Growth leads to shrinking quality of life

Region: Recent census numbers hold bleak implications for Baltimore and the surrounding counties.

May 13, 2001|By Alfred W. Barry III and Terri L. Turner

THE LATEST census figures should set off alarm bells for everyone in metropolitan Baltimore who cares about the quality of life in his or her community.

So far, we have only the basic outline; the details don't come until next month. But there is enough in the initial figures to cause alarm. For example:

Baltimore is by far the fastest-shrinking major city in the nation. Now that other cities are either slowing their decline (Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia) or growing (New York, Chicago, Indianapolis, Columbus), it's no longer possible to attribute Baltimore's distress to national trends rather than local and regional factors.

Baltimore County also faces declining economic fortunes. Preliminary estimates say that the county's median household income has fallen below the regional average and that its poverty level is rapidly rising toward the regional average.

Meanwhile, in the four outer suburban counties - Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard - growth is so rapid that the quality of life is becoming a casualty.

Seventy-five percent of the region's suburban population growth took place in the four outer jurisdictions, which make up only 44 percent of the region's population.

Since 1990, we have built nearly 5,000 excess housing units every year over and above what we need to accommodate regional population growth - the vast majority of them in the four outer suburban counties.

If Maryland as a state can be said to be officially committed to a policy called Smart Growth, the Baltimore region must have embraced the opposite - "dumb growth." Instead of maintaining the quality of life in existing communities, especially in the city and older suburbs, we are hollowing out the core of the region and watching it grow poorer and more isolated from the prosperity of the region as a whole. The flip side of that coin is the out-of-control growth in the four outer suburban counties, which harms the quality of life in five key ways:

Sprawl: The declining quality of life in the city and older suburbs, combined with the rapid growth in the outer suburbs, drives people to move out farther and farther in search of safety, quality schools and other amenities of the good life. Farms, forests and open space disappear under the onslaught of new homes, shopping centers and industrial parks.

Congestion: Sprawl crowds the roads as jobs and population become more dispersed. The lack of mass transit exacerbates congestion and means that people without cars cannot get to jobs in outlying areas.

Concentrated poverty: As people of means move away, older communities face higher social costs with fewer resources. Baltimore City has three-fifths of the region's low-income population but only an eighth of its property tax base. In Baltimore County, nearly a quarter of the elementary schools have a majority of kids eligible for free- and reduced-price meals, compared with none 10 years ago.

Pollution: Our region is a severe non-attainment area under the federal Clean Air Act. Experts say sprawl, with its attendant air pollution and runoff, is the greatest threat to the future of the Chesapeake Bay.

Higher taxes: Sprawl is expensive. It costs billions to build new infrastructure in areas that are growing and to maintain underutilized roads, schools and sewage and water systems in areas that are losing residents. The census figures call out a challenge to the entire region to figure out a new way to grow, or we will continue to pay a high price for failing to do so.

Here are some steps to take in the next 12 months that could unite the region and promote solving our problems instead of passively watching them get worse:

Support and promote the city. The new Baltimore City administration is going to need all the help it can get as it struggles to fight crime, improve schools and reinvigorate the city bureaucracy. As Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. noted recently, "The quality of life enjoyed" in the suburbs "is directly proportional to how successful [Mayor Martin O'Malley] is in this city." As long as visible improvements are being made in the city, other jurisdictions should support these efforts.

Invest in the older suburbs. The governor's new $10 million Community Legacy program needs to be implemented with community participation and expanded funding. The program was created to meet the diverse revitalization of older established communities that are showing signs of decline.

Stop sprawl. Stop building new residential and commercial developments for which the infrastructure does not exist to support them, especially roads and schools. New developments that are approved should be accessible to pedestrians and public transportation and accommodate a variety of housing types and income levels. Up to a third of new growth in some counties is planned to be outside of priority funding areas, which are the county-designated Smart Growth areas for state funding.

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