Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Baltimore's plan for the future

Former Maryland Planning Secreatry Rich Hall, then the chair of the Baltimore Citizen Planning and Housing Association (CPHA) wrote a remarkable piece for the SUN. In it he suggested that Mayor Pugh pull the key recommendations of the Transition team into a single document that becomes Baltimore's guide for the future. Hall wrote:
These Design School students will still be in their 20s in 2030. What needs
to be done to keep talent in Baltimore? 

  • the Pugh administration should gather all agencies, non-profit partners, private sector, and elected and citizen leaders to stitch together the city's many existing reports and single-issue plans including this transition document. This will refine the precise vision for the city's future into one that moves beyond "Making it the greatest city in America."
  • The mayor should then direct her cabinet to inventory all active plans across every neighborhood and determine which are most critical and timely, where there are overlaps and gaps, and how they fit into the vision.
  • Finally, the mayor should release a single guiding plan for Baltimore City, one with ambitious, attainable and data driven goals.
In other words, develop a specific concept for what the Baltimore of tomorrow should look like. Coordinate the many efforts underway in such a way that they add up to something bigger than the sum of the parts. This sounds simple enough, until we realize that no such "vision" had been developed in decades, if ever. That seems to be a problem, at least according to
"You are here" art project by Yvonne Hardy Phillips, Baltimore
Stephen Goldsmith, Professor of the Practice of Government at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government (author of "The Responsive City").

In a recent conversation he surprisingly declared that one of the most important things for Mayors and leaders to have is a story, a narrative and a description of an outcome. Without it, they cannot convince others to work with or for them, whatever honorable goals they may have. Goldsmith says.
"You sell the result, not the process" (Stephen Goldsmith)
By contrast, "Do it now" (William Donald Schaefer) or "Let's move Baltimore forward", a favorite for all mayors after Schaefer, is about process, not a specific result. Neither "greener and cleaner" or "growing by 10,000 households" describe the Baltimore of tomorrow. These slogans are too broad and too specific at the same time, plus they could apply to any city. What is needed is a Baltimore-specific narrative that is plausible, convincing and attractive.

A Baltimore specific narrative builds on the city's specific strengths (health institutions, strong philantropy, strong cultural institutions, the port, outstanding architecture, rich cultural diversity to name just a few). To be plausible and convincing it would build on actual local demographic and technological trends (more of 50% of households are child free, the rise of the knowledge economy, automation, genetics etc.). It would be attractive if it described a city that remains authentically Baltimore, would be livable for all and provides a quality of life that takes advantage of our unique assets.

Each of these steps needs to be peeled like an onion from the general to the specific. Johns Hopkins, for example, is not just medicine but also a unique space program. The city's philanthropy has begun using cutting edge community engagement techniques (Turnaround Tuesday), the arts are top notch whether established "high-brow" or emerging. We all know what works well here but generally keep it a secret and not tie it to other successes.

The Mayor is already working with researchers from Bloomberg Philanthropies who are big on precedents and best practices. Baltimore needs to look at successful cities with a industrial past that are not simply riding on the sunbelt wave but are structurally similar such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Charlotte NC, or Glasgow. They did not turn around due to sheer luck but because their leaders all made focused and concerted efforts for their cities to pivot and become something that they could do better and easier than others and they had community buy-in. Some ideas were simple but quite creative such as Milwaukee's night markets. Baltimore cannot copy any of these ideas but needs to develop its own.
The crown bottle cork - invented and made in Baltimore

Baltimore based innovation researcher Alec Ross (author of "Industries of the Future", another untapped resource) compares his hometown Charleston WVa with Charlotte, NC. The latter, he says pivoted towards future industries, the former did not. The one is a thriving city today, the other is not. Charlotte seized on the de-regulation of banks, an opportunity mostly driven by two bank CEOs but the public sector followed with transportation and investment strategies that complemented the "bank city" goal and made the city relative resilient when the financial bubble burst.

What should the Baltimore of 2030 look like, what is the story? Mobtown or Charm City? How can the city pivot from being quirky but stuffy to being quirky but cool? Pivot from treating famous patients around the world but having health outcomes that rival failing nations in certain neighborhoods to excellent health care for all? This isn't a matter of slogans, to be sure. To project a better image, reality needs to change and residents need to agree not only on what City they love but what city they want to become in real, actual, physical, economic, and social terms.

How can residents help the Mayor shift from simply extrapolating the past to aiming for a specific future? For that process comes back into the picture. Rich Hall in his editorial:
All our plans and reports need to be coordinated by design so we can tackle the hard decisions of what matters most, where we put our resources, and how we track our progress.
A targeted, focused approach aligns the magnets just so and by really tapping into the elusive synergy it saves money over the scattershot approach we have to date.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Richard Hall letter
related on this blog: Mayor Pugh's agenda