Hopkins initiative aims to solve entrenched problems in Baltimore, other cities

The 21st Century Cities Initiative is a new program at Johns Hopkins University that researches and attempts to develop solutions for urban problems. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)

A sociologist studying whether involving immigrants in neighborhood groups can ease crime, an education professor using housing data to predict school enrollment and an astronomer applying his expertise in big data to the city's vacant problems are all part of a new program at the Johns Hopkins University designed to help Baltimore confront its intractable problems.

The 21st Century Cities Initiative is pairing Hopkins researchers with organizations and government agencies on short-term projects to dissect data, test solutions, develop new policies and ultimately give Baltimore and other urban areas a path toward revitalization.


"Twenty-first century cities are bastions of innovation and diversity, but they also suffer from concentrated poverty and deep economic and racial inequities," said Kathryn Edin, a Hopkins sociologist and the initiative's faculty director. "We are committed to closing the opportunity gaps in urban communities by working side-by-side with city partners, using the latest research techniques from various disciplines to inform public policy and practice."

Founded about three years ago with an annual budget of $1 million, the initiative is part of broader effort under Hopkins President Ronald Daniels to find solutions to global problems by raising money to pay for professors and fund financial aid and fellowships.


Daniels said "the power of data, evidence and partnership" can shape the trajectories of Baltimore and cities around the world.

"The initiative is integral to our commitment to build a better future for our communities and our neighbors, one policy, one program and one life at a time," he said.

The intiative funds multple projects at any given time through grants it makes. Some of the projects are conducted in-house by Hopkins students and professors, while others come about through seed grants given to university researchers who partner with outside groups. Projects take six to 18 months to complete and focus on improving economic inclusion, closing disparities for disadvantaged communities and making people healthier and safer.

Much of the focus is on Baltimore, but some projects are looking at dilemmas in other cities.

In Southeast Baltimore, Christine Eith, a Hopkins sociologist who specializes in criminology, is leading a project to look at how encouraging Hispanics to become involved in neighborhood associations can help address violence. The project received a $24,000 grant, one of six grants worth a combined $204,000 awarded by a steering committee to 21st Century projects in May.

Eith said the project will encourage Spanish-speaking immigrants — living in neighborhoods such as Highlandtown, Greektown and Bayview — to become involved in their community by attending meetings and also providing translators and devices similar to those used at the United Nations to interpret speech.

Eith said the idea came from Hopkins researchers and medical personnel who interact with new immigrants, who told them they sometimes felt unsafe. The project looks at how building relationships and social networks through civic engagement may lead Hispanic residents to report more crime and better protect themselves and their neighborhoods. Her project will get underway this summer and take about a year to complete.

Jeffrey Grigg, an assistant education professor, is working with the Baltimore school system and the city planning department to use housing market trends to predict school enrollment, which will help administrators figure out how many teachers to put on staff and how much money to give each classroom.

The difficulty in predicting enrollment comes as more cities, like Baltimore, allow parents to choose the school their children attend, rather than requiring attendance based on where they live. Grigg said the goal is to build a tool for districts across the country to use to forecast enrollment and provide analysis based on the housing market and the strength of neighborhood schools.

"We're all interested in trying to understand the decisions that families make about where they live and where they go to school, especially in a city like Baltimore that allows for a lot of fluidity," Grigg said. "As investments are made in the neighborhoods in housing, do we see corresponding changes in enrollment? If a school shows signs of improvement, does that attract families?"

The project received a $40,000 grant to hire analysts to support graduate students and secure data.

Last year seven projects were awarded grants, averaging $35,000 each. One involved the study of Baltimore's vacant houses.


Tamas Budavari, an expert in cosmology and galaxy evolution, joined the city housing department to map abandoned buildings and predict future blight to help officials figure out where to intervene before a property became vacant.

When a house fell and killed a man in West Baltimore last year and four others crumbled amid powerful wind gusts, Budavari immediately responded to help the city identify which of Baltimore's thousands of vacants were in imminent risk of collapsing. He and researchers mined city databases to assess risk factors: the height of a building, whether the roof was missing and the number of years vacant. The data helped the city identify more than 300 houses that needed to be torn down right away.

Michael Braverman, who runs the Department of Housing and Community Development, said the Hopkins initiative gives the city access to renowned research scientists that, in the instance of the collapses, allowed officials to call for help in an emergency.

The scientists and mathematicians serve like consultants who help city officials better understand Baltimore's vacant and abandoned properties, he said. By comparing U.S. Postal Service data for unoccupied homes, water billing information and the city's historically strict definition of abandoned property, officials could better understand the blight and how to address it.

"We have built great relationships through the 21st Century Cities Initiative, which has put us in touch with incredible research scientists, astrophysicists and social scientists who are able to make sense of large data sets," Braverman said. "It is very important for the work the city does in trying to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods."

Hopkins is sharing the findings with officials in New Orleans and Kansas City, Kan., to help them address blight.

Ben Seigel, the initiative's director, said the program also is designed to bring together Hopkins students and faculty, government officials, policymakers, philanthropists, activists and others to talk about the problems, solutions and the potential to harness big data analytics. A symposium is planned for December.

Another mission, Seigel said, is to translate academic research into policies that cities, states and the federal government can adopt.

The work is guided by the initiative's steering committee, including members of the Hopkins faculty and administration. A handful of staff members and post-doctoral fellows also provide in-house research, including an ongoing project to understand Baltimore's capacity for providing the city's small business with the capital needed to grow.


Another project is studying consent decrees between local police departments and the U.S. Department of Justice. The goal of the study is to help Baltimore, which recently agreed to one, and other places make reforms.


"In our experiences, the city agencies are very open to partnering and working with us," Seigel said. "You need a culture in a city to be open to that. It's pretty easy for a city to say, 'Nope, we don't want you looking under the hood. We don't want you looking at our data.'"

Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist who has worked at Hopkins for 41 years, said the initiative demonstrates the university's renewed commitment to its Baltimore roots.

"This university is more outward looking and Baltimore-oriented than I have seen in a long time," Cherlin said. "Students and researchers are out in the field, mapping out neighborhoods.

"My hope is that we can help revitalize Baltimore. We've all seen in recent years how much more needs to be done to help neighborhoods. We would like to be part of the solution."


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