The Johns Hopkins Gazette: December 10, 2001
December 10, 2001
VOL. 31, NO. 14


Population Loss Doesn't Always Mean Urban Decline

By Lavinia Edmunds
Institute for Policy Studies
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Despite conventional wisdom, population loss does not always mean urban decline, according to research by graduate students from the Master of Arts in Policy Studies program at the Institute for Policy Studies. In a recent study of 10 neighborhoods in the city of Baltimore, MAPS students show that the city's dramatic population loss of 12 percent in the last decade can obscure some positive and dynamic signs of health in urban neighborhoods.

"We certainly saw evidence of a few neighborhoods that were gaining population, as in Bolton Hill, but we also saw examples of neighborhoods that were losing population while doing quite well, such as Ashburton, Canton and Locust Point," said MAPS student Amy Buck, who concluded a presentation of the results given Dec. 4 in Homewood's Levering Hall.

Students studied 10 neighborhoods considered to be in distress or 'on the move.'

Students probed recently released census data to determine what is lurking behind Baltimore's loss of roughly 85,000 residents over the last decade. They examined the predominant types of households that are remaining in or moving to selected neighborhoods of the city and the reasons for their neighborhood choices. They studied pairs of neighborhoods--one considered to be in distress, such as Hampden, and one purportedly "