Interview: James Weaver – Senior City Planner – Cincinnati, Ohio

Sticks and stones may break my bones…but they also help build incredible cities.

Once upon a time, there was a city run by pigs. The city was called ‘Porkopolis’.

Wait, scratch that! – I don’t want The Queen City to be recognized in this article as one who simply capitalized on a prominent resource in the area and, because of that, acquired a distasteful pseudonym – Yes, the city was actually nicknamed Porkopolis. I want this article to highlight how in the early 19th century, the ‘Nati’ grew its economy and increased the population staggeringly by acting as an important trade stop on the Ohio River, with pigs as the main supply. I want it to highlight the architectural and artistic inspiration that Cincinnati’s cityscape’s been. I also want this post to highlight the unfortunate plateau in population growth and hindering floods that caused the city to have consecutive underwhelming consensus reports. But I want this interview to highlight the continuous development because of the staff along with the lack of complacency among its residents.

Vine Street, Cincinnati, Ohio
John Vachon captures Fountain Square.
Cincinnati Skyline, 1930

EARLY HISTORY: In 1819, the city of Cincinnati was incorporated; named by the Society of the Cincinnati after a selfless, virtuous Roman soldier, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. Between 1810 and 1830, the population of the City tripled from ~9,000 to ~27,000 with the help of steamboats along the river, allowing it to trade more pigs and hay. But the biggest boom was during the Great Migration when Irish and German families began looking for new homes. The population by 1850 was increased to 115,000(!!) and that’s when Cincinnati inherited the name “Queen City”. By the 1900s, the population was over 60% Prussian, or German.

Setting the stage for more notorious parts of the United States.

Along with 90,000 new bodies, came 90,000 creative new minds, and the City started pioneering features of architecture, arts, and governance. The Carew tower, the second largest building in Cincinnati, inspired the Empire State Building. Music Hall is one of the oldest and largest performance arts halls in the US – built to host the May Festival since 1880. The Rosenthal Center is considered by the New York Times to be the “most important American building constructed since the end of the Cold War.” The only municipally-owned interstate railway in the US is owned by Cincinnati and it travels 337 miles to Chatanooga, Tennessee. The Cincinnati Zoo is the second oldest zoo in the US. Its Police and Fire Departments were the first paid professional departments, in 1853. The first Montesorri public high school is in Cincinnati, along with the first K-12 Arts School in the country. In 2001, an unwarranted killing of a black man caused police reform that was used as a model in other cities. Cincinnati has been a prototype for cityscapes and governing culture.

One of the most important times when Cincinnati established itself as a pioneer in culture was its stance on slavery in the early 1800s. Because of the location next to the Ohio River, Cincinnati was a hub for slaves crossing it. When pro-slavery southerners started moving to the city, it caused a lot of tension to the point of historically-known fatal riots. The black population dwindled when around 1,000 people left. Poorer Irish immigrants were competition, making it much more difficult to buy a property and establish a residence. Around 1842, the black community was able to work their way back up to a sufficient percentage of the population, and they were stronger than ever. Since 1950, there has been an amazing shift in the balance of the population: 42% black, 50% white, 8% other. The demographics of the city today are largely due to the political stance it took over a century ago.

Although some areas were able to thrive again, the growth of Cincinnati was slowed by flooding and late 20th-century crime. The flood in 1937 was one of the worst in US history. However, the crime and flooding haven’t stopped the residents or the city staff from finding solutions to problems. I was able to talk with the man who’s been the Senior City Planner for the last ten years and asked him some questions regarding how he and his team have been able to grow the city to where it is today, and what he has planned for the future.

Cincinnati, OH

An interview with James Weaver:

With the pandemic lasting as long as it has and the entirety of the first year of it being a social black hole, I’ve almost run out of things to talk about when starting conversations. I needed some more ideas for when I finally leave my apartment to socialize, so I asked James what his favorite topics are to get a conversation going:

“My go-to topic for small talk is usually sports or weather. If it’s someone I know or am expecting to meet I try to find something they worked on or like to do. Working in government, I don’t have to initiate a lot of conversations as I’m not selling my services.”

