and Pittsburgh is hosting the conference, “Rebuilding The Cities That Built America,” on Fri 5/21 from 9AM – 4PM in Youngstown. Register.

Post categories:

One Response to “Hunter Morrison: Tech Belt”

  1. Fascinating stuff! Great article, thank you! What books would you recommend on this subject?

Leave a Reply