An Echo of Past Mistakes in Florida’s “Department of Cities”

Recently Richard Florida wrote in the Daily News that for President Obama to define his legacy, he must not only focus on gun control, immigration and climate change, but on an even more important issue: America’s urbanization.

This is because today, he explained, the nation’s 50 largest metros contain two-thirds of its population and three-quarters of economic output, while most innovations are even more concentrated. But these metros have been neglected by a government that romanticizes suburbs and small towns, while ignoring the greater productivity of dense areas. The answer to this misallocation of resources, wrote Florida, would be for Obama to form a Department of Cities. Continue reading

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Weekend Reading: Baltimore’s “Border Vacuums”

This week on the site Better! Cities & Towns, Marc Szarkowski wrote an article about “border vacuums.” These were described by Jane Jacobs as large, single-use areas that lack pedestrian intensity. They range from business parks and campuses, to stadiums and wide roads. For pedestrians, such areas become unnavigable “borders” between two destinations; while serving as “vacuums” that suck away from the vitality of nearby uses, starting a process that can spread through whole neighborhoods. (Just think how overpasses diminish the value of retail spaces below, creating a domino effect that can extend several blocks).

The article focuses on several around downtown Baltimore, where I’ve been exploring. They include the city’s dangerous public housing complexes, which remain in use despite similar ones being demolished in other cities. They also include MLK Jr. Boulevard, which has segregated the west side from downtown; and North Avenue, a formerly vibrant mixed-use thoroughfare that was widened decades ago to better accommodate cars. The avenue, he writes, has since become a “literal wall” between Baltimore’s north neighborhoods. Meanwhile areas that were left untouched, like Canton, Fell’s Point, and Federal Hill, maintain their old-school charm—and hence their economic productivity. More importantly has been the city’s effective renovation of the Inner Harbor, which “had devolved into a border vacuum by the early 1970s…

“By ‘activating the edge’ with recreational attractions, the city turned the waterfront into a vibrant area.” But if a highway had been built along it, “as was the case in so many other cities now trying to revive their isolated waterfront scraps–the waterfront border vacuum would likely have become worse.”

The way to prevent these vacuums, he notes, is not to avoid building major infrastructure altogether, but to build it in ways that mitigate the damage to surrounding uses. Szarkowki’s next goal, as he writes on the blog Envision Baltimore, is to figure out how this can be done in specific areas of Baltimore…

A Bleak Narrative Behind the Title “Heroin Capital”

Baltimore, MD

When NBC news announced last year that heroin use was on the rise nationally, it may have surprised those who considered the drug a relic of the Beatnik era. But it didn’t surprise residents in Baltimore, where struggles with it have earned the city, amongst other unflattering nicknames, that of the nation’s “heroin capital.”

This title was validated in 2000 by the Drug Enforcement Agency, when it determined that Baltimore had the highest per capita rates for heroin use in America. And it was updated by a 2009 report claiming that addicts in the city numbered roughly 60,000—or a staggering 10% of residents. Continue reading