I think it’s universal. I mean, for me, talking about the weather is a great way to determine if someone is a good or bad person; if they like the cold weather, they simply can’t be trusted. And to his point, nowadays talking about Cincinnati sports is a treat because of the Bengals’ recent Superbowl appearance.

The City has accomplished a lot and James has helped them do some of it within the last 10 years. I asked him what his favorite accomplishment has been in his time there so far:

“It’s hard to look back on a favorite accomplishment. Getting the soccer stadium approved was a challenge, but it was cool to see it being built and to go. Probably my favorite thing was creating an interactive map using ArcGIS Online to show differences between the existing and proposed zoning code on a city-wide scale.”

I knew there was something that I liked about James; his innovative and entrepreneurial mindset is great for the City. I’ve also been to the stadium and it looks amazing. If you visit Cincinnati, you have to check out the FCC soccer stadium.

There are so many amazing spots around Cincinnati. As one who helped plan the City and studied every corner of it, I asked James what his favorite part is:

“It’s hard to pick a favorite part of the city. The easy answer is OTR, but every neighborhood is unique and has its own cool areas. Eating Eli’s BBQ on the river is a treat, and a lot of the breweries have helped transform their neighborhood.”

To sum it up, the eateries and breweries are incredible! Barbecue is my favorite type of food anyway, so when I had Eli’s BBQ – two small shops – I knew it was going to be at the top of my list. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks the same. I’m glad he didn’t go with the easy answer!

Although the questions about his favorite spots around the city were fun, I needed to get down to the nitty-gritty and ask questions more specific to his planning experience. One of the big reasons why I think James has a great background is because he has an AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) certification. I looked into the organization while writing another article and it’s not an easy task at all. I asked him what the most difficult part was for him and how he overcame it:

“The most difficult part of AICP was studying for it. Some things are relevant to the job, but some things were history, etc., and things you have to memorize. Every city is different, as in sometimes zoning goes to the street centerline, sometimes it doesn’t but there were questions about calculating area, etc. that were somewhat subjective. Planetizen had a great study guide and materials. I also took lots of practice tests.”

It seems similar to getting a couple of my certifications. The material in the courses didn’t necessarily apply to the real-life situations that I handle. However, the fundamentals are necessary, which I’m assuming is the reason why the Planetizen study guides were also helpful.

Earlier in his career, he was also an Associate Planner in Auburn, Alabama where he worked directly with the comprehensive plan. He received his Bachelor’s at the University of Cincinnati before doing that so I asked him why he left Cincinnati to work in Auburn and what knowledge/ideas he brought back from that experience:

“I graduated in 2009, and Auburn was the only place I could find a job. It was fun to live somewhere else for a few years. Auburn was (and still is) experiencing a ton of growth, where Cincinnati is pretty much landlocked. They also deal with issues with students around the university, which was something we did a few years ago with the neighborhoods around UC.”

I can’t blame him. I left Cincinnati a couple of years ago to try out life in Denver and being able to see the growth of another city is captivating. As a Cincinnati native myself, I’ve noticed those changes in the neighborhoods around the campus. Being able to apply solutions to those similarities is one of the reasons I think it’s important to diversify experience.

To piggyback off of that question, I asked him if there are any nuanced approaches that he brings to the table when working with comprehensive or strategic plans:

“A lot of neighborhood plans involve listening to issues they are having and putting them into a document eventually approved by City Council. Every neighborhood is different, but a lot of their problems are similar (disinvestment, dangerous traffic conditions, lack of amenities, etc.). Having it in an approved plan can help the neighborhood with the city, state, or federal funding.”

They say “timing is everything” and I think that’s especially true in the planning department of a municipality.

I’d imagine being a planner would be nearly impossible without certain organizational and technical tools. I asked him which software and physical tools he uses most for planning and what his favorite features are about them:

“Besides Office, I use GIS the most. During the pandemic, besides zoom, I’ve also used Adobe creative suite to facilitate virtual meetings. Being able to analyze a lot of data quickly is super helpful along with being able to tell the story.”

Having collaboration tools definitely makes it easier to communicate and stay organized, and he’s right when it comes to making sure data is analyzed in order to tell the story, or the bigger picture – I do it often in sales in marketing.

The mission of the Cincinnati Planning Department is to “ensure that our great city is enriched with vitality, thrives as an urban center, and is a model to other cities nationwide.” I asked him what are some of the goals he has to make sure the city remains a model:

“Today (2/18/22) is actually my last day with the department, but connecting with neighborhoods and trying to turn their wants and needs into a neighborhood plan is one way to tell city leaders the pulse of the neighborhood. We also try to be the voice of the neighborhood when it comes to zone changes, etc. if it’s going to be bad for the neighborhood.”

It was unfortunate to hear that it was his last day, but they also say “all good things come to an end”, so it’s expected. Wherever he goes next will gain a great visionary and department leader.

He’s also an Adjunct Professor at Xavier University and has been for the last 6.5 years. Maybe he focuses on that for a bit. I’m sure taking a break from planning cities is key for the creative energy to start flowing again. I asked him, “what are the hardest and easiest parts of teaching students about GIS and Planning?”

“The easiest part of teaching is that I enjoy doing it and it’s fun to see the students grow over the semester. The hardest part is getting students, especially undergraduates to come to class and put in the work. I spend a lot of time following up on things I shouldn’t have to, but I also don’t want to have to give out a really bad grade.”

If you’re a student reading this, make sure you turn in your assignments to Professor Weaver on time! You’ll thank him down the road for instilling that discipline.

How does Cincinnati continue to re-establish itself as the pioneer that it once was?

The Cincinnati Metropolitan is the 28th largest economy in the US; the fifth largest in the Midwest. The median home price is around $160,000 and the cost of living is below the national average. The unemployment rate is also below the national average. There are several Fortune 500 companies with headquarters in Cincinnati. The economy is still intact!

With the help of the 3CDC and the planning department, the city is developing The Banks, Over-The-Rhine, and Fountain Square. This type of reinvestment into the older parts of town is what’s going to keep Cincinnati alive and thriving. As James mentioned, the city is somewhat landlocked, but in my opinion, there’s no reason to move outward when the heart of the city can still be revitalized – which we’re slowly seeing.

The restaurants and eateries are going to continue to attract inquisitive appetites. Cincinnati’s known as the “Chili capital of the world” because there are more chili restaurants per capita than any other city in the world. The Greek and Macedonian influence on the City’s chili has made it a staple in the culture. Goetta is a classic mixture of grain and sausage that continues to make homes around the area smell delicious on holiday mornings.

Along with the food is their incredible sports culture. America’s first baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings (now the Reds), is in Cincinnati. Their FCC team hosted an attendance that broke the USL audience record, which highlights the intensity that the fans bring. The residents also take pride in their pig roots with the Flying Pig Marathon which acts as a symbol of the impact that pork had back in the day, and also as a qualifier to the Boston Marathon.

Cincinnati has a great culture and a thriving economy. Their peak population was 1950 at 504,000 residents, and the goal is to get back to those levels. How do they do that? What does the City need in order to grow and re-establish itself as a model? There are lots of older cities in the US, and Cincinnati can be the “How to” when it comes to rebuilding a prosperous infrastructure within them. Maybe an increase in branding efforts will help invite more families to those affordable, job-filled areas. How can Cincinnati’s art culture reach the level of LA, New York, Chicago, etc.? Maybe all they needed was an appearance in the Superbowl to draw attention to the City. I don’t know, I’m not a city planner. But what I do know is that there are incredible leaders who do have a plan.

If you want to dive deeper into Cincinnati’s plans for the near future, check out their Consolidated Action Plan. Join the Ohio community channel and talk with your neighbors!


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