Building schools, building communities

The $1.2 billion approved by the Maryland General Assembly for city school construction is a historic opportunity for transformation in Baltimore. But if, after 10 years, the outcome is just new schools, we will have missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to affect not only schools but entire neighborhoods. As an architect, I believe in the value of good facilities and their ability to create healthy environments that promote learning. But better buildings alone are not enough to restore communities. The challenges faced by Baltimore communities are deeper and more complex than the problems of city schools. True transformation will require a larger, more comprehensive vision for community development that addresses both the problem of failing neighborhoods and the problem of failing schools.

After decades of decline, many of our neighborhoods are bereft and neglected, stripped of dignity and humanity. They lack basic necessities such as fresh groceries or safe places to play and gather, preventing individuals and families from thriving. Challenges related to violence, poverty, public health and family structure compound the problem of education as a seemingly intractable Gordian knot.


Certainly, the city schools cannot solve these problems alone. True transformation will only be possible if the schools, funding community, business community, programs and politicians rise together to an unprecedented level of cooperation toward a unified vision for change. By aligning forces to form a comprehensive approach, the city can capitalize on the construction of schools, combining it with strategic development and community services to create not just new schools but new neighborhood catalysts.

To do so, the immediate area surrounding each new school can be designated what I call Community Revitalization Zones. These zones can encompass a multitude of elements that together holistically serve to heal and rebuild the community. Recreation centers can be established to provide healthy environments for children and youths to socialize and be active. School grounds can double as neighborhood parks that hold community activities. Police can have a heightened presence utilizing foot patrols and surveillance to increase a sense of security and encourage families to gather.


Also within these zones, programs for family services can be integrated, providing child care, after-school care, job skills training and job placement services. Neighborhood clinics can be included to improve public health. Meanwhile, the mayor's Vacants-to-Value program can prioritize properties within these zones to give new life to houses and blocks. Streets and sidewalks can be improved to change public perception and foster neighborhood pride. And finally, tax incentives can be established to attract small businesses such as corner markets, pharmacies, restaurants, and laundromats.

These are not new ideas. Many have been effectively implemented here in Baltimore and elsewhere. Exemplary programs such as Elev8 have coupled a wealth of resources with schools to stabilize families and communities. The city has actively addressed blight through code enforcement, demolition and tax incentives. Many other thoughtful and effective programs are making real change thanks to the diligence of selfless and creative individuals. But progress is slowed by the lack of a unified front. Strategically joining forces in a targeted fashion can complement and enhance the 10-year plan for city schools to powerfully kick-start neighborhood transformation.

Funding such an effort will be a challenge. But this effort largely entails retooling and coordinating existing programs, not necessarily creating new ones. And with a clear vision and strong leadership, politicians, foundations and business sponsors can rally to help expand successful programs to become the standard building blocks for Baltimore's community development.

In the end, making successful neighborhoods largely depends on providing a sense of place — a place that is safe, inviting and functional; a place where needs are met, where there is activity, quality and beauty. A place that instills pride and ownership. Such places draw people together to form lasting communities made up of invested individuals.

I believe in the power of place and the power of collaboration. Baltimore City Public Schools, under the steadfast leadership of former CEO Andrés Alonso and Interim CEO Tisha Edwards, has scored a landmark victory with the funding of the 10-year plan to finally provide Baltimore's children the healthy learning environments they deserve. Through the leadership of passionate individuals united by common purpose, I believe this triumph can mark the beginning of Baltimore's renaissance. Let's work together to make the most of this opportunity to change entire communities as well as the schools they hold.

Davin Hong, an architectural principal at RTKL, is also a member of the LEADERship class of 2013, a Greater Baltimore Committee program that brings together public, private and nonprofit leaders to work to build a better Baltimore. His email is