Cincinnati’s hillsides present unique development opportunity

The beautiful Greek islands throughout the Aegean Sea are often known for their stunning landscapes, crystal clear blue water and their ancient development patterns often dating back to the Bronze Age between 3000-2000 BC. These ancient development patterns, while picturesque, also offer contemporary lessons on how to approach development in space-constrained locations.

In America, the problem is not limited land as experienced on the Greek islands, but rather, it is limited urban real estate. This dilemma often sends buildings and prices higher, with the most easily developed land to go first. Consequently, development often sprawls outward before communities fully maximize development possibilities within their urban centers.

In Cincinnati this scenario is most profound with the city’s hillsides. Early settlers built their homes, businesses and industry along the Ohio River for transportation reasons, and throughout “the basin” in order to take advantage of relatively flat and developable land. Over time Cincinnatians became more mobile and moved up on top of the hills developing areas like Price Hill, the Uptown neighborhoods, Mt. Lookout, Hyde Park and even Mt. Adams. Since then development has shifted even further out to more contemporary suburbs and exurban communities now gobbling up precious farm land in all directions. In the mean time, Cincinnati’s many hillsides have been largely ignored and allowed to either be over- or under-developed.

According to The Hillside Trust, 15 square miles, or 18%, of Cincinnati’s total land area is hillsides. Of the nearly 265,000 acres of land in Hamilton County approximately 60,043 acres, or 23%, consist of hillsides with similar percentages found in Northern Kentucky’s three primary counties – Campbell, Kenton and Boone.

On the Greek islands the exact opposite approach was taken after early Bronze Age settlers developed their communities. Those inhabitants quickly realized that they had to preserve their limited amount of tillable land, and as a result shifted their settlement patterns to the hillsides so that the other, more productive, land could be used for agricultural purposes. While less relevant to non-Medieval cultures like America, those living on the Greek islands also developed their communities in steep valleys where water would run-off from the higher lands towards to sea as a means of safety since these areas could often not be seen by passing ships.

On Santorini, the flat lands are largely preserved for agricultural purposes [LEFT] while the the densely built Thira is located directly on the caldera [RIGHT].

The development strategies found in Greece’s large urban center, Athens, are probably the most relevant as the city has developed in a way to maximize their urban center in a way to preserve surrounding natural resources.

Athens is the capital of Greece and the hub of its economic activities. The city accounts for roughly one-third of the country’s total population while dating back to 3,000 BC. Similar to Cincinnati, Athens is located within the Attica Basic that is surrounded by mountains to the north, northeast, east and west with the Saronic Gulf situated like the Ohio River to the southwest. The natural boundaries helped to influence dense development patterns in the Greek capital much like early Cincinnati. Unlike Cincinnati though, Athens has largely maintained these natural barriers over time as a means for continuing dense, urban development that concentrates the region’s growth into a relatively small area.

The balance struck in Athens is one of sustainability impacts. The conquering development patterns on natural hillside landscapes are as non-sustainable environmentally as they are sustainable economically in their immediate setting. The environmental gains are seen through the preservation of natural resources outside of the urban center. Similar sustainability processes can be seen in other major cities around the world including New York City which boasts one of the lowest carbon footprints per capita even though the city made a previously natural habitat virtually unrecognizable.

Athens’ dominating urban landscape does not yield to the natural landscape in its urban core [LEFT] while Cincinnati’s urban landscape weakens immediately at its hillsides [RIGHT].

A more densely built urban environment in Cincinnati needs to occur for it to experience similar economic and environmental sustainability benefits. The region’s resources are spread too thin to provide adequate public services to all, the region’s population is spread too thin to experience robust cultural benefits, and the region is wasting some of the nation’s most fertile farmland for cheap, low-density single-family subdivisions and strip commercial development.

Before expanding out, the Cincinnati region should examine its available land resources and determine where infill is best suited. Vacant lots initially will make the most sense, but following that, Cincinnati’s hillsides should be seriously examined for smart development typologies like the ones found on the Greek islands that respect viewsheds, private property interests and the natural setting of the hillsides. This will not only make Cincinnati more economically and environmentally more sustainable, but it will make Cincinnati unique compared to other like cities across the United States that lack these creative hillside development opportunities.

Disclosure: Randy A. Simes worked for The Hillside Trust as a GIS Consultant from 2007 through 2009, and this editorial does not necessarily represent the views or values of The Hillside Trust.

  • Man I’d love to see a really nice development come to the hills around Cincinnati, we’re so close to being a powerhouse city! Hope something like this happens!

