Sunday, January 24, 2016

US Conference of Mayors: Nobody looks to Baltimore for urban policy ideas

The only presidential candidate who spoke about an urban agenda during one of the presidential debates was Martin O'Malley, Baltimore's former mayor. Even though cities have become the global leaders in innovation and international collaboration and Baltimore sits right next to DC, our city plays only a small role on the national stage. O'Malley as Mayor had introduced one thing that other mayors liked to learn about: CitiStat. Of course, under the subsequent administrations CitiStat has shriveled and became meaningless which is sad when one considers that we live in the age of data. Other innovations which other cities like to copy have not emerged.(Ok, maybe with the exception of Leana Wen, the City's Health Commissioner whom many others would like to have).

So here Baltimore's Mayor presides over the US Conference of Mayors, which just concluded its 2016 winter meeting in DC with about 250 mayors present. That should be a big deal for Baltimore!

When the conference opened a little disturbance shed a light on Stephanie Rawlings Blake's inability to connect. She showed a total lack of reaction to the protester right in front of her podium blocking her from the audience by holding a placard about the Chicago police killing. SRB was so focused on reading from her notes that she didn't even realize what was happening until somebody shook her arm. Then, like a robot her voice switched off for a while until she concluded that the placard holder will stay there for a while and she switched he voice on again, continuing the same sentence like a robot. This would have been a great moment for an impromptu statement about social justice and police. But nope. 
Rawlings Blake keeps reading as if nothing happened

Our Mayor also got to introduce the First Lady for a keynote talk about homeless veterans and, during a visit of the Conference at the White House SRB introduced the President himself. But there seemed to be no agenda what to ask for or for what  cities should get the most help.

Obama is his own story when it comes to urban policy. This 84th Mayors' Conference was certainly too late for him to announce a reinvigorated urban policy. In spite of the high expectations accompanying a community organizer becoming President, Obama never gained much of a profile as a President of cities of cities, in spite of some promising efforts. His early Sustainable Communities Partnership gave the Baltimore region a grant for the work that is known as the Opportunity Collaborative. Upon getting into office Obama had created an Office of Urban Affairs which soon feel dormant and has been that way for years.
Mayors at the White House

At his not even nine minute remarks in front of the assembled mayors Obama announced 13 finalists of the $1 billion “National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC),” (most of the money will go to NYC and Louisiana) and that Michigan will get a $80 million grant so they can deal with the Flint water calamity. Baltimore wasn't a recipient in either case. Whether for not participating or for not qualifying, I could not determine.  Baltimore also hasn't participated in the challenge grant for "Strong Cities, Strong Communities", another competitive two-stage Obama initiative.
Baltimore did receive second prize ($25,000) in the Childhood Obesity Prevention Program for the work of integrating the City owned Great Kids Farm in Catonsville into the Baltimore City school program. That award was announced at the US Conference of Mayors as well, but it isn't federal money.
The kiss of death: The Dead Mayors Society:
SRB and Rahm Emanuel

Competitive challenge grants do not replace a convincing federal urban policy and so it is left to the cities themselves to fill the void. For 2016 they came up with a 16 point laundry list titled "the Mayors Compact for a Better America", a rather timid "compact" compared to its namesake, the cities compact on climate change.

For this conference the cities proffered a report prepared by Boston University based on a poll that researchers had conducted among the mayors with the goal to identify priorities for US cities.

The poll has a number of interesting findings: Mayor's don't expect much help from Washington, they look for partners in the private and non-profit sectors and they are not as non-partisan as they like to proclaim. Maybe worse than the fact that this study was not prepared by one of Baltimore's or at least Maryland's universities was one of the poll results: In the list of cities to which mayors look for guidance, policy ideas or strong leadership, Baltimore doesn't even show up. That's right, it isn't even on the list!
Not on the list: Baltimore
It isn't that under SRB there wouldn't have been any good policies or goals or successes even. But those are not communicated. The Mayor always seems to rather be somewhere else. 

When voters go to the polls in April's mayoral primary, wouldn't it be great if they would select a candidate who has fresh ideas and can also promote them? Ideas that could make Baltimore a leader when it comes to creative and innovative urban policies?

As it stands, we sometimes copy good ideas from elsewhere, but usually late and in a haphazard manner. Morale and expectations seem to be generally low.  This is why we are more known for scandals and failings than successes. We are behind in affordable housing (where we once were a leader with all the HOPE VI projects), in transportation (where Baltimore was historically an innovator, now its still doesn't even have bike-sharing), not to mention start-ups, venture capital or social justice.

Baltimore clearly has it in its DNA to become a great city again. Let's begin with a great leader, a mayor that other mayors will look up to.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Below some interesting snapshots of the mayor's poll included in the Menino Report, named after Boston's late mayor.
Republicans and Democrats have opposite views about affordable housing 

Cities don't expect federal support

Cities want transit funded.

Mayors also still spend a lot on Roads

Looking everywhere for partners to solve the urban issues

Republicans and Democrats differ on fiscal health

Workforce development: The proclaimed #1 target of mayoral action