Nonprofit Urban Planning, One Neighborhood at a Time

Depopulation, urban blight and disinvestment have left many of Toledo, Ohio’s neighborhoods in a state of post-industrial decline. This narrative of neglect echoes across the Rust Belt and beyond, a story of neighborhoods seldom favored by architecture and urban planning firms for lack of funding, and plagued by oftentimes well-intended but segmented plans limited by existing resources. But nonprofit urban planning and design organizations like the Toledo Design Collective are filling a crucial gap, working on the ground in underserved neighborhoods to create action plans that consult residents, engage the community, consider each neighborhood’s unique history and propose tangible steps forward. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

The glory days of Toledo’s Junction neighborhood were the Glass City’s glory days; the neighborhood was the heart of the city’s industrial workforce, and it sat at the crossroads of major railroad lines. Alongside the decline of traditional manufacturing industries, the neighborhood has since endured depopulation, disinvestment, blight and redlining (as seen in this map). These effects were amplified in the 1970s when Interstate 75 was built, separating the neighborhood from downtown Toledo.

While more redevelopment money has been spent in Junction than on any other neighborhood in Toledo since 2015, the Junction neighborhood went many years without any kind of cohesive development framework. The Toledo Design Collective (TDC) is working to change and supplement the way Toledo plans — one of a string of nonprofit urban planning and architecture organizations filling similar gaps in cities across the nation.

Over the past few years, the TDC has worked in neighborhoods surrounding downtown,  typically ones with an overrepresentation of minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, and ones that have largely been overlooked in terms of city development. Many of them were fragmented by highways that were built during urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s. 

Map of Toledo Design Collective’s neighborhood planning efforts. Image courtesy of Toledo Design Collective. 

“[Toledo’s neighborhoods] all operate differently, like all of our neighborhoods have a very unique perspective and design need,” Elizabeth Ellis, the TDC’s Studio Director, said. “But they all experience the same types of things in terms of needing more money and more funding for housing rehabs or figuring out [what] to do with a lot of the vacant land because we have a lot of vacant land within Toledo.” 

According to a 2018 estimate, 60 percent of Junction, which covers two square miles, is vacant land. Some of the lots in neighborhoods like Junction became vacant because of white flight. Land that once housed prominent commercial corridors connecting neighborhoods now contain vacant lots, the remnants of demolished buildings or struggling businesses. For many neighborhoods like Junction, vacant land is a source of untapped potential. 

“With Junction, it was about wanting to activate the vacant land, which could come in the form of anything from a community garden to a food pantry,” Ellis said. 

Today, vacant land makes up more than half the geography of some Toledo neighborhoods. Image courtesy of “Beauty or Blight? Abundant Vegetation in the Presence of Disinvestment Across Residential Parcels and Neighborhoods in Toledo, OH” via Frontiers.

The TDC has worked with Junction before to rethink the way land is used. In 2015, the Collective and the neighborhood collaborated to connect a school to a business corridor and to deal with vacant land in the area. Recommendations range from short strategies like planting wildflowers and native plants to longer-term solutions like housing developments and creative reuse of vacant land toward new housing developments or business opportunities. Beyond the physical, the TDC also makes recommendations that enhance logistical and economic infrastructure of the neighborhood.

The idea of a “plan” immediately conjures up the notion of a “master” plan, or a framework drafted and implemented from top-down. But driven by grassroots coalitions, the TDC begins with organizing residents’ ideas rather than imposing an external agenda. Starting with data such as a neighborhood’s land use, history and significant architectural buildings, and working with feedback from the community, the TDC gathers multiple solutions into a plan and in the process encourages mobilization of residents who can work together to seek out resources and advocate for changes in their own community. 

After going through the planning and mobilization process, the TDC’s Junction Neighborhood Master Plan went before and was fully approved by the Toledo Planning Committee and City Council’s Planning and Zoning Committee in January 2019. It became an official addition to the City of Toledo 2020 Plan, and the TDC has continued their work in Junction with a plan focused on housing development. 

Citizen-driven planning work takes a different form in every neighborhood. And these strategies range from promoting walkability and access to parks to transforming vacant land and instituting urban agriculture, as in the case of the Monroe-Auburn neighborhood. Other urban design strategies include a focus on home rehabilitation and sidewalk repair, teaming up with like-missioned nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity to not only plan but also build 15 new homes in the next five years in the six-block radius around Junction. In the Broadway Corridor of the Old South end neighborhood, the TDC honed in on pedestrian safety, opting to design a mid-block crossing that allows people, especially children, to safely cross the street from the Sofia Quintero Arts and Cultural Center’s main office to its event center.