  • Michelle

    I have to say that when you look around Cincinnati, one of the reasons our city is so beautiful are the hillsides covered in trees. I think focusing on under-utilized housing and redeveloping brownfields would be much more sustainable.

  • Feel free to shoot me down but aren’t those hillsides in Athens pretty much rock while the hillsides in Cincinnati are more like silt deposited by a glacier ? I have heard that construction on the light loose soil on some of Cincinnati’s hillsides (gulleysides) was unfeasible in the past & not real practical nowadays.
    That being said, we have a ton of areas devoted to residential & small business that are sitting vacant. I’d opt for using that before cluttering up the beautiful wooded hillsides.

  • Quimbob:

    The steep hillsides in Athens are rockier than Cincinnati’s. The one’s that are rocky like you mentioned are not built on, but the areas where they could build, they did.

    I agree with both you and Michelle about utilizing what we currently have first. There are several levels to this discussion that I had some difficulty articulating, but one is historical opportunities missed by not developing our hillsides. Instead Cincinnati grew outward at a rapid pace leaving large gaps behind in our urban core.

    The preservation of hillsides for trees and natural space is a good idea where we are currently at, but not all open spaces are not created equal. For example, the connectivity between open natural spaces is very important when it comes to natural habitats. So simply preserving natural areas without thinking of things in a larger sense doesn’t accomplish a comprehensive sustainability answer.

    With that said, it’s highly unlikely Cincinnati will undergo a massive land use shift any time soon, but my point is that by removing wooded hillsides is not necessarily a massive shock to the natural system. The biggest concern more so than anything else would be the preservation of the hillsides themselves as the vegetation there currently hold up the hillsides.

  • I feel like Cincinnati grew outward with sprawl more out of urban flight and perceiving that the suburbs offered a better life than lack of housing. I agree that there were some missed opportunities and planning mistakes (especially with transportation).

    The difficulty of developing on hillsides has lead to a more beautiful city, even if many of the hillsides do not act as wildlife corridors or ideal habitat. We should treat our “green” appearance as an asset and work with the developed areas we already have.

  • So then in the interesting of best taking advantage of Cincinnati’s natural assets, it would seem most beneficial to completely preserve the hillsides for their scenic beauty rather than building on them at all.

    The hybrid mixture currently found seems to do neither, and seems to miss out on capitalizing on the area’s unique hillside geography.

  • Michael

    There are a number of areas on the hillsides of Cincinnati that were developed at one time. Many paper streets remain as a testament. Most of the hillside between OTR and Clifton Heights still have remnants of public infrastructure and homes. The same can be seen around Sedamsville, the East End/ Walnut Hills, Price Hill and Fairmount.

    It’s my understanding that the instability of these areas is part of what forced these houses to be condemned and vacated. It would seem to me that municipal code and lifestyle, i.e. parking, would be major obstacles to reasonable developments. These areas seem rather insignificant for development opportunities compared to the vast amounts of underutilized property with-in the City.

    I have seem a number of low impact structures, mostly treehouse, that could work, but these would require a significant lifestyle shift on part of the population.

    Also, I’m not clear on how developing the hillsides would free up available agricultural land. The geography and economics don’t seem to make sense to me.

  • Michael:

    You are correct that portions of Cincinnati’s hillsides were at one time developed and have now become overgrown by nature.

    I would disagree with you about the amount of land being insignificant. Approximately 23% of the total acreage in Hamilton County is hillside land. Of this 23% some has been developed, while other areas have not, and other locations leveled for flat development.

    While Cincinnati does not have the economic demand to warrant massive new land opportunities, it doesn’t mean that the hillsides still don’t offer a unique development opportunity as I suggest. The examples I provided of Oia and Thira illustrate small land areas being utilized for interesting hillside development typologies.

    Current regulations would with 100% certainty preclude something like that from being built here, but should we be eliminating such beautiful and unique styles of development from our region because of a inflexible zoning code? If Cincinnati had a unique development, similar in nature to Oia, it would be one of a kind and would command national and international attention. It seems foolish, to me, to eliminate or not even think of those possibilities.

  • Interesting post Randy. I love the comparison. In the end, I think Cincinnati needs to save their green, lush hillsides and not allow development. These hillsides really make Cincinnati unique in the Midwest. And on top of that, the City already has urban typologies not found elsewhere in the Midwest. So Cincinnati is separate from the rest, it is an outlier, and its because of the amazing natural and physical assets. In this instance, to take one of those away only to enhance the other would be a mistake, IMO.

