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Op-ed

Data patterns show how to reverse population loss in Baltimore. Will we heed their lessons? | GUEST COMMENTARY

The boat lake at Patterson Park is seen in early spring as trees are just starting to come out of their winter dormancy.

Historians may well mark the decade that just passed as one of the most tumultuous Baltimore has ever experienced — with a housing market crisis, civil and racial unrest after the death of Freddie Gray, a mayoral resignation amid political scandal, and a pandemic. On top of all of that, the past 10 years ended with the city’s seventh-straight decade of population loss, based on the 2020 Census.

Baltimore actually stands alone among all cities in the East Coast for population declines. Among all cities greater than 400,000 in the U.S. in 2010, only four out of the 40+ in that category lost any population at all. What do we need to do right now so we don’t have the eighth decade in a row of population loss by 2030?

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With 20 years of community-based data, the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (BNIA) embarked on the Baltimore Community Change (BCC) Project 2010-2020. We discovered a clear pattern of neighborhoods diverging apart, creating a dual reality of “Two Baltimores,” where some neighborhoods are growing and getting all kinds of resources, while others are not. No one can afford — not ethically, psychologically or financially — this kind of enduring divergence if we want a more just and equitable future for Baltimore. The BCC Project helps us all identify data-driven patterns that contributed to population loss and exacerbated neighborhood disparities. Here are three we saw:

First, for the second decade in a row, growing areas are primarily along the central spine of the city — what Lawrence Brown of Morgan State University calls the “White L” based on the racial demographics of its residents. Declining areas flank this central core, described by Brown as the “Black Butterfly” for the same reason. However, the growing parts of the city became less white over the decade, however. If your neighborhood grew over the past decade in Baltimore, it’s because a growing share of Black residents moved in.

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Second, our public sector investments are not equitably leveraging private sector funding in home mortgages and small business lending or other opportunities that could have positive spillover effects. A 2019 Urban Institute report found that overall there is a one to nine multiplier in Baltimore. Unfortunately, public dollars spent on programs like building demolition in declining areas, while effective in reducing vacant buildings, did not drive new construction or population growth. In fact, the lack of leveragability actually resulted in less opportunity in areas with high demolition evidenced by an increase in gun-related homicides.

Finally, those communities that lost population over the past decade have one major characteristic in common: They are disconnected. Once a community is disconnected digitally, for example, it’s more likely to be disconnected physically, civically and financially as well.

When the BCC reports were released in the spring, we asked Baltimoreans all around the city about their potential solutions. We heard very immediate concerns about trash, homelessness and shootings. But we also heard about more long-term issues such as affordable housing, transportation and digital equity. Based on what we heard and what the data reveals, we need to ensure the following four things:

  1. Diversity: Every community in Baltimore must have realistic options for people of any income to find a place to live. Communities that are becoming unaffordable cause bottlenecks of affordability elsewhere. Conversely, neighborhoods without any options for middle- or high-income earners to live, become ripe for people to leave over time.
  2. Occupancy: A vacant building is a huge burden to anyone trying to exist near it. We need ways to create a pipeline of demand for occupying these buildings. Communities need resources to plan for future occupancy where today’s renters can become tomorrow’s homeowners and retailers, and businesses will follow.
  3. Mobility: The areas of Baltimore that are declining are not seeing the kind of infrastructure improvements that will lead to the flow of people and resources. We need investment in transit, roads, sidewalks and conduit that will spur growth and activity in all neighborhoods.
  4. Connectivity: While we certainly need more ubiquitous internet connectivity in areas that declined, we really need more human reconnections across our diverging communities. We need to socially, civically and emotionally join forces more easily between the body of our city and our wings.

Now is the time to act according to these findings. When you hear about positive things going on in Baltimore, they’re true, but unfortunately, they’re not true everywhere. So, when anyone proposes policies, projects or programs to “help Baltimore,” we need to ask ourselves how it will help to end the disparities that are hurting the city.

If we really want this pattern of lopsided growth and loss to change in this decade, we have to intentionally and doggedly work to reconnect our diverging realities.

Seema D. Iyer has been director of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore since 2011 and will step down later this year. The Baltimore Community Change project was funded by the France-Merrick Foundation, the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Baltimore Community Foundation and the Meyerhoff Family Funds. More information about it is available here: communitychange-bniajfi.hub.arcgis.com.


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