20/20 Vision: The Ambition & Execution of “Comprehensive Planning” in Toledo

"Master plans," "comprehensive plans," "city plans"—it seems like every few years there's another, and both their vision and execution are key to reshaping our city toward a post-industrial future. But where to start? The many plans of old, as well as their successes and failures, give us some clarity for the road ahead. That's why Midstory is kicking off the City Infrastructure Project, aimed at understanding our city's landscape through research and design to push our city toward a brighter future. The Project kicks off with a series on comprehensive planning in Toledo—its past, present and future.

If you made it past the front page of The Blade in mid-May, 2000, you might have spotted a curious advertisement. Among concerts, hair loss treatments and hypnosis for smokers, a sizable corner display ad encouraged readers to “Get involved in the future of YOUR community” by attending an upcoming “community forum.” On the agenda: a new “comprehensive plan” for the city.

20/20 community forum notice in The Blade on May 16, 2000.

Since 1998, Toledo’s plan commission had been crafting the city’s blueprint for a twenty-first century comeback. The new millennium had only just arrived, but Toledo was already looking ahead (two decades ahead, to be exact). The commission had already named the document that would guide Toledo to the year 2020: Toledo 20/20, a pun mild enough to conjure vague ideas of clarity and vision without inspiring too many groans.

The plan’s mildly-inspiring tagline: “Toledo by Choice.” Unfortunate captive citizenry suggestions aside, the sloganeer’s heart seems to be in the right place. At once acknowledging negative perceptions of Toledo and suggesting opportunities for productive reframing, the catchphrase succinctly summarizes the numerous significant challenges facing Toledo as one of their cumulative results: a place often seen as undesirable. 

Framed thus, the central task for Toledo’s future boiled down to cultivating a city people want to call home. And according to the 20/20 plan, that future looks promising. In the planners’ appraisal, Toledo had all the right ingredients for an urban renaissance: historic neighborhoods, affordable real estate, strategic location, cultural institutions. From these assets would spring a lofty policy agenda, doubling down on strengths and shoring up weaknesses to spur a dramatic demographic rebound. 20/20 projected Toledo wouldn’t just flip decades of population decline; a wave of yuppie immigration would swell the city-proper’s ranks to more than 400,000 by 2020. This feat would entail growth upwards of ten percent per decade—figures virtually unheard of for Great Lakes cities in the past half-century. It’s safe to say 20/20’s vision was ambitious, and while the plan’s creators acknowledged its ambition, they also insisted on its feasibility. And if the pieces were already in place, why couldn’t it be both?  

But Toledo 20/20 wasn’t the first comprehensive plan for the city. One could even say city planning in Toledo predates Toledo itself. Today, the conspicuous crook in the street grid near Cherry Street—as if two street grids had been poorly cut and pasted together—bears witness to discrete planning efforts undertaken by the once distinct settlements consolidated as Toledo in the 1830s.

[Left] In this “Map of Port Lawrence & Vistula, Which are now united under the Name of Toledo” made around 1834, the two precursor settlements’ grids meet. Neighborhoods north and northeast of Cherry Street near the riverfront were originally part of Vistula; those south and southeast of Cherry St., in what is now downtown, were originally Port Lawrence. Image courtesy of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. [Right] Much of the legacy grid system is still visible today, as shown in this satellite composite image of downtown Toledo from Google Maps.

And even if you consider street gridding too general to qualify as proper “city planning,” self-declared comprehensive plans have circulated since the early 20th century. A City Plan Commission was officially organized in 1916 and began preparing its first “comprehensive city plan” in 1922. Since its creation, the plan commission has been enormously influential in the region’s development trajectory. But by 2000, the Plan Commission hadn’t produced a new master plan in nearly fifty years. Even if a thick crust of revisions and addenda nominally kept it fresh, the document was badly dated; the worlds of 1952 and 2000 were fundamentally different, and so were the Toledos. An overhaul was long overdue.

Arterial road capacity map published in the City Plan Commission’s 1923-1924 Major Street Report.

And so began 20/20. The ingredients were (allegedly) there and the Plan Commission had implemented ambitious social and infrastructural agendas before. As the 20/20 steering committee hosted its final round of community forums in 2000, things seemed to be coming together. The new millennium was fast approaching, and Toledo would be ready to embrace it.

Twenty years later, 2020 is here, and 2020’s Toledo doesn’t look like 20/20’s Toledo. So how did we get here?