    As for Thira and Oia, I think that what makes those places so amazing has a lot to do with their unique typology, but also the fact that the towns were built around public life and everyone had equal access to every part of town. There was no exclusivity, no building taller to enhance views, etc. Ultimately, this is what makes a lot of Cincinnati’s hillsides great too – currently everyone can enjoy them. If we allow development to occur, the land will be turned over to private owners and the entire population won’t be able to enjoy them as a result. This would be a shame, IMO.

  • Michael

    Thanks Randy,

    I don’t mean to rain on your development idea. The settlement patterns on Thira are amazing and super enchanting to urban designers. It is just that the hillsides have proven unsuitable for development in the past and it doesn’t seem like it would necessarily free up significant amounts of land relative to what is already available. It would be interesting to know what of that 23% has been or is developed compared to what opportunity infill presents. The regulatory aspect is interesting too. I agree that code shouldn’t be the baseline for what can and can’t be done, but it is, and some of it does makes sense. Mt. Adams is probably a good case study for how development of hillsides can and can’t happen in this town.

    That are certainly much more interesting typological direction development could go in this city and country. Thira presents an interesting departure for theorizing.

    I think the low impact “treehouses” that have been built in other cities would be cool.

  • For an idea on what development can potentially do (both harmful and good) look at Price Hill. East Price Hill was once a limestone quarry. The hill was developed into residential housing – the homes are now over 100 years and those that have been saved are quite beautiful. The Condo’s on Mount Hope offer the best views in the city.

    However, drive up Elberon and you see the massive retaining wall the city just had constructed in trying to prevent landslides that occur every spring with the rains. I cannot count the number of times Elberon has been impassible. Cincinnati boasts some of the most frequent landslides in the county.

    Just a real life example of the good discussion taking place.
    Thanks for the article Randy!

  • ^yeah, I was thinking about the landslides along Columbia Parkway. If hillside development could be done there & stabilize the hill at the same time, you could have some pretty sweet real estate. But if your house wound up on the Parkway after a heavy rain…..

  • Mark Kinne

    I got to disagree Randy, the towns in Santorini are for the most part built on top of the cliffs surrounding the caldera, rather than on the faces of those cliffs. While some development inches down the first few hundred feet of the face of the caldera the vast majority of the cliff face is left untouched. In addition many of the homes especially in Oia are essentially caves that are embedded in the hillside and are part of the landscape. In addition the volcanic rock of the caldera allowed the inhabitants of the towns there to build into the hillside without it crumbling.

    Building on the sloping hillsides of Cincinnati would be like building directly on the cliff face of the caldera. It would completely destroy the scenic beauty that is such a defining characteristic of both places. In addition structures here are not built into the landscape but rather on top of it. Instead of cave homes that work with the natural topography we have structures on pilings that will either crack, and slide down the hill over time, or will require massive and costly reinforcement. Lastly our geology is extremely different. The exposed shale on our hillsides is unable to support any development, in fact this geological quirk causes us to spend more on landslides per capita than Los Angeles or San Francisco.

    While the hillsides do represent a missed opportunity, I believe they should be further enhanced as an integrated open space corridor rather than subject to further development. Just of the communities of Santorini developed a balance between development along the rim of the caldera and preservation of the red volcanic cliffs that so many people come to see. We too must balance development on the hillsides with the preservation of this unique asset to our city.

  • Thanks for the comments everyone. I think this is a very interesting topic, and one that people are clearly passionate about. From the sounds of things it appears the preference is to leave Cincinnati’s hillsides undeveloped for their scenic and natural benefits.

  • JBJBJB

    I once looked at a house to buy above Willies in Covington that had a cracked foundation due to the hill it sat on. It’s near the space ship, if you know where I mean.

    That said, it’s just a little house built, perhaps poorly, 60-70 years ago. If development were started today, I’d assume they have better techniques and precautions, especially if done on a larger scale. Heck, Chicago is built on a swamp.

    Randy, it seems we go to all the same places. I’ve been to Greece as well. It is a vibrant site to see the hillsides packed with eager citizens. That is beautiful to me just as much as forests and trees.

    One time at a Reds game I looked out at Kentucky and told my mom where that NKY development was going to go and she didn’t like the idea. To me, the green spaces in Cincinnati are not used or enjoyed properly anyway, except in the great parks (which could improve as well). I’m with Randy, build on the hills where it makes sense. There will always be trees growing in yards and sidewalks and city parks.

    It’s not as easy as saying to do so, however. The demand is what makes Athens and SF so dense. Increasing demand for living space wouldn’t have to do with available vacant green lots as much as increased economic prosperity and forward progress. Hopefully that comes soon.