Sustaining Baltimore's progress

Baltimore has more in common with Seattle than you might think. Both were rates tops for sustainability.

When a community group reclaims a vacant lot in East Baltimore and plants a garden, it makes the neighborhood a little stronger. When foundations band together to support more after-school opportunities, they give hope to kids and families. And when a city agency helps residents prepare for a major disaster, it is making Baltimore more resilient.

All of these steps contribute to making Baltimore more sustainable — that is, a city moving forward and creating new opportunities for all residents.

The fact is that while Baltimore still faces major issues, we are doing a lot of things well. Across the city — in government, within neighborhoods and through the smart work of many nonprofits — countless efforts are happening now to make this a stronger city.

Over the past year, an independent national organization, STAR Communities, carefully assessed Baltimore and gave the city its highest, 5-star rating for sustainability. Baltimore joins only two other communities — Seattle and Northampton, Mass. — in receiving the top sustainability rating, out of 35 cities, towns and counties that have gone through the STAR certification process.

Perhaps the news of our top rating will confuse some, given the recent unrest and the deep poverty that still holds back many people here. But the outside assessment is a tribute to the Baltimore Office of Sustainability and other city agencies, and a host of nonprofits, community groups, faith-based leaders and residents determined to maintain Baltimore's progress.

The city won high marks in several areas.

In the "built environment" category, Baltimore has been able to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled while maintaining relatively affordable costs for housing and transportation.

The city was also cited for its work to address climate change and make the city more resilient to extreme weather or other emergencies. The city recently received a national award from the American Society of Adaptation Professionals for our Disaster Preparedness Project and Plan.

Baltimore received points for its strong neighborhood orientation — including the wide availability of free services and cultural events. The assessment recognized our focus on local community planning and our well-developed civic infrastructure of organizations contributing to community progress.

Urban agriculture is well-established and growing here, and the city's innovative Vacants to Value program, which is redeveloping many vacant properties, garners us high marks. A renewed public-private collaboration has given more young people jobs and other opportunities over the summer. Creative initiatives in Station North, Highlandtown and beyond are generating cultural and artistic energy around the city. Bike lanes are being added, and greenhouse gas emissions are going down. The list goes on.

All of these efforts, and many more, translate into a city that is getting stronger and more sustainable. Sometimes we in Baltimore take things for granted, but it's important to take stock and recognize progress.

Despite the positive STAR rating, we recognize that Baltimore is not yet where it needs to be. The assessment pointed out areas where the city must do better, including in public safety and efforts to foster equity and empowerment — areas that come as no surprise to us. But many smart, diverse, energetic people and organizations are redoubling their efforts to bring new opportunity and hope to struggling residents and communities.

The assessment doesn't take into account our biggest asset: Baltimoreans' devotion to their city.

We saw it the morning after the unrest, when people from all over the city showed up with shovels and garbage bags to clean up and move forward together, unwilling to let those violent hours define and derail us.

We see that devotion during stream clean-ups, peaceful demonstrations, community planning sessions and countless other civic activities.

Reading between the lines of our 5-star sustainability rating, we can see evidence of a deep community spirit — a commitment to sustaining our city for the future. And it provides us with a roadmap for giving all residents hope and confidence that Baltimore is not treading water but moving steadily ahead, sustainable for the long term.

Cheryl Casciani is chair of the Baltimore Sustainability Commission and director of neighborhood sustainability at the Baltimore Community Foundation. Her email is ccasciani@bcf.org.

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