Rebuilding Baltimore: Making cities economically resilient

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported by the Kresge Foundation and the JPB Foundation, is committed to a greener, fairer future for all. This post was originally published on Citymetric.com.

In his second article for CityMetric, Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the US non-profit Center for Community Progress, explores how to make American cities more resilient.

BaltimorePano
Inner Harbor Panorama. Brlaw8 via Wikimedia Commons

The convulsions in Baltimore during the spring of 2015, which followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, illuminated the fragile underpinnings of today’s urban revival.

Of the nation’s older industrial cities, few have “turned around” more dramatically than Baltimore in the past 10 or 20 years. Large parts of the city have been revived, while the number of college-educated millennials in the city has more than doubled since 2000. Jobs are increasing, household income growth since 2000 has outpaced the national trend, and the city is nationally known among urban policy wonks for its creative housing and redevelopment strategies.

Yet, within a few hours, all of that was called into question by a single episode that made painfully clear that the city’s success, although real, was only part of the picture. There was a second Baltimore out there: a city of poor, struggling people victimised both by crime and by an out of control police force.

While last spring’s damage is being repaired and the city is trying to move on, the experience raises a powerful question. If a single tragic moment can so thoroughly shake the foundations of a seemingly successful city, how resilient could one expect Baltimore – or any similar city, because Baltimore is actually doing better than most – to be in the event of a truly major economic, social or natural shock?

The short answer, I fear, is not very. Resilience, ultimately, is grounded in the existence of a social compact, implicit or explicit. The polarisation of these cities, and the sense of disenfranchisement and powerlessness felt by the large part – probably a majority – of their populations has undone that social compact.

Increasingly, American cities are made up of tribes living in parallel universes, with little engagement with or understanding of one another. They have equally little engagement with their city government, whom they typically distrust deeply at the same time as they count on it somehow to make things work.

More often than not, the disengagement is a two-way street. Far too many city governments are neither particularly open nor competent, despite intermittent efforts and promises of community outreach and greater professionalisation.

Departments operate in their separate silos, in many cases – police and schools being the prime examples – dominated by insular cultures that reject meaningful integration into larger comprehensive strategies, or any meaningful communication with the communities they serve. The short-term political calculus driven by the frequent turnover of elected officials discourages the reflection or continuity that is needed to truly build competence and resourcefulness, and to construct robust systems of governance.

Building resilience

Looking forward, building a structure of true economic resilience in America’s older cities is going to depend on three pillars.

1) Rethink municipal governance. Fragmented, insular and often poorly performing local government is a poor basis for resilience, yet few mayors, school superintendents or other senior officials think seriously about how to break out of this silos and create systems that are more integrated, more competent, and more responsive to the communities they serve.

Competence and the ability to address community needs effectively is critical. But without building open, responsive government – a value that embodies transparency, outreach and a willingness to share power with citizens – it is never enough. Cities will not be able to rebuild their social compacts unless their citizens feel they have a stake in a city government which they believe is acting in their interests.

2) Build human capital. Cities are not short of jobs: Baltimore has almost 100,000 more jobs inside the city than there are jobholders living in the city.

But less than one out of three jobs in the city is held by a city resident. The city is growing jobs, yet unemployment in lower income neighborhoods is astronomical, and one out of four residents live below the poverty level. Less than half of the city’s high school seniors pass the High School Assessment, and large numbers fail to graduate, although the numbers are starting to inch slowly upward.

Creating a system by which all of the city’s residents, youth and adults, can gain the education, the skills, and the access to opportunity they need to live economically-productive, satisfying lives is the single most powerful thing that can be done to reduce the city’s polarisation and build the city’s resilience. That, in turn, cannot be done by any one agency or institution, but will require local government, schools, colleges and universities, NGOs, as well as the local business and institutional community to come together and build a truly seamless and cooperative system.

3) Think long term. This is the crux of the problem. We like to talk about how fixing the problems of 50 years or more will not happen overnight, but we rarely if ever acknowledge that it not only takes time, but takes a consistent, strategic use of time.

Neither of the two pillars I’ve described above can be addressed except through a consistent, long-term commitment to change. We need to recognise that, if we put in place a carefully thought out, well-designed comprehensive strategy to build human capital tomorrow, it may take five, 10 years or more before it shows significant results.

It’s not that people in Baltimore, or any other American city, don’t know that governance and human capital are problems. Instead of recognising that they can only be dealt with through long-term change, though, mayors and corporate executives tend to go for the quick fixes and sound bites, and are then disappointed when nothing ever really seems to change. Yes, there’s a place for short-term measures and interim steps – but if they’re not part of a long-term effort, they’re ultimately meaningless.

Cities cannot count on a steadily increasing flow of millennials, or the continued proliferation of “eds and meds” jobs to build resilient economies. The future growth of both higher education and health care is uncertain, while Dowell Myers, a respected demographer, has already suggested, based on the gradually smaller size of future age cohorts, that cities have already reached what he calls “peak millennial”.

Building true economic resilience is going to take hard work – not simply riding a momentary wave.