Friday, December 9, 2016

Leadership, Narrative and Vision

Stephen Goldsmith is a sought after advisor and expert of municipal government. He was mayor of Indianapolis, deputy mayor of New York City and is now teaching the practice of government at Harvard. When he spoke recently at an event about how to get infrastructure done in cities, he spoke as one who had demonstrated effective private partnerships in his time a mayor of Indy and as one who has written a lot about data-driven decision making.

I was surprised then, when he postulated that one of the most important things for urban leaders to promote was a convincing narrative. Taken his advice, I wondered how this can be applied to Baltimore. Clearly, a narrative is more than a slogan and it is more than a process. O'Malley, when he devised the slogan "Baltimore, the greatest city in America", didn't have a narrative, not to mention that the slogan was just too over the top to be taken seriously.  His insistence on a data driven process (CitiStat) did not describe a vision for a desired outcome but just a process. Goldsmith says "You have to sell the result, not the process".
Quirkiness as a vision? Baltimore's VAM 

Sheila Dixon also had just a slogan with "greener and cleaner", even though it described a vision, albeit a modest one. Stephanie Rawlings Blake wanted to grow by 10,000 residents, not a slogan but an outcome, although the real outcome that she desired was an increased tax base and fewer vacant houses. Even when we go back to Schmoke or Schaefer, it is hard to find a vision for Baltimore that would provide a robust or convincing narrative for Baltimore, one that would convince residents to stay or others to come here, let alone convince capital to invest here.

In an article from earlier this year titled the Power of Vision in Urban Governance, Goldsmith writes:
Mayors make their way into office by inspiring the public to believe that a brighter future is in store. Every mayor wants to be a "visionary leader," but they don't just wake up one morning with a vision. To craft an original and feasible vision for a city -- one that holds the promise of effective, efficient government that builds a city and inspires its populace -- public officials need help.
In his case he sat down with folks from MIT to refine the vision for Indy that his predecessor had already developed, also with MIT, namely that Indy should be the nations's capital for amateur sports. So Goldsmith worked on the shoulders of the previous mayor and as Goldsmith explains in his article, Hudnut's vision did not come from the mayor or MIT alone, it was developed in careful collaboration with stakeholders and after careful analysis of the city's assets:
To execute a plan like this, a compelling narrative is indispensable. A set of ideas targeting certain outcomes is a strategy, but a vision is truly animated when a wide array of city stakeholders adopts the message as their own. To work, the story has to be both calculated and contagious. "It was not a vision of a single person; it was a collective discussion which led to the vision, which then as mayor I was given the opportunity to implement," Hudnut said.
Assets are a central point in Goldsmith's approach. He spoke about those in his presentation as well. "You don't start with what comes from Washington" he said, "but around the assets you have". Baltimore's mayors have certainly talked about Baltimore's assets, the Port, Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, the city's HBCUs. Lately the fairly large influx of millennials is mentioned, a burgeoning art and music scene and always Baltimore's quirkiness, whatever exactly it is, it is probably best exemplified by the Kinetic Sculpture race, the Hon Fest or  the holiday decorations on 34th Street. Maybe John Waters. Those references lack cultural diversity, though, pointing to a certain nostalgia of a Baltimore that was once dominated by the ethnic particularities of the various European immigrants.

An assortment of assets makes no vision yet. Goldsmith also doesn't like generic terms or copycats that just run with somebody else's idea, he finishes his article with the following admonition:
Municipalities are racing to brand themselves as "smart cities," but true vision comes out of something less generic. Vision happens when a mayor allows him or herself to be stimulated by outside forces, configures what's best, and then connects it to the distinctive character of his or her own city. In Hudnut's words, "The key is not to try to imitate someone else's success. The key is to analyze your own strengths, your location, and the spirit of your community -- and to build on what you have."
So what could Baltimore's vision be? Sticking with Goldsmith's advice, the answer can't be given by one individual and not without a careful analysis of the assets and strengths. But a few criteria could probably be suggested.

For example, a vision that leaves out African American culture and history will probably not be very authentic or convincing in a City that has a two-third African American population, nor would have such a vision the broad support needed to be successful. When talking about arts and music, in Baltimore it is notable that in spite of having three official arts and entertainment districts, none is dedicated to African American culture and none includes the heart of black arts and entertainment history, the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. But arts and culture that would embrace African American traditions would be special, although by now Baltimore would have to compete with Detroit for the national title.
Goldsmith

Another one of Baltimore's unique assets is its huge amount of historic buildings that are listed on the National Registry of historic places. Baltimore has become one of the nation's leaders in adaptive reuse, i.e. repurposing old buildings for new uses. In fact, Baltimore may be second to none when it comes to creative solutions for repurposing buildings, just think of the old Procter and Gamble soap factory that is now Tide Point, the old grain silos that became Silo Point, the American Can complex that has become a regional mixed use magnet, Clipper Mill that made sleepy Woodberry a citywide destination with a first class restaurant and a repurposed factory hall used for actually making things (Guiterrez studios) and the Montgomery Ward warehouse that now houses among other things the State's Department of the Environment. The list is endless and growing.

Hopkins and the University of Maryland are certainly huge assets, but an overarching narrative is missing. Both are first rate universities, both have world famous hospitals and medical research. Both have aspirations for bio-tech, competing not only in a crowded national field but also with each other. Why can't Baltimore aspire to become the health capital of the nation, taking on Boston, Cleveland, Houston and Rochester, MI in the same competitive spirit in which underdog Under Armour takes on Nike? For this to happen the hospitals would have to become more specialized, become international leaders in at least one field and the city would need to be "healthy" on many levels. On the latter the current and past health commissioners have done an excellent job in making Baltimore well known in successful health strategies for impoverished neighborhoods.
World famous: Johns Hopkins Hospital

Tradepoint Atlantic (the former Sparrows Point) is working on making their 3100 acres a destination for distribution of online goods, not very glamorous and an aspiration usually attempted by areas where nothing else competes for valuable land. But in combination with a thriving port there may be an angle that could be specific to Baltimore (the region). It isn't obvious, though, that the private Tradepoint and the public port really pursue a joint strategy and vision.

The sheer fact that there seems to be a decades old lack of a clearly defined aspiration and narrative for Baltimore should be a reason for excitement. Under the new President's regime when cities likely have to fend much more for themselves, Goldsmith's admonition not to wait for what Washington has to offer, seems extremely timely. An effective strategy for leveraging Baltimore's assets is more urgent than ever.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA