Defining 'opportunity' in Baltimore

Researchers set out to define what opportunity means in Baltimore.

In the wake of Freddie Gray and the unrest in Baltimore, the recent release of the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development may mark an important step toward creating a more sustainable and equitable region. The plan makes clear that marked disparities in access to quality education, jobs, safety and environmental conditions persist across the region and offers recommendations for improving residents' access to opportunity.

A central challenge in both the design and implementation of the plan is to understand what opportunity means to Baltimore residents. To answer this question, the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education teamed up with the Baltimore-based non-profit Citizens' Planning and Housing Association to conduct a series of focus groups as the regional plan was being developed. At six locations across the metropolitan region, they convened 112 residents from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods to ask what it means to live in neighborhoods that provide opportunity.

To some extent, residents confirmed what many already suspected: Across diverse demographic and geographic lines, people want similar things from their neighborhoods. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, men, women, low-income and high-income residents of both the city and county, above all else, want to live in neighborhoods that are safe and secure and provide access to quality education for their children.

But differences among racial and ethnic groups in their perceptions of their current neighborhoods and on strategies for neighborhood improvement were significant and revealing of the disparities and differences at play across the region. Although blacks and whites considered access to education and information about jobs as "the best way to increase future earning potential," whites listed education twice as often as blacks, while blacks listed information about jobs twice as often as whites. When asked to identify the most important thing the regional plan could do to improve their neighborhood, blacks strongly felt that it should promote the development of affordable housing, while whites were more likely to support a focus on safety and environmental quality. Hispanics tended to define opportunity in terms of the social mobility of their children and rated access to jobs the most important issue for the plan to address.

Across income groups, the differences were also illuminating. While all income groups rated neighborhood safety and good schools among their top priorities, fewer residents with incomes below $40,000 (or less than half of the 2014 area median income) rated safety and good schools high among their current neighborhood qualities. Compared to those with incomes above $100,000, these low-income residents were about twice as likely to list crime and poor schools as current neighborhood concerns. Further, while low-income residents said that the most important factor affecting their future neighborhood decisions was the quality of public amenities and access to jobs, low crime and good schools continued to rate most highly among high-income residents. Higher-income groups were more likely to commute by personal vehicle and place a high priority on lowering traffic congestion as an important plan goal, whereas low-income groups were more likely to take public transportation and emphasize the importance of improving public transit. Although both groups agreed that the plan should focus on lowering crime and increasing affordable housing, low-income residents were nearly three times more likely to place a priority on this goal, whereas high-income residents placed a greater emphasis on environmental quality and increasing retail opportunities.

Baltimore residents clearly differ in the ways they conceive of opportunity and their beliefs about how the regional plan can best meet its goal of increasing opportunity for all. The focus groups suggest that the plan should forcefully address public safety and quality education as key concerns. But beyond these issues, the findings raise serious concern about why Baltimore residents hold such different views about opportunity as well as access to neighborhoods that provide it. Decades of inner city decline and disinvestment, and regional racial and economic segregation have undoubtedly differently impacted residents and shaped their views of opportunity. Planners and policy makers will face hard choices when trying to improve opportunity across the region, which necessarily involves prioritizing the desires of some that are not shared by others. The success of the regional plan lies in Baltimore residents' and decision-makers' ability to honestly confront the deep chasms that divide the region by race, class and geography — their causes and continued consequences.

The authors, along with contributors Gerrit-Jan Knaap and Casey Dawkins, are with the Urban Studies and Planning Program and the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland. They developed a series of maps that illustrate disparities in opportunity, which served as the basis for The Baltimore Regional Plan for Sustainable Development. They may be reached at gknaap@umd.edu.

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