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It seems Baltimore, or perhaps even the nation, is now at an important crossroads. The headlines and recent civil unrest have brought to the forefront of our collective consciousness matters of race, poverty and equity leading to an unprecedented public conversation and critical opportunity for reform — one we must seize with actionable strategies immediately.

Throughout the city, there is a wealth of dedicated individuals and organizations in both public and private sectors working hard to restore and revive communities. Yet the social and economic problems of the inner city persist with such tenacity that it begs the question: How can our work be done more effectively? What more needs to be done to affect lasting change?

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The challenges faced by Baltimore's inner city neighborhoods are comprehensive, encompassing everything from education to joblessness, from public safety to public health. To improve the health and welfare of communities, we need a strategy that is equally comprehensive, coordinating all the tools available to form complete interventions. Such a strategy would need to be implemented at an unprecedented scale, one that is city-wide yet tailored to the unique strengths and weaknesses of each neighborhood. Admittedly, the prospect of creating such a large scale initiative is daunting.

But thankfully, there is already a far-reaching program that touches upon many of Baltimore's hardest hit neighborhoods: the 21st Century Schools Building Plan. The funding for the plan to rebuild dozens of schools in the next several years is a landmark victory for Baltimore that instills hope that positive outcomes for all city students is possible. For the past two years, I have argued that the 21st Century Schools Building Plan is a historic opportunity to not only improve education, but also transform neighborhoods. Utilizing the school construction as leverage, investments, projects and programs can be coordinated to bring resources in and around the schools to strengthen neighborhoods and catalyze transformation. Within compact "Community Investment Zones," programs, services, and amenities can be concentrated to create vibrant mixed-use town centers that become the heart of each neighborhood.

As a proof of concept, I am working with the Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) to realize this vision for the neighborhood of Cherry Hill. As a grassroots effort, led by the Cherry Hill Community Development Corporation, NDC's team of volunteer design professionals is developing a vision plan to help the community build upon its strengths toward a sustainable future. The initiative is being conducted in partnership with the mayor's INSPIRE program. Led by the city's Department of Planning, INSPIRE works to coordinate city agencies and resources with the 21st Century School Building Program within a quarter mile radius of each school project. While the coordinated implementation of public resources is a significant component, it is not enough. Rather, I would argue that the formation of partnerships across sectors is essential for truly comprehensive and sustainable change. As such, the NDC team will not only identify opportunities for improved services, amenities, and development, but we will also work toward an implementation strategy that aligns institutional, foundation, and business partnerships in order to strengthen the physical, social and economic conditions of the neighborhood.

Making schools the center of neighborhoods is not a new idea. Instead, it is an obvious approach, using the institution of education as a means to reach out to and serve the greater community. The presence of strong community schools can strengthen families by providing them better access to services. But the school can also be a hub of activity that strengthens the development of its surroundings. If designed to engage streets and open spaces, the school can spur other public or private projects nearby that bring businesses, amenities and jobs to the neighborhood.

In January, I moderated a panel discussion on this idea at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference, a national urban planning conference that was held in Baltimore for 2015. Among the panel of experts was Vincent James of the University of Berkeley Center for Cities + Schools, a leading research institution that studies the intersection of education and urban policy. During the discussion, Mr. James remarked that such a comprehensive approach, using new schools to spur neighborhood revitalization, is a proven strategy that is not only innovative, but also completely unprecedented if implemented at the scale of Baltimore. As the nation looks upon Baltimore in the wake of civil unrest, let's demonstrate leadership in overcoming persistent challenges by implementing this comprehensive vision as a single, united city.

Davin Hong (dhong@livingdesignlab.com) is an architect, urbanist and advocate for Baltimore neighborhoods; he is also the founder Living Design Lab, a design firm committed to design excellence, innovation and social impact.

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