Last week's report that Baltimore's population continues to shrink was not good news but hardly surprising, given the city's history. The drop was modest compared to the residential losses Baltimore has experienced in years past, but more importantly, the U.S. Census statistics contained ample evidence of a potentially brighter future ahead.
That's because many U.S. cities are on the rebound. The same Census figures that show Baltimore lost about 1,500 people in the year ending last July also revealed that more than half of the country's 51 largest metropolitan areas saw greater growth within their city limits than in their suburbs.
That's quite a change from the post-World War II trend of people fleeing urban areas for the suburbs and beyond. But it shouldn't be too shocking given that many cities are also seeing a decline in crime, a rebirth in downtown living, and an opportunity for older, "empty nest" Baby Boomers and young professionals to find affordable housing.
The roster of urban success stories includes nearbyWashington, D.C., as well as others on the East Coast including Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; New York and Boston. Meanwhile, many suburban neighborhoods have been hit hard by the downturn in the real estate market and the slow economic recovery.
A recent report from the Brookings Institution suggests the population boom of recent decades essentially went bust by 2009-2010, particularly in "bubble" Sun Belt areas like Nevada and Florida. The trend may very well continue: The places that "succeed in this new regime will probably not mirror the winners at either the middle or end of the turbulent 2000s. Instead, metro areas with diversified, knowledge-based economies are likely to attract and retain population over the long run," according to Brookings.
In Baltimore, the conventional wisdom has been that improving public schools and lowering the crime rate, particularly the murder rate, would reverse the city's course and attract residents from the suburbs. But that's clearly not enough. What's also needed is a renewed focus on job growth — not only in Baltimore but in the broader metropolitan area.
The unemployment rate in the Baltimore region is nearly 2 points higher than around D.C. and its suburbs, despite the proximity of the two cities. Not much farther away, the college towns of Charlottesville, Va. and State College, Pa. are similarly blessed. In communities big or small, create more jobs and the economic opportunities for redevelopment and urban renaissance will follow.
MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakehas made growth and attracting 10,000 families to the city over the next 10 years a centerpiece of her administration and has promoted a reduction in the city's high property tax rate — albeit a gradual one — toward that cause. That is helpful, too, but pro-growth policies need to go beyond a few pennies on the tax rate. So we must ask: Are we doing everything that can be done to attract and retain business?
That question can raise some uncomfortable issues, like a rehash of the various high-profile projects the city has made possible with tax breaks and other forms of public funding that often raise the ire of community activists, who would rather such aid was directed at neighborhoods. But a truly pro-growth strategy must look beyond one-time deals and fixes to question basic assumptions about what might boost the economy.
Medical care and research, tourism, higher education and international shipping represent some of the city's (and region's) best opportunities for job growth. No surprises there, but whether the city, counties and state are doing enough to support these industries and their tremendous potential for further success is not so clear. That the state legislature can't agree on a strategy to meet the city's and state's basic transportation infrastructure needs does not bode well.
Baltimore's potential is far too great to dismiss the city's chances merely because it lost households last year (especially given the slowing rate of loss). If other East Coast cities can grow their populations, the nation's 24th largest can as well. What's needed is, at minimum, a bit less Baltimore-bashing and a bit more Baltimore-boosting — not with empty slogans but with real efforts to make the city a better place to live and do business.