“We’re really looking at how to slow down and improve streetscape amenities, include potentially a bike trail, like all of these things that we heard that the neighborhood wants and we’re still actively engaging the neighborhood on what they want along the corridor,” Ellis said. 

Where interests in urban living has increased substantially, as in the UpTown district and Warehouse District, the TDC suggested increasing market-rate housing such as apartments and artist lofts, and rehabilitating empty warehouses and buildings for housing and business developments. And along with increased housing, the Collective also recommends an environment that improves connectivity and purposeful sustainable, green space such as urban gardening.

“If you’re able to reuse something in a different way, there’s just so much more history in the place and I think people have a better respect versus just seeing a bunch of new build units go up or something,” Ellis said. “It adds more to the texture of our cities.”

In the Warehouse District, the TDC identified Commerce Paper Company Building (left) and Willis Day Warehouse (right) as immediate development opportunities to be redeveloped into residential buildings. The Warehouse District is located on the riverfront with downtown Toledo to the north, Middlegrounds to the south and Junction to the west. Images courtesy of Toledo Design Collective.

Aside from neighborhood improvement with resident safety and housing development, the TDC also looks at greater urban scales of connectivity between neighborhoods that occur more broadly with city amenities and geography. Today, for instance, the TDC’s recommendations counter the issues of the Old South End related to its river-bordering, flood-prone geography, focusing on reconstructing Broadway Street, increasing the number of parks and amount of green space and implementing housing rehabilitation, which can encourage single family home ownership. The master plan also paved the way for the creation of the Broadway Corridor Coalition, which brought together the different organizations in Old South End that had had differing visions in the past. The forming of social infrastructure and the uniting of people within the neighborhoods is perhaps the greatest feat of community planning groups like the TDC.

One recently completed plan of the Collective incorporates all these lessons learned. On the Garfield Community Plan for the historic East Toledo neighborhood with beautiful architecture and defining cultural community histories, as with all of their projects, the TDC worked closely with residents, stakeholders and organizations — including the East Toledo Family Center (ETFC), One Voice for East Toledo (OVET) and Midstory. 

2020’s neighborhood canvassing and resident feedback took on a brand new, virtual approach due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Learning new ways to conduct surveys, mailing postcards, and setting up virtual and socially-distanced meetings, the TDC gathered data and sought feedback from Garfield’s residents about what they wanted to see in the neighborhood. 

“I think that’s the biggest thing […] having the neighborhood kind of realize that their visions are, like their ideas are worthy and for them to have pride in what they’re doing and to just keep going and keep working on all of the goals that they have,” Ellis said. 

According to Ellis, the main issues revealed through the community’s input include difficulty accessing the river, low homeownership rates, vacant historical buildings on Main Street and lack of connectivity between Garfield and the riverfront. These issues made resident-guided organization ever more crucial, and led the TDC’s research and recommended plan for the neighborhood, which is split into five zones, each with their own action items. 

These zones give residents a sense of identity and vision for how the neighborhood could develop.

“If homes are not well maintained, it can affect the pride that you have in where you live,” Molly Burns, the TDC’s Project Manager, said. 

Since the plan was approved by the Plan Commission and by City Council in the fall of 2021, and added as an amendment to the 20/20 Comprehensive Plan for the City of Toledo, the ETFC and OVET have been working together to carry out the plan. Gary Lenhart, the new OVET community coordinator who came on board through participating in the plan’s public meetings, has led the implementation of the action items with a focus on litter pick up and supporting business owners in the area. City Council is looking to enact the beautification projects outlined in the Garfield Community Plan using funds from the District Improvement Program.   

“Garfield just has some of those key parts in just its proximity, like just where it’s located, and it has the potential to just be one of the more desired places to be,” Burns said. “You’re surrounded by parks, you’re surrounded by a commercial core, you have a really nice school to go to. I mean, it has the potential to be a very desirable place to be, if not already.” 

Map drawing of a plan that proposes moving Waite High School’s baseball diamond to an underused park (bottom right) and creating a park in front of Waite High School (bottom left). Image courtesy of Toledo Design Collective. 

Following years of disinvestment, Toledo’s neighborhoods are currently in the midst of renewal and reinvention as issues are identified, plans are created and possibilities are explored. Urban planning run by nonprofits like the Toledo Design Collective brings opportunities to neighborhoods that are often overlooked by corporate planners or that require more resources than city urban planners have available. The TDC’s framework for approaching urban planning brings a comprehensive mindset to the goal of bettering communities alongside the people who live there. 

“Neighborhoods are really your heartbeat of a city, no matter what city you live in. The people are what make it,” Ellis said. “‘Invest in people’ is what you can say instead of ‘investing in neighborhoods’ because that’s really what it is. You’re investing in yourself and in the future of the city.” 


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