'Walking city' to suburbs on the run City, county boundaries shifted until 1919, but immense changes in past 50 years transcend political borders.

January 04, 1998

IN 1815, in "walking cities" such as Baltimore, only one worker out of 50 traveled as far as a mile to work, Kenneth Jackson notes in his book, "Crabgrass Frontier." Within a couple of decades, the steam ferry, horsecar and elevated railroad stretched the distance between people's homes and jobs. This was met with great enthusiasm, including by The Sun. An editorial in 1844 boasted that the city's first mass transit system, a coach called the "omnibus," allowed "persons to reside at a distance from their places of business in more healthy locations."

Fast-forward from the 19th century, past World War II and the development of Levittown (population: 82,000 residents, 0 blacks), to 1968:

That year, Maryland's Spiro T. Agnew was elected vice president, becoming the first suburban politician in the country to attain national office. He had won the governorship of Maryland two years earlier over a candidate with an overtly racist campaign, but Mr. Agnew himself fueled the distrust between the largely white suburbs and a riot-torn, increasingly black city.

That sweep of history, a century and a half long, has led the Baltimore region to a crossroads and the need for greater regional cooperation.

During the coming week, The Sun will devote these columns to editorials that explore an approach called "regionalism," how other metropolitan areas are making it work to their benefit and suggest strategies worth trying here. We will also take readers to spots around the region -- scenes of change -- that have been squeezed by, stood firm against or profitted from the enormous shifts in population in recent decades.

***

Regionalism is as unwieldly to define as the word "community." In essence, it is about the political entities that belong to a larger area acting cooperatively in their common interest.

In practical terms, regionalism may be as simple as soliciting a joint bid for the bulk purchase of police cars or road salt to cut costs, or as politically complex as sharing tax revenues.

Local government leaders have been progressing in this direction in recent years, albeit slowly. They meet as a group at "Big Seven" lunches. A few jurisdictions have tried to jointly compost yard waste or convert an old military airfield to public use.

Results have been modest. More encouraging is the shift in political philosophy. Local government leaders for too long have been cowed by the notion, and perhaps the ballot box reality, that working for the betterment of another jurisdiction would cast them as traitors in the eyes of their own constituents.

To help describe what regionalism is, understand first what it is not.

Regionalism is not a code word for bailing out the city at the expense of the counties.

The idea isn't "liberal" or socialist. It's a pocketbook matter, plain and simple.

Nationwide, the metro regions whose cities incurred the greatest loss in population from 1960 to 1990 also lost the most forest and farmland to suburbia, and had to pay to provide services to that broader development area.

Regionalism is not government intruding on the free marketplace.

Anyone who believes so must think that the unprecedented boom of suburbia after World War II was solely a function of people abandoning cities and "voting with their feet." It was not. Government aided and abetted that outcome, with the interstate highway program, with the wholesale leveling of working-class neighborhoods for roads and urban renewal, with federal lending programs that explicitly loaned money for new, detached homes in the suburbs, but not the renovation of existing multifamily dwellings in the city.

It is right for the government to help fix the imbalance those programs created, which have been so costly socially and environmentally. Government has a duty to make cities more livable and to encourage "smart growth," but it cannot succeed alone. The private sector must seek opportunities in the city, too, as the Rite-Aid pharmacy chain and Power Plant redeveloper David Cordish have done recently.

Regionalism is not anti-suburb.

L It may prove to be a long-term strategy to save the suburbs.

Cities like Baltimore, anchored by prestigious medical and cultural institutions, have proven their ability to exist for hundreds of years. No one can say the same about the suburbs, which grew solely to provide affordable and attractive housing.

"Inner ring" suburbs, such as those in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, are already showing serious decay after only a couple of decades. The number of students eligible for free lunches is growing as quickly in parts of Baltimore County as anywhere in Maryland.

Residents of the outer metro counties -- Howard, Harford and Carroll -- will continue to lose patience as officials tell them they can't afford the schools they desire, can't halt development nor protect farmland and open space.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.