But economists and civic leaders say universities, hospitals and other nonprofits offer the best prospects for cities in the post-industrial age.

For decades, companies — particularly manufacturers — were the largest employers in cities such as Baltimore. They dominated civic life, providing housing and health care and social activities for workers. But many businesses have shifted manufacturing operations overseas.

"The future of cities will depend significantly on eds and meds" — universities and hospitals — "to play central roles in revitalization," said Ira Harkavy, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Unlike companies, "colleges and universities are rooted institutions that are not leaving the cities that they are part of," said Harkavy, who directs the university's Netter Center for Community Partnerships. "Eds and meds dominate employment, purchasing and cultural development. They also bring the incredible intellectual and creative abilities of faculty, staff and students."

For Baltimore, which has lost more than a dozen corporate headquarters in the past two decades, universities and hospitals are vital to the economy.

As universities and hospitals seek to address such challenges, they're breaking down traditional barriers between their campuses and the surrounding neighborhoods. "In many cities, the large universities and hospitals have, in a sense, been walled off from the communities around them. There's a history of distrust or antagonism," said Howard, of the Democracy Project.

Dr. Jay Perman, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said the university aims to make the west-side campus welcoming for nearby residents while making faculty, staff, students and patients feel safe in the neighboring areas. "We are of the community," he said. "Like members of any community, we have a responsibility for it."

Students and staff are working in three nearby elementary schools and a high school to encourage students to seek careers in health and human services. At the Lexington Market, a few blocks from campus, social work students inform drug addicts of treatment options and law students host clinics for those seeking legal advice.

Perman co-chairs a city task force overseeing the redevelopment of the west side, an area that has seen rapid growth over the past several years — including new apartment buildings and the Hippodrome Theatre — but also has confronted legal and logistical challenges related to a large parcel known as the Superblock.

A few miles away, Coppin State razed a strip of blighted homes late last year to make way for a new science and technology center. Plans are under way to turn other vacant or blighted homes into student housing and offices for student organizations.

While the north end of campus fronts tidy homes and the bustling Mondawmin Mall, drivers pass blocks of burned-out homes and businesses as they approach the southern side of the campus, where the university is focusing its efforts.

Gary Rodwell, Coppin's associate vice president for community development, said university leaders believe the health of the surrounding West Baltimore neighborhood is key to Coppin's success. "Our competitiveness as an institution is linked to the vitality of the community," he said.

Coppin also hopes to turn the nearby old Hebrew Orphanage Asylum into a behavioral health clinic, dental clinic, pharmacy and a health food market. The surrounding neighborhoods are considered a food desert — only liquor stores and carry-out restaurants sell food — and residents have some of the shortest life expectancies in the city.

Kaliope Parthemos, the city's economic development chief, describes the universities' and hospitals' changing role as "a sea change."

"The institutions have realized the importance of their role and how important the community around them is for their success," she said.

City officials are working to coordinate the actions of anchor institutions to "make sure we're on the same page with investments and goals," Parthemos said. They're leading discussions among anchor institutions located near each other, such as Loyola and Morgan State, which is in the early phases of planning the "Morgan Community Mile," an effort to improve areas within a mile of the campus.

Morgan officials broke ground late last year for a $72 million business school — the first of three buildings planned on a tract near a rundown shopping center where a former city councilman was killed in 2007.

Morgan President David Wilson has called for more businesses that cater to students and professors near the campus — places to get coffee and a sandwich. He also wants to direct faculty and student volunteer efforts to improve surrounding neighborhoods.

Loyola's York Road Initiative grew from the university's commitment to Catholic values and a desire to strengthen troubled neighborhoods around the North Baltimore campus. While most of Loyola's campus winds through affluent areas along Charles Street and Cold Spring Lane, some student housing and other buildings lie closer to a depressed stretch of York Road.

"It's our moral obligation as a Jesuit university, but it also drives the quality of life for our students, faculty members and parents," said Erin O'Keefe, who has directed the initiative since its inception in 2010.