July 25, 2018

National Center for Smart Growth Evaluates Baltimore’s Progress toward Building an Equitable Region

By Nicholas Finio, National Center for Smart Growth and Research, University of Maryland

The Baltimore region was awarded a $3.5 million Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI) planning grant in 2011. The SCI grant is the most recent large-scale federal funding of a cross-sector regional planning effort, and one that put equity issues at the forefront of the process. The grants were intended to spur economic competitiveness and revitalization; increase social equity, inclusion, and access to opportunity; slow energy consumption and climate change; and improve public health and environmental impacts. Enterprise Community Partners and the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland were members of the Baltimore region’s grant planning body, the Opportunity Collaborative. Recently, NCSG has completed a retrospective analysis of the planning process for the grant and the implementation of the grant thus far.

The report draws lessons from Baltimore’s SCI planning process to inform planning efforts with the goal of promoting more equitable regions and providing greater access to opportunity for disadvantaged populations. Specifically, it evaluates four key aspects of Baltimore’s SCI process with salience for achieving this goal: 1) the use of opportunity-related data in the planning process; 2) the process of community engagement around issues of regional equity and opportunity; 3) the challenges of regional collaboration in planning and post-grant implementation; and 4) the adoption of an effective regional affordable housing policy. 

One of our central findings from our review process, which included several dozen interviews with key stakeholders, was that to create effective regional plans, community engagement is needed. However, it can be challenging to generate meaningful engagement on a regional scale, especially around issues of opportunity. Baltimore’s process showed that civic and community organizations can play a vital role in engaging communities, particularly with hard-to-reach groups. These groups, however, face challenges in making issues related to regional-scale equity and opportunity relevant to the everyday lives of residents, who better engage with neighborhood-level issues.  Underserved communities can be effectively engaged in the planning process through partnerships with community-based organizations, but engagement must occur early in the planning process, translate concepts of regional opportunity into concrete neighborhood concerns, and have a well-defined structure for integration into the plan.  Further, without prior planning and adequate funding, regional community engagement efforts may be informative for residents, but not particularly effective in shaping regional planning outcomes. 

A further finding was that opportunity and equity-related data and mapping helped to bridge the plan’s work across issues of housing, transportation and workforce development. Opportunity maps lent themselves to deep stakeholder engagement around regional equity and provided a common platform for a data-driven approach to regional planning. Equity and opportunity-related data and maps can provide a foundation for equity planning at the regional scale but should be developed through deep stakeholder engagement, be attentive to questions about how different populations view opportunity, and respect how regional-level data can mask neighborhood differences and assets. Opportunity and equity analysis tools can help to make the case for regional housing planning, but advancing substantive housing policy change is difficult to accomplish at the regional level. Progress is often slow and requires strong cross-sector, multi-jurisdictional advocacy, consensus building and political will. 

The report’s conclusions underscore the need for ongoing coordination, cooperation, funding and political buy-in to move a plan from recommendations into reality. Baltimore’s troubled history of racial zoning, and broader ongoing legacy of institutional racism, still impacts the distribution of opportunity around the region. Without critical dialogue about these issues by policymakers at the highest level, it will be challenging to fundamentally change Baltimore’s geography of opportunity. 

Despite these pernicious challenges, progress thus far offers reason for optimism. The SCI process has shown that leaders from across government, nonprofits, and the community in the Baltimore region are passionate about reducing regional inequality. The momentum built during the regional planning process has slowed but continues to carry forward in the minds and actions of many who sat and worked together at the planning table. 

Join us on August 7, 2018, as we discuss the findings of the report in a webinar, “Toward an Equitable Region: Lessons from Baltimore’s Sustainable Communities Initiative.”
 

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