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As it has for the last half century, Baltimore City's population continues to decline, albeit at a slightly slower pace than in recent decades. The Census Bureau reported last week that the city lost 3,231 people during the year that ended July 1, 2008.

But while the drop in the city's population, which the bureau pegged at 636,919, was somewhat expected, the surprising news was that, for the first time in decades, Baltimore County lost residents as well.

With 785,618 people, the county is still Maryland's third most populous jurisdiction, and the decline was modest - the bureau reported 212 fewer people living there than during the previous 12 months. But even that slight drop could point toward an end to the long trend of steady growth in Baltimore's largest suburb. (Howard and Anne Arundel counties each added more than 2,000 new residents to their rolls over the same period.)

If it continues, a decline in population could signal major new challenges for Baltimore County leaders, who until now have had to contend mostly with managing growth in the region. For example, unless the county abandons its wise policy of preserving most of its land as rural, there soon will be nowhere left to build in Baltimore County as a result of smart growth and other environmentally friendly initiatives.

Moreover, county government increasingly will be faced with new problems stemming from the decay of older neighborhoods, redevelopment and infill. These issues will require lawmakers to make tough decisions about the best use of land in already built-up areas for further construction and the recycling of obsolete or underutilized buildings and sites. They'll also have to come up with new strategies for reviving blighted neighborhoods and re-integrating them into more prosperous surrounding communities.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. came into office with promises to "renaissance" older neighborhoods, and he has made some efforts to follow through by bringing urban design teams in to areas such as Dundalk and Randallstown to help residents re-imagine their communities. Most of the ideas dreamed up in those sessions have not come to pass, but some have. Mr. Smith's successor will likely have to follow those efforts, but he or she may not be able to count on the steady growth in tax revenue that the county has typically enjoyed.

None of these problems are unique to Baltimore County. In fact, suburbs across the country have seen population growth slow or stall as a result of the economic downturn that has made it harder for single people and young families to move. That's a reality that's likely to be with us for some time, and lawmakers are going to have to learn how to cope with it creatively as they navigate the new terrain brought on by demographic change.

The long slide and still fledgling rebirth of Baltimore City shows just how hard it can be to recover from the ill effects of a declining population and economic base. Baltimore County has nowhere near the problems that the city has had over the years, of course, but its leaders should act now to make sure it never does.

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