Baltimore: Does size matter?

Is massive population growth a real possibility, or is Baltimore better off being what the Brookings Institution calls a "skilled anchor city" — smaller and growing slowly, but with a skilled work force and strong institutions in health care and higher education?

The question is brought to mind by the 2010 census and the constitutionally mandated counting of citizens: Is this city's population going to grow again, and if not, what might the future Baltimore look like?

Fifty years ago, the 1960 census showed Baltimore with a population of 940,000. The city's population fell by 300,000 in the last half-century. In 2010, with public officials urging Marylanders — and particularly Baltimoreans — to respond to the census, you wonder if the city will ever become a place that attracts more residents than it loses.

Population loss was the trend year after year, decade after depressing decade. There are some who see failure and despair in all that erosion of population: Baltimoreans gone forever, and whose children and grandchildren know the city as a poor, drug-infested place to visit only on weekends, only in certain places and only once in a while.

Others say a shrinking city is not such a bad thing and that Baltimore, like other cities that have lost population, will just be smaller and more stable, home to a skilled work force and entrepreneurial class, appealing for its tourist destinations and anchored by strong institutions in medicine, research and higher learning.

Does size matter? If Baltimore were to remain at its present size, or grow at a slow rate, is that such a bad thing?

A new report on trends in metropolitan areas from the Brookings Institution presented a new way of looking at the country. The report said that, with so many demographic changes, the categorizing of the nation's regions along traditional lines, such as "Sun Belt" or "Rust Belt," is no longer relevant. Instead, the report created seven categories for the 100 largest metro areas that it said reflect the growing differences of the last decade. It's not where you are so much as who you are, says Alan Berube, a senior fellow and research director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Baltimore, in the new Brookings categorization, is a "skilled anchor" city.

What's that?

"Skilled Anchors are slow-growing, less diverse metro areas that boast higher-than-average levels of educational attainment," the report says. "Seventeen of the 19 [skilled anchor metro areas] are in the Northeast and Midwest, and include large regions such as Boston and Philadelphia, as well as smaller regions such as Akron and Worcester.

"Many are former manufacturing and port centers that some time ago made the difficult transition to service-based economies, with significant representation of medical and higher educational institutions."

Skilled anchor areas are no longer considered "industrial core" regions; they have moved past that, and while growth is slower in them than in other parts of the country, they are generally stable places with an educated work force.

If that's the case, does Baltimore need to be a larger city to be stable and strong, even prosperous, in the future? The answer appears to be, "not necessarily."

Pittsburgh is also listed as a skilled anchor city, and it's considered an inspiration among cities that have grown smaller and moved beyond their industrial past. Richard Florida, the urban visionary, notes Pittsburgh's transformation in his new book, "The Great Reset," and says community groups, local foundations and nonprofits drove the transformation by "stabilizing and strengthening neighborhoods, building green, and spurring the development of the waterfront and re-development around the universities." The effort, writes Mr. Florida, "took the better part of a generation to achieve stability and the potential for longer-term revival."

Certainly, government has a role to play in these transformations.

But, says Mr. Florida, "instead of spending millions to lure or bail out factories, or hundreds of millions and in some cases billions to build stadiums, convention centers and hotels, use that money to invest in local assets, spur local business formation and development, better employ local people and utilize their skills, and invest in improving quality of place."

If tourism is one of the cores of the new economies, as Mr. Florida suggests in his book, then it would make sense for public investment to go to convention centers and even hotels. That's what happened in Baltimore, and it made sense. Few would argue that public investment in the stadiums was a bad idea.

But certainly, one could argue, public education of the city's children lagged during all those years of downtown redevelopment. As in any discussion about Baltimore and its potential — particularly its potential to attract and retain middle-class families — I've come to the subject of public schools. Discussions about the city's future almost always get here, if they do not start here. Is there anything as important to Baltimore's future?

So, the Brookings Institution calls ours a skilled anchor region, with a city at its center that is a lot smaller than it used to be — not that there is anything wrong with that. As a home for the creative class, and for entrepreneurs and researchers, and for an educated work force, smaller might be OK. Quality of life is key. Education is key. Size might not matter as much as some of us think.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. His e-mail is

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