One of many vacant properties in Baltimore, Maryland

The dysfunctional condition of real estate markets in shrinking cities, along with the neglect of conventional planning models to address issues of vacancy, abandonment and population loss, have directed leaders in Cleveland, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities, to pursue innovative revitalization strategies. One aspect of this process is the acquisition of vacant lots, in which the city of Baltimore has exceeded all expectations. As part of its anti-blight initiative, Project 5000, Mayor O’Malley established the ambitious goal of acquiring 5000 vacant and abandoned properties in order to promote new development, eliminate neighborhood blight and improve the quality of life of Baltimoreans. By 2007, the City had acquired and cleared title of more than 6,000 properties, setting the stage for development projects by different sectors and becoming a nationally recognized model for efficient partnerships and large-scale property acquisition. Furthermore, through its custom-built database and code enforcement actions, the City has created an effective toolbox for the clearance and maintenance of blighted properties, some of which have become thriving community gardens.

In spite of Baltimore’s commendable success in confronting and preventing neighborhood blight, gaining control of abandoned properties and establishing a growing network of green infrastructure, the City recognizes that effective strategies for the disposition of its vacant lots are still absent. Innovative mechanisms are needed to put these properties to good use and restructure the city’s physical environment in a way that responds to its current realities and those of its residents. As we have seen through the experiences of other shrinking cities, disposition of vacant properties is a common challenge. In response, a variety of programs and initiatives have been implemented in places like Cleveland and Philadelphia that test new approaches to right-sizing. Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all model; however, by building on the strengths and learning from the experiences of other shrinking cities, Baltimore can design appropriate tools that are more in line with its urban context.

Urban Voids Winner: Waterwork by Charles Loomis Chariss McAfee Architects

One idea could be organizing a design competition around the issues of a shrinking city. This strategy was adopted in the Philadelphia LANDVisions project through the Urban Voids design competition, a collaborative effort partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.  This initiative invited entries to create new design alternatives for the city’s vacant properties and asked proposals to engage neighborhood community groups in their implementation concepts.  Cleveland has also undertaken a similar approach through its annual Cleveland Design Competition, an effort initiated in 2007 in order to start dialogue around the underutilized areas of the city. Both competitions have been considered a success mainly because the winning entries have effectively incorporated sustainability, social and economic components into their proposals, addressing some of the most critical issues of shrinking cities.

Building upon the experience of places like Cleveland and Philadelphia, Baltimore can support a design competition initiative, engaging its residents and bringing together talented minds from around the country (and the world).  This effort can set the stage for professionals in the planning, policy and design fields to work collaboratively in formulating innovative right-sizing strategies while creating a more participatory planning model.

Two new reports have been added to the burgeoning literature on shrinking cities:

  • Growing a University in a Shrinking City – Dr. David Sweet, president of Youngstown University (Ohio), played a critical role in the development of the Youngstown 2010 plan. During the process, thousands of residents and community leaders participated in the visioning and execution of the city’s new master plan.  (To learn more about the planning process, read Austin’s post, Citizens and Shrinking Cities – Youngstown 2010). In this new report, Dr. Sweet shares his experiences in helping to revision the community, and emphasizes the importance of campus-community partnerships.
  • Texas Problem Properties Toolkit – For two years, the Community Development Clinic at the University of Texas Law School conducted research on the most effective strategies that cities in Texas, and around the country, are using to combat the problem of vacant and abandoned properties. The group’s research culminated in this toolkit, which outlines a number of strategies for Texas cities including, community engagement, vacant property registration, landbanking, and code enforcement.

Community and business leaders, youth, seniors, and numerous other categories of citizens in a city, which make up the city’s residential composition are typically not involved in the master planning process of their city. Cities are shaped by the people who live there, but importantly there is the business community that employs residents and provides opportunities for residents to prosper in cities. The story of all shrinking cities is an economic and social story that started with industries dying or residents leaving the city.

For many years most cities refused to believe that they were shrinking. More importantly, citizens were not actively involved in “fixing” what local governments were failing to provide. These citizens probably made the same mistake that elected officials did. First, they were not aware of the problem. Second, they were not educated on the issues. Third, they were not properly engaged on how to save and allow their city to recover.

During the “Youngstown 2010” planning process thousands of residents and leaders of Youngstown, OH were involved in the visioning and execution of a new master plan. “Youngstown 2010 began as a community engagement and civic education process meant to gain public participation but also to educate people about the importance of planning.” However, the process changed during its initial community meetings. In 2002, the process started with several community visioning exercises. During these meetings over 200 community leaders represented the interests of various community stakeholders. The 2002 process identified the following platform for a community-based agenda:

  • Accepting the Youngstown is a smaller city
  • Defining Youngstown’s role in the new regional economy (no more reliance on the steel industry)
  • Improving Youngstown’s image and enhancing quality of life
  • A call to action

With limited resources the City began to create a volunteer group to implement parts of the initial visioning exercise. The following assignments were established for the volunteer group:

In 2004, a series of 11 neighborhood cluster planning meetings were convened, which sought to further involve residents in the master planning process. In all, over 1,300 people showed up to the Youngstown City Council meeting to show their support for the master plan that was crafted with the guiding principles set by the residents and leaders of Youngstown.

This process of extensive citizen engagement is costly, lengthly, and challenging for local planning departments to handle. In the case of Youngstown, a marketing consultant was hired to assist with the outreach and marketing plans. However, it is entirely possible for planning departments to create the same momentum as the Youngstown 2010 plan without such costly consultants.

In my opinion, the most important takeaways of citizen involvement in planning is the following:

  • It is the responsibility of the planning department to educate the citizens on the issues
  • Citizens should not be boggled down in very small parts of the master planning process. They should view the city from a 15,000 foot view point
  • A clear action agenda should come from initial meetings
  • The planning department should implement the action agenda using volunteers and residents
  • Details of the plan should be worked out by the planning department, with consultation from additional working groups. These details should be presented to the neighborhoods.

The planning department and elected officials should act on the “clear action agenda” that the residents have created. These residents are the ones who live, work, and play in their city. They should have a big voice in how their city develops.