Friday, August 27, 2021

How to stem the tide of Baltimore's population loss

The results of the 2020 census must be a wake-up call for Baltimore. Just like every previous decade before, Baltimore has been bleeding population once again. My friend Paul Sturm summarized the calamity in an opinion piece in the Sun this way:

Many of the stories about the new census data showing Baltimore City lost over 27,000 people (5.7% of its population) from 2010 to 2020 neglected to mention Baltimore is the only major city in the northeast corridor to see its population decrease over the past decade. Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston and New York all gained residents during this period — ranging from a 5.1% increase in Philadelphia to 14.6% in Washington.

Even more troubling is Baltimore’s 30-year population trend compared to other major northeast cities — particularly Boston and Washington. In 1990, just over 736,000 people lived in Baltimore City while 574,000 lived in Boston and about 607,000 in Washington. But as Baltimore lost more than 150,000 people over the past 30 years, Boston gained 100,000 residents while Washington added nearly 110,000. Each city now has over 100,000 residents more than Baltimore.

I have long held the opinion that population growth is the closest to a silver bullet that Baltimore has to offer. (see previous blog articles here and here). More people would add resources, avoid school closings, help retail and prevent our neighborhoods from falling into a cycle of decline. More demand would stabilize real estate values in declining neighborhoods and would help maintaining a qualified and versatile workforce. In all, maintaining Baltimore's population would make life of existing residents better, not worse.

Blue= Population gain, red =population loss.
The Black Butterfly and the White L in 
different colors
 By contrast, the ongoing shrinkage brings even higher concentrations of poverty, even lower demand for retail, it depopulates our schools even more and exacerbates the growing disparity between the the labor pool that is needed versus the one we have. All of this would further deprive existing residents of opportunity.  As such the discussion whether growth would serve or deprive existing residents is really moot and so is the discussion whether additional residents mean "gentrification". 

In a city that had been “built-out” by the 1950s in terms of its size and geographic boundaries, how many people move in or move out is at the root of many issues at the neighborhood level. Using this one measure (the change in total population at the neighborhood level over two points in time) can help everyone better understand the interconnected set of issues and experience residents, businesses, and other stakeholders are having. (Baltimore Neighborhood Indicator Alliance)
BNIA's map published shortly after the latest census indicated the renewed staggering losses that Baltimore incurred. The map  also shows  that the losses are not at all evenly spread. Instead they follow the by now well known pattern of the "black butterfly" and the "white L", terms coined by Lawrence Brown, a former Morgan State University professor, describing the poor, disinvested and almost 100% African American communities in East and West Baltimore in the shape of two butterfly wings and the thriving center area spreading east along the waterfront which is often majority white. Brown also publishes the annual Baltimore Apartheid Syllabus. As BNIA's Professor Colin Starger referring to Brown's maps and terms illustrates in this video, the pattern of the maps is pervasive across many indicators and data sets that the BNIA institute has compiled. Starger explains the correlations the maps illustrate.
"And yet, you can see that the same basic pattern is repeating itself over and over to me. And I have to say, that as a visual thinker, this is a powerful indictment of structural racism. And it is a powerful indictment that is rooted completely in data that has been verified by BNIA and is open source and available to the entire world.
And we can see that you're not going to be able to solve one problem unless you grasp this whole situation. Unless you understand that everything is related and the type of hypersegregation that Dr. Brown is talking about isn't just a product of one simple system.
And it's not just the product of intentional discrimination. Rather, it's the product of a system that just kind of has a lot of inertia, doesn't care, and advantages some people and disadvantages some people, and has all sorts of implicit biases built in."

 Clearly, population loss is most concentrated in the most disinvested communities of east and west Baltimore.  And yet, the answer can't simply be to pump lots of money into these areas and growth will follow.

The plight of deeply disinvested areas is not new, nor is the desire to do something about it.  The debate about the best way was exemplified by the different positions that Mayor Schmoke and later his successor  Mayor O’Malley took. For example: "Working from greatest need" was Schmoke's approach, "working from strength" was O’Malley's with theoretical support from Paul Brophy. Based on biggest need, Kurt Schmoke and developer Jim Rouse tried to rebuild Sandtown together, not from the top down but based on community support and the BUILD coalition. My firm and I were a small part in the rebuilding Sandtown effort after 1992. We all know what happened: The Sandtown dream died, not for lack of effort or will, but for lack of the resources needed to work against the market and the tide of  ongoing urban flight. After Freddie Gray died Sandtown became a symbol of failure all across the world. Today the problems in Baltimore's deeply disinvested areas are much bigger, not smaller than then. 

"You can’t push the rope", Bill Struever, a developer  with ties to then Mayor O'Malley used to say. O’Malley using his "working from strength" approach wanted to invest in east Baltimore using Johns Hopkins as the anchor of strength which would fuel the revitalization effort in the Middle East community now known as EBDI. O'Malley never developed a specific growth strategy for Baltimore. His time is now mostly remembered for his "broken windows" approach to crime and the mass incarceration that followed. Middle East was largely depleted of its original residents, dislocation was as  massive as the investments making the successes of this east side development still suspicious to many.

