WE WERE on an educational trip on the Chesapeake Bay, and I was trying to elicit some ideas about how to improve the environment of the bay region.
One student had an ingenious idea. He suggested capturing and recycling the thousands of gallons of tap water wasted while we wait for it to turn warm. But Matt, a middle schooler from Anne Arundel County, brought music to my ears.
"Wouldn't it make sense for people to fix up old places in the city instead of building so many new ones everywhere else?" he asked. Matt's idea stood out because it reached into the big picture with an innocent but indisputable logic.
I took Matt's thought with me the next night when I went to a party at the home of my friend Mike, who has planted his roots in South Baltimore. The conversation at Mike's always comes around to living in the city.
"You're contributing something to this neighborhood just by being here with your interests and your stability," one of Mike's fellow teachers and city residents said to him. "I think there'll be a trend toward living in the city again," put in a third-year medical student.
"I'd like to think so, but how is the city going to overcome the image problem of crime, not to mention convincing people that it's a good place to raise children?" came a voice. It was the voice of someone who must decide soon where to make his next move. It was mine.
Virtually all of the state's leaders are encouraging people like me to move to the city, to build or rebuild in the city if need be. That was the goal of last year's "2020 report" from a gubernatorial commission. The idea is to manage growth by making it more attractive to redevelop towns and cities than to tear up more suburban and rural land for new development.
Sen. Gerald Winegrad, D-Anne Arundel, probably the most environmentally conscious Maryland legislator, for example, argues that limiting growth in rural areas will "encourage more development in density pockets in urban areas . . . That would help a Baltimore city. It would end the facilitation of the [suburban] sprawl."
Seemingly this is the answer to Matt's question. The only problem is that to make it work you have to convince people like me -- and maybe even Matt in 10 years -- that they really want to live in the city. And, an even tougher challenge, you have to convince Mike to stay if and when he has children to raise and send to school.
There are lots of rational reasons to live in the city. It is environmentally wise. As a city resident, you take up less space and drive shorter distances, spewing fewer pollutants into the air. You become part of large and potentially efficient utilities and public transportation systems. You reduce the need to tear up more land for houses, roads, sewers, schools, stores, etc. Tearing up the land means uprooting forests, which hold in place the soil and nutrients that, loosed, choke the Chesapeake Bay.
Socially, it makes sense to live in the city as well. You place yourself in the culture and business core of the state and get to live in an ethnically diverse community. You help shore up a weak tax base, support city shops and services and return at least one body to a municipality that has lost 200,000 bodies over the last 30 years.
For Winegrad, Matt and the governor's commission, getting people to move back into Baltimore and Cumberland and Crisfield is one of the steps toward handling the 1.1 million increase in population anticipated in Maryland by 2020. Suburban counties like Baltimore and Howard should want to direct people toward the city because new development creates tax burdens for suburbanites and amounts to a deterioration in their quality of life. What makes more sense than encouraging population growth where it is beneficial and discouraging it where it is problematic?
Nothing makes more sense from a policy point of view, but whether Baltimore's population starts growing again depends on individual decisions based on human sentiments and fears. Despite the environmental and social benefits of urban living, I'm caught up in in the image of the city as an expensive place to live with little reward in public services (like education). Even more potent are the images of the daily death counts on the 11 o'clock news and the panhandlers I pass each day as I walk from the harbor to the Metro.
I don't know what I'll do, but I do know that beating that image and attracting new people to the city will require more than discouraging growth elsewhere. In the end, whether or not Matt decides to "fix up" an old place in the city when he comes along may depend largely on what people like me decide in the next few years.
Stephen P. Bowler is an educator for the Lady Maryland ; Foundation.