What should Northeast Ohioís future look like? Starting in January 2011, a diverse group representing, among others, cities, planning agencies, housing authorities, museums and universities in the 12-county region started to tackle this big question. After analysis and public comment, the board of the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium recently adopted a set of policy recommendations to guide local communities.

Much is riding on whether local governments align their development strategies with the ideas put forward by the consortium, whose work is largely funded through a first-of-its-kind $4.25 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Driving the consortiumís work has been research showing that without much more extensive and improved regional cooperation, Northeast Ohio faces a financial future that cannot be sustained.

The main theme of the consortiumís recommendations calls for investment in already established communities, halting further sprawl. That includes investing in public transportation to connect residents with jobs. Other goals, such as preserving parks, farmland and ecologically sensitive areas, follow from this core concept.

As made plain in an analysis by Jason Segedy, the director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study, a consortium member, one of the most significant benefits of such a strategy is financial stability. Without a coordinated planning effort, the regionís limited resources will be drained by the cost of maintaining and replacing its network of roads, bridges, sewer and water lines, and other public works, leaving too little left over to invest in crucial priorities such as public education and technology.

The difficulty is, as Segedy notes, Northeast Ohio has roughly the same number of people as it did in the 1960s, yet they have spread over a much larger area, sorted mostly by economic status. The result is, there is much more infrastructure to repair and maintain ó yet the same number of people to pay for the work. Given current trends, there will not be enough population or economic growth to keep pace with the cost.

The consortium recommends a way forward that encourages as much growth as possible yet directing it into already developed areas, with infrastructure and a ready work force in place.

The alternatives are bleak, core cities in decline, with inner-ring suburbs following and far-flung suburbs lacking the population and economic base to sustain themselves. Moving ahead will require the cooperation of the regionís many units of local government, which have just started to work together after decades of competition. They now need to redouble their efforts to think about the region as a whole.