Still, working from strength continues to this day to be the strategy Baltimore's Planning department and its Director, Chris Ryer,  lack of resources is still the deciding factor. Five  “impact investment areas” were identified under mayor Pugh, they did not include Sandtown. The brochure has since been modified to include more areas. Ryer speaks a lot about “middle neighborhoods” communities that have not yet failed and which have somewhere near them elements of strength, a park or some anchor institutions. Asked in a 2019 interview by the American Planning Association about the Planning Department’s approach to community development in the city Ryer said this:

It’s what we would call a “middle neighborhood strategy”: neighborhoods that are not wealthy, not in good shape, but not highly distressed. Fifty percent of Baltimore’s population live in these middle neighborhoods —  not highly distressed, but not highly successful. They could go either way. This is where the community development world plays now, because they don't typically have the resources for the distressed neighborhoods. We know in middle neighborhoods, our target areas, there are certain corridors that matter a lot: Greenmount Avenue in Waverly or Pennsylvania Avenue or any arterial in middle neighborhoods. They’re typically a mixture of residential and commercial, one of which is not really functioning in the market. (APA)

The term goes back to a 2010 study "Great Neighborhoods Great City, Strategies for the 2010s," which followed the previous census and the hand wrining about population loss then. Data from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore and the Department of Planning suggested a tri-part city: Neighborhoods that are stable and attractive (36 percent, now known as the "white L") "middle neighborhoods" which are stable but require attention to offset potential deterioration (35 percent) and those already seriously deteriorated (29 percent, now known as the "black butterfly"), places from where residents continue to leave.

Barclay is the showpiece of a turnaround community, it may have started as something less than a "middle neighborhood". But it worked from strength: Its strength was the Central Baltimore Partnership and the universities in it that helped to organize a strong community based and inclusive strategy. (I previously wrote about working from strength, Baltimore's neighborhood development and Barclay here). But Barclay is small, close to the "white L"  and it would take many many Barclays to eliminate the ills of the Black Butterfly. Many other middle neighborhoods are not part of the black butterfly configuration and sit further out along Perring Parkway or the Liberty Road corridor, for example.

Looking at the latest census and BNIA's map, the"middle neighborhoods" would be orange or yellow. One could say that it is less relevant to have the right analysis explaining the biggest population loss, but how a workable remedy can look like. 

As in COVID, in the end we don’t beat "the virus" with moral arguments or pointing to rights and the like, but by doing what is practical and what curbs the spread. Moral arguments won’t beat urban decay or the flight out of communities that have been in decline for decades. Instead, how to leverage available resources most effectivley to prevent people from leaving where smaller investments can make a critical difference. Sandtown, Harlem Park and large parts of Park Heights offer a glorious past and some really tough residents that are wonderful community organizers. But turning these communities  or the vast areas north of the Amtrak "piano" in east Baltimore around requires  nothing less than federal and State reparations in the billions of dollars.  

In sum, building from strength in an incremental but systematic way has no practical alternative, unless there would be a giant policy shift, for example, the payment of reparations. And then there are the overall quality of life issues in the city, crime, schools and transportation, all three are recognized but only the schools improvement program is funded and on a somewhat solid footing.

That gets us get back to Paul Sturm's commentary. He points out that one giant difference to the cities to which he compares Baltimore is transit, or in Baltimore's case, the lack thereof.  Sturm references various studies which point to the link between poor access and mobility and poverty and the continues:

The research of the University of Baltimore’s Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance comes to a similar conclusion. “The impact on urban neighborhoods of long commute times is highly detrimental to population growth,” the Alliance says in a 2016 report.

More data about the impact of unreliable public transit in Baltimore comes from the Baltimore Collegetown Network. In its 2018 survey of students at 16 schools, only 36% said they were “definitely or likely” to remain in Baltimore after college, with “Better Transportation” cited as the most frequent response to “What is Baltimore missing that you wish it had?”

The prospects of Baltimore getting better transit are not rosy, the talk about reviving the Red Line notwithstanding. However, the Biden administration and the possible infrastructure packages represent opportunities which Baltimore must use. Good reliable access to jobs and opportunities for those without the ability to drive is a must for any city; alone climate change dictates it. 

With each decade the lift of stemming the tide of flight out of Baltimore is getting bigger and harder. Time to get it done. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Updated with a more succinct summary 8/28/21

Improving public transportation is key to reversing Baltimore’s population loss | COMMENTARY

At the Patapsco Light Rail Station, riders can connect between the light rail line and buses. The Maryland General Assembly will take up the proposed Transit Safety and Investment Act this session. Jan 11, 2021. p2
At the Patapsco Light Rail Station, riders can connect between the light rail line and buses. The Maryland General Assembly will take up the proposed Transit Safety and Investment Act this session. Jan 11, 2021. p2 (Amy Davis)

Find SUN the op-ed here.

Paul Sturm ( is Chair of the Downtown Residents Advocacy Network