Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mayor Catherine Pugh and the prospects for a better Baltimore

Now that the votes are tallied, Baltimore saw a record primary turn-out, and the best candidate was nominated as the Democratic candidate for Mayor, many are looking around wondering what can change and what will change?

Pugh, in her acceptance speech last night, rattled off the varies ailments that beset this city, high unemployment, lack of education, high poverty, high school drop-out rates, high addiction and high incarceration rates. High in all the wrong places.
Acceptance speech: (Photo: K Philipsen)

Pugh said she will govern with inclusion in mind  and that she will use the triple A bond rating, which the City has attained under Rawlings Blake, to build good neighborhoods all across the City.

Dan Rodricks opines this morning in his SUN column that Baltimore's solutions have to come from within. Contrary to that urban researcher David Rusk had determined in his 1995 book "Baltimore Unbound" that Baltimore had passed a "point of no return" and was doomed unless it would break out of its confines. Rusk proposed the merger of City and County with tax base sharing and a metro government. This is politically unattainable here, even though County Executive Kevin Kamenetz showed up on the stage last night to celebrate with Pugh, and even though city-county mergeres have been done successfully in cities as diverse as Lexington, Kentucky, Portland, Oregon, Indianapolis, Indiana and yes, Philadelphia, PA.

Although I wished Baltimore had proven Rusk wrong in the last 11 years after he wrote his doomsday book by having achieved a flourishing Baltimore, the uprising last year showed that Rusk's focus on race was actually quite accurate and our still stagnating population numbers are a reminder how hard it is to break the cycles. But I think neither Rodricks nor Rusk have it quite right. Maybe there is a mixture of the two. Let me explain.

Breaking out of the negative feedback loops does require more than can be had within. Rusk compares the solutions from within (community development corporations, grants and non-profit assists) to the challenge to running up a down elevator. The fact that very many efforts did not succeed in turning Sandtown Winchester around illustrates Rusk's point.
To break new ground, though, we don't need to expand the city at the perimeter as Rusk proclaims ("inelastic cities").

The City can expand within and achieve a better tax base, additional jobs and economic development by better using the space it has. To make use of those fallow spaces and buildings will require additional residents and additional companies to come to Baltimore. Growth and people coming in from the outside are the only way to obtain the necessary resources. If existing companies grow, if existing families stay, the better. But to do this requires fixing a lot of things for which we don't have the money and resources.Simply focusing on those who are already here, as understandable as this notion is, won't do, simply because the needs and the available resources to meet the needs are so out of whack.

It is this simple truth that needs to be kept in mind when we consider how Catherine Pugh can "move this city forward". She has proven that she is the one who can act credibly in board rooms and in the streets of the neighborhoods (which was Mosby's slogan), and that is what is necessary so the two Baltimores won't drift further apart.
 (Photo: K Philipsen)

From the insight that Baltimore needs to grow within its boundaries follow a few very simple strategies, namely

  • Rehabilitation over demolition. Most empty buildings need to be refilled and not be demolished and the sites be turned into weedy meadows which do not generate taxes.
  • Support of companies and organizations that grow and create jobs and social capital (such as innovation small start-ups, social impact developers, large anchor institutions such as UM and Hopkins but also Under Armour, a company Rusk had not foreseen)
  • Better transportation to account for increased mobility needs from higher density

Local and national policy in the 21st century doesn't have to be a zero-sum game where it is all about how to move the chairs around on the deck of a sinking ship.

Instead, a dynamic city can, indeed, create growth and wealth from within, once a proper balance of resources and needs is achieved. For this to happen, though, the entrenched traditional tribes have to join forces and unleash the creative potential that Baltimore has. And the State has to be part of the journey. Catherine Pugh is well positioned to make this happen.The diverse group of people, black, Latino, white, standing with her at her celebration were a good indicator.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

SUN Opinion piece about five priorities for the designated mayoral candidate NOW