Friday, February 5, 2016

What the mayoral candidates are not talking about

Amidst all the talk about Baltimore's problems and inequities that came back into sharp global focus last year, the fact remains that this is the type of discussion Baltimoreans have been locked into for decades. The discussion's main ingredients: Tepidness, pessimism and low expectations. The usual conclusion: Baltimore just can't do it. Whatever it is.

In spite of a lot of talk about "change", what is missing in the debate who should be Mayor of Baltimore is a breeze of fresh air and new ideas.
Maybe that new perspective will now come from 30 year old national social media star DeRay Mckesson. But the change in perspective is not just a matter of personalities and the usual fixation on their characters, it is also a question of how we see our city in the bigger context. Let's identify what "new ideas" could mean and bring up some issues that hardly come up in the debates so far:

  • Baltimore's future in a prosperous region? Baltimore is situated to Washington DC like Newark is to Manhattan or Oakland is to San Francisco. Oakland in particular shows, that there is power in such a constellation. The larger DC-Baltimore region is healthy, wealthy and growing at a good clip. There is no immutable reason whatsoever why Baltimore should not be able to snatch a larger part of the regional pie. Yet there is not much consideration about Baltimore's role other than how many folks ride the MARC train to DC.
    a shrinking city in a growing region: Opportunity untapped
  • Demographics: The nation's by far largest demographic cohorts, the baby-boomers and their echo, the millennials, both push back into cities, a nationwide trend. Baltimore does pretty well with millennials but what have the mayoral candidates to tell that younger generation? What will Baltimore do to capture more baby-boomers? There is hardly an urban choice of assisted living in the central city, most development for the elderly is still concentrated in those isolated campus style settings that are the opposite of the urbanity that the elderly should be able to enjoy. A huge market opportunity going untapped.
    the demographic power-cohorts: Boomers and Millennials
  • Self driving vehicles and the share economy: Some experts predict that 50% of the urban space currently devoted to cars (mostly parking) could become available when shared cars become AVs and don't need to park. What will Baltimore do to position itself as a leader in this possible development, what are the policies that are suggested to ensure a good outcome instead of AVs giving sprawl another lease on life? Cities can't just wait how this shapes up, they have to shape the future! If we get streetspace and parking garages back, what are the ideas to revive our public spaces that have been ransacked for decades by traffic engineers and too many cars?
  • Driverless cars don't need to look like this: Half self driving cars sit already in the showrooms
  • The maker economy: True, the possibility that 3-D printers could set off a manufacturing revolution is even more speculative than AVs at this point. But what have the candidates to say about this potentially huge disruptive change which has the possibility of producing many jobs right where they previously disappeared, in creative legacy cities? The rapid social and technological change that the postindustrial knowledge society produces makes eight years as mayor look like an eternity. What are the ideas about innovation districts, start-ups, incubators and the rethinking of what it means to have a "job" in this century? The current leaders in these areas are private companies like Orderup or non-profits like the Deutsch Foundation. Baltimore has a good foundation of start-ups and innovators, but the candidates for mayor barely speak about them or about innovation in government beyond a new phone system.
    Open Works maker space on Greenmount Avenue is under construction (rendering Cho Benn Holback)
Manufacturing, mobility, access and jobs: these terms are used a lot in the political arena by Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and also locally by Sheila Dixon, Catherine Pugh Nick Mosby, Elizabeth Embry and David Warnock. But barely is it recognized that all these terms already taken on a completely different form and definition from what they were 20 or 40 years ago. 

What is needed is a less defensive posture towards the change we all experience replaced by an attitude of curiosity that embraces disruption and takes new knowledge to wrestle opportunity from it. 
Counter to some popular wisdom, the inequalities for which our city has become a symbol, cannot be solved solely from within. A broader, healthier and economically sustainable basis is needed. That is the future a Mayor needs to address.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA