How we compare with elsewhere Other cities that practice or pursue regional solutions often seem more focused on improving quality of life.

January 09, 1998

PORTLAND sums up the vision for its regional land-use strategy in two sentences.

1) Everyone can always see Oregon's Mount Hood in the distance.

2) Every child can walk alone to a library.

Who could fail to see the wisdom in goals as concise and attractive as those?

What most sharply and disturbingly separates Baltimore from many other metro areas that are discussing and implementing regional approaches -- from Buffalo to Denver -- is that the other areas appear fixated on quality of life for themselves, their children and future generations. We don't.

Marylanders, to their credit, have become attuned the past 20 years to talking about and thinking about the Chesapeake Bay and the aquatic life within it.

Although folks don't always act in the bay's best interest, they were riveted and alarmed by reports last summer about the destructive cell Pfiesteria. It is ironic that people can become energized and enthusiastic about the quality of life beneath the water, and devote so little public discussion to the state of their surroundings on land.

A boatload of academic studies shows that areas with weak cities and strong suburbs struggle against severe social problems. They are not as attractive to new businesses. And they must spend more on infrastructure to support the exodus of residents moving from the core.

The Clinton administration has been paying attention to the health of these regional economies, because they generate nearly nine of every 10 jobs and are home to three-quarters of the nation's population.

The subject is very pertinent to Maryland, which has one of the more metro-oriented populations in the country. Home to Baltimore and surrounding most of Washington, D.C., its former territory, the state ranks seventh among U.S. states for the percentage of residents living in metropolitan areas: 93 percent.

As these metro areas go, so goes America's competitiveness in the global economy. That connection was the impetus for the president's Empowerment Zone program, which awarded Baltimore $100 million, plus $250 million in tax credits, to lure employers to depressed neighborhoods.

Employment growth in the Baltimore region from 1975 to 1995 was less than the national average (35 percent vs 52 percent). Regions with city incomes as high or higher than suburban ones -- Charlotte, Seattle, Austin -- are adding jobs faster than regions anchored by fiscally feeble cities -- Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore.

The statistics are worrisome. But they may not stir Central Marylanders to act "regionally" as much the notion that other metro areas appear more interested in their long-term health as communities. Some regions have focused on this a long time.

Portland is often cited as a national leader in this regard. Its 25-year-old "great wall" policy forbids development outside an "urban growth boundary."

Some in Baltimore have disdained comparisons to much less racially diverse Portland ever since David Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., and a promoter of regionalism, wrote a book that recommended Baltimore mimic Portland's model.

Indeed, black residents are as racially segregated by community there as here.

But Portland is much less segregated by wealth than Baltimore.

Perhaps the most tangible effect that would translate to Baltimoreans: Portland's upscale Nordstrom store is located downtown.

Mike Burton directs Metro, the elected regional government in the Portland area -- the only one in the country -- that runs everything from solid waste to stadium management for three member counties. Mr. Burton acknowledges that the approach wouldn't work everywhere, but believes every metro area could benefit from someone in power planning for the long run. When another city a few years ago showed him its 260-page "vision statement," he suggested they cut out 250 pages.

Maryland has a head-start in many regards, however.

Its streamlined system of strong county-based governments is envied by many metropolitan regions that must cobble together political support from dozens of small boroughs and townships as well as separately funded school districts.

The Enterprise Foundation, founded by the late urban visionary James Rouse to revitalize neighborhoods, is a nationally acclaimed resource in our own backyard. Baltimore's Inner Harbor, its downtown ballparks and award-winning aquarium are considered models for urban renaissance and have helped fuel LTC job growth in the tourism industry faster than any sector outside health care.

The "smart growth" legislation that Gov. Parris N. Glendening pushed through Annapolis last winter is on target, too: It respects local government autonomy, but gets the state out of the expensive, endless cycle of spending on infrastructure in ways that create disincentives to revitalize older residential areas. Local politicians are also working more cooperatively.

Business leaders have become strong proponents, too, having formed the Greater Baltimore Alliance to sell this region to businesses eyeing a new home. A recent offshoot is an agreement by Baltimore and Washington business leaders to merge their separate bids to host the Summer Olympics of 2012.

This is one area where the politicians and business leaders are ahead of the public.

Next: Baltimore in 2020.

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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