A-visioning we will go, a-visioning we will go


BALTIMORE is swamped by visions. The usual suspects are responsible: the Abell and Goldseker foundations; the Greater Baltimore Committee and its Mr. Vision, Robert Keller; Outside Experts; Johns Hopkins; and, of course, Baltimore's crop of young civic leaders, including Mayor Schmoke.

Each of their visions about Baltimore's future contains favored remedies. Biotechnology and the life sciences. Regionalism. Swimming in the Inner Harbor. Two-way traffic. Public-charter schools. All provocative. Some sensible. Some possible.

These visions are wrapped in a logic of civic persuasion that, not unlike fairy tales, attempts to scare us onto the right path. "If Baltimore keeps going in the same direction without change, then it's Newark or Camden for sure! Maybe even Bridgeport. But if we . . ."

In short, Baltimore is in a state of civic emergency. Act now and adopt my remedy before the walls come tumbling down!

Is this really the best way to inspire Baltimoreans to action? Are the unstated assumptions valid? Morally justifiable? Politically effective? I think not. We need more careful thinking about our future. I have some suggestions to improve our vision.

Let's first talk about the vision biz. Visioning is a tool for businesses and communities to manage social and economic change. It is about "stakeholders" (key players) sharing values, dreams and a sense of how to move forward together.

Visioning is part of "strategic planning" -- a process invented by corporations in the 1950s -- that helps organizations and communities improve their fit with the environment. Visioning requires stakeholders to grapple with the "megatrends" -- those demographic, technological and economic threats and opportunities -- identified by market researchers as shaping the future.

Visioning, however, should provide more than recipes for future profit. At best, it should help build a corporate or civic culture of shared values and mission and a focus for collective action -- defining the tasks before us and what is really important.

Cities have experienced their share of change in the past decades. Globalization. Suburbs. Loss of congressional power. Highways. Black migration. White flight. Loss of business leadership. Deindustrialization. New political majorities. Given these dramatic changes, no wonder city folks want to do some strategic thinking and visioning. Indeed, the history of U.S. cities is full of popular writers and civic leaders making visionary pronouncements. Strategic thinking is a matter of survival.

Civic and business leaders in Utica, N.Y., for example, sent an emissary to New England in the 1840s to investigate the textile industry and the technology of water-driven mills. Utica's prosperity, engendered by the Erie Canal's linkage to the West, was soon to be eclipsed by the railroads. Utica required a new economic angle.

In contrast, St. Louis leaders -- in the largest city in the Midwest in the mid-19th century -- refused to listen to the strategic planners of the day who counseled that the future axis of U.S. growth was to be east-west, no longer north-south. St. Louis ignored the warning. Consequently, Chicago became the railroad and commercial capital of the Midwest, leaving St. Louis to covet its Mississippi riverboats.

Cities must pay attention to what is happening around them and how, based on their strengths, they can fit with the emerging environment. Baltimore's downtown and neighborhood renaissance -- recognized throughout the U.S. and the world -- illustrates how our city consciously updated itself.

But today Baltimore faces challenges that differ from those underscored in these examples. Baltimore has become three cities -- one poor and mostly black, one middle-income and largely white and one downtown-focused that serves the metropolitan job and tourist markets.

There is no single quick fix that will make Baltimore competitive in years to come. No one new industry. No "son of Schaefer." Baltimoreans must agree on a social and economic agenda that emphasizes education and training, civic tolerance, neighborhood stability and regional and state problem-solving.

This challenge is formidable because of the fragmentation of metropolitan governance; city, state and county rivalries and the dwindling of federal and state funding.

To meet this challenge requires more than bright ideas. We must design a workable civic process for getting to the future. A critical lesson from organizational change strategies of the past decade is that getting the "whole system" (or community) in the room is essential for collaborative "future searches" (or visioning) to be effective.

This is where the Baltimore visioning mania shows serious weakness. Rather than conveying how citizens can join the solution-making process, the brains at work discourage citizen action. Who needs us? None of Baltimore's recent visions escapes exclusivity, a narrow definition of who counts as stakeholders in Baltimore's future. Yet, many of the social changes that most concern us are grassroots changes -- in education, crime, racial and ethnic tolerance and neighborhood stability.

In this light, I offer some vision counseling for Baltimoreans -- especially for those foundation, business think tanks, civic processors, editorialists, Outside Experts and political candidates who have vision compulsions.

1. Design a vision process that involves real people.

2. Focus collective wisdom on building coalitions of diverse people concerned with major civic issues.

3. Develop leadership forums for grassroots leaders throughout the city.

4. Engage Baltimore's communities -- no more summitry or political gamesmanship.

5. Nurture the non-profit sector that is again being called on to develop workable solutions to tough problems.

6. Deal with race forthrightly.

7. Make visioning ongoing -- not a single report or a precious moment of collective groupthink.

8. Encourage neighborhoods, sections of the city and diverse interest groups to share dreams and visions.

9. Convene a "Vision Fair." Let people show off their inventions for a better Baltimore.

10. Get some new faces and fresh ideas in the City Council. We need innovative and responsible legislators.

11. Build authentic partnerships among public, private and community actors to make visions realities.

I'm afraid that Baltimore's recent burst of visioning will add to the blur of where we are going unless we get serious about building a new civic consensus and agenda. Our answers must, in part, be directed inward. The visions presented so far stir some imaginations, but most Baltimoreans are not paying attention because they have not been asked to join.

Robert Giloth is executive director of South East Community Organization (SECO) in Baltimore and has taught city planing at the University of Maryland and Tufts University.

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