Understanding Toledo 20/20 and the state of the region today requires a look back at master plans of old, both the nitty-gritty, on-the-ground, street-by-street reorganization and the glimmer and glitz of visionary, utopian dreams. And of the latter category, and perhaps of all master plans for Toledo, a certain 1945 exhibition stands out. Its long shadow hangs over all subsequent attempts to present a compelling, coherent vision of “master planning” in Toledo because it was designed to. Where its creators perceived a patchwork city of quick fixes and political expedients, this work imagined a Toledo remade as a single cohesive, all-encompassing system. To demonstrate the value of such a “comprehensive” approach, the exhibition put forward a vision of unprecedented scale–and in doing so set the precedent against which all would-be successors would be measured.

In the summer of 2019, Midstory ran an article on that best-remembered vision for Toledo—a reflection on the 74th anniversary of Toledo Tomorrow. Designer Norman Bel Geddes’s Blade-commissioned work of speculative human geography presents a chronologically ambiguous scale model of Toledo circa 1955-1995, replete with a greatest-hits checklist of mid-century city planning tropes: a bumper crop of airports, sprawling motorways and their attendant sprawling suburbs, bulldozing and/or isolating neighborhoods that just-so-happen-to-be predominantly black, to name a few.

Though designed with the grammar of city planning in mind, the exhibit was never a true “master plan” in a traditional sense—more a thought experiment on what a future Toledo could be. Even if it didn’t pack the paradigm-shifting punch of his 1939 Futurama, Bel Geddes’s fanciful rendering of Toledo nonetheless made national headlines (inspiring boastful Blade articles in turn) and captured local public imagination in ways earlier schemes hadn’t and subsequent efforts have failed to repeat. Bel Geddes and Toledo-booster-in-chief Paul Block, Jr. managed to get people excited about Toledo, if only for a moment—and only for a Toledo that didn’t exist. 

As with 20/20, Toledo today doesn’t look like Toledo Tomorrow. Futuristic, tidy, techno-utopian, streamlined, efficient: Toledo is decidedly none of the above. Downtown never got that airport. Toledo’s “union terminal” was rebuilt, but never earned the true designation in Bel Geddes’s definition (remaining a conventional “union” of rival railroads’ stations and not a road-rail-air nexus). It’s tempting to end a reading of Toledo Tomorrow at its conspicuous over-extensions—the many splashy schemes that never got off the ground, nor were ever likely to. And indeed, the brash optimism such projects embody is particularly striking against the backdrop of a contemporary Toledo struggling to fund long-deferred “routine” street maintenance. 

Cover art for the Toledo Tomorrow exhibition’s official companion brochure. Image courtesy of the University of Toledo Library.
A brief message from the sponsor in the companion brochure. Image courtesy of the University of Toledo Library.

Tomorrow dangled the prospect of renewed prestige or even leadership on a national stage, and seemed to validate a then-midsized city’s major metro ambitions. And in lieu of realizing those ambitions, the uncharacteristic spike in positive national attention Tomorrow brought Toledo effectively guaranteed it would be embedded in the region’s self-image moving forward. Even if it’s now more wistful alternate history than “inspiration for future living,” its capacity to charismatically evoke a moment of optimism for Toledo’s future gives Tomorrow a particularly stubborn affective force. More than downtown airports or high rise apartment blocks, it seems it’s Tomorrow’s aura of optimism that remains alluring to Toledoans today.  

Tomorrow is often discussed in terms of absence—the infrastructures unbuilt, goals unmet, status unattained, visions scuttled. Yet Tomorrow is at least as haunting for what it did accomplish. Though it has taken on other significances since 1945, Toledo Tomorrow remains first and foremost a masterclass in civic political theater: a PR campaign so effective that it continues to overshadow the political project it was created to advance. Indeed, since its unveiling, the exhibition itself, the ensuing avalanche of publicity and publicity about that publicity have all but buried the exhibit’s primary rhetorical function. Toledo has always relished its scraps of national media validation, sure, and inspiring local pride was valued in its own right. 

But beyond general city-branding aims, Block commissioned this particular stunt with the immediate goal of “educating” Toledoans on the value of comprehensive urban planning. Block believed Toledo’s future hinged on its ability to reorganize itself around the guiding principle of efficiency. To thrive and compete in the emerging postwar world, “piecemeal” fixes would no longer cut it. As a brochure for the Tomorrow exhibit explained, like other American industrial cities, Toledo had grown “without rhyme and sometimes without much reason,” a snowballing collection of historical accidents. Successive generations of citizens had inherited a city configured for purposes, systems, and modes of life “long outworn or forgotten.” Past plans had been too small to stand a chance against the force of historical inertia. For Toledo to control its destiny, the brochure argued, the city needed to think big.

For Block, this meant clearing away what he considered outmoded premodern orders—the ad-hoc fabric of the city that had emerged through decades of inhabitation and incremental tinkering. Such a radical vision of streamlining a city’s geography and social life from the top-down would necessitate extensive and expensive disruptions to everyday life. But perhaps the hope was that Tomorrow could offer Toledoans a vivid ideal compelling enough to justify the land seizures, mass demolitions and street closures a forthcoming master plan and implementation would require.

Image of the Tomorrow model printed in the companion brochure. Image courtesy of the University of Toledo Library.

Rebuilding a Toledo of novel centralized, deliberate, rational, “scientific,” planned systems was to be the crown jewel of Block’s modernization agenda. It demanded a spectacle of commensurate pageantry, and Bel Geddes delivered spectacularly. In the following years, the Plan Commission would indeed enact many of the programs and projects Block had advocated, and the 1945 exhibition almost certainly helped advance that agenda. We’ll never know if, how, or to what extent Toledoans would have otherwise resisted the sprawling postwar renewal agenda endorsed by Block. But we do know that Toledo finalized an overtly Tomorrow-inflected comprehensive plan by 1952, and was razing city neighborhoods to make that plan a reality within the decade.   

Even if Bel Geddes’ particular articulation never became Northwestern Ohio, the rubble of that historical milieu continues to organize contemporary life in Toledo. No reading of Toledo Tomorrow is complete without considering the political agenda it was funded to advance—a body of thought formalized as Toledo’s 1952 Comprehensive Plan, a little-remembered document that formed the legislative foundation for Toledo city planning through the bruising second half of the twentieth century. 

Toledo Tomorrow was, by its own admission, not a blueprint. Any specifics of how Toledo might bridge the gulf between 1945’s soot-coated present and a Tomorrow-esque ideal remained firmly under the jurisdiction of the day’s eminent men—city politicians, civil servants, businessmen, industrialists, and above all else, planners. Bel Geddes was paid to present an exciting hypothetical destination; the roadmap was always Toledo’s job, and the plan commission indeed delivered what was supposed to be that map. 

Contemporary Toledo isn’t a product of lack of vision, or even of an inability to implement those visions. Rather, Toledo today is the legacy of a historical era of aggressive, extravagant comprehensive planning executed with devastating efficacy. While contemporary Toledoans often lament the glacial pace of local development, it’s worth revisiting past plans that, although saw execution quickly, at best backfired spectacularly and at worst deliberately disadvantaged (predominantly black) neighborhoods and communities—prioritizing, say, car accessibility for (mostly white) suburban commuters over maintaining basic infrastructure for neighborhoods in the less affluent (and less white) urban core. Even as the material infrastructures they underwrote crumble, the spatial, social and economic orders reified and enabled by Toledo’s past comprehensive plans remain strikingly powerful—though not necessarily in ways designers intended. 

Graphic by Stefan Binion and Ruth Chang for Midstory.

In July of 2019, Midstory’s observance of Toledo Tomorrow’s 74th anniversary concluded with a question addressed to the everyday citizens of Toledo:

So, what’s tomorrow, Toledo? Or, even better, what’s today

Almost a year later, that question is imbued with new urgency. 2020 marks the close of Toledo 20/20’s implementation timeline. The uneventful expiration of the city’s most recent comprehensive plan offers a particularly opportune moment to take stock and reflect not only on Toledo but also on comprehensive city planning in general. For all this talk of comprehensive plans, what should “comprehensive planning” do? Why? How? For whom? How we as a city answer these sorts of big, vague, philosophical (and admittedly cliched) questions have enormous on-the-ground implications for the entire region.  

While the story of Bel Geddes’s Blade-financed diorama is fascinating in its own right, it is particularly valuable as a vehicle for theorizing Toledo today. Tomorrow kicked off Toledo’s mid-century frenzy of urban planning and renewal schemes—the consequences of which continue to reverberate across the city to this day. Comprehensive planning at its best is an opportunity to productively interrogate and reimagine a place, at least as much high-flung philosophical inquiry as hard policy. Its existence should be a response to those same vital questions of meaning. What is Toledo? Where have we been, and where are we going? Why? How? For whom? 

Kicking off our City Infrastructure Project, a research and thought endeavor that begins with uncovering and understanding our city’s current infrastructure, Midstory will be approaching these questions by exploring the long history of urban planning in Toledo—visions past, present and future that form the foundation of our everyday experience of the city. Looking back isn’t valuable in and of itself, but learning from our past is the key to building a better future. In each plan’s own narrative of Toledo, the plan is always a vital inflection point. Understanding how these plans imagine future Toledos as well as how the plans unfold and/or unravel is to understand how we got here—and the beginnings of how we move forward. Because, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.


  1. Thank you for delving into Toledo’s urban planning history. I understand new and vital plans are in the works, and your research will undoubtedly aid in that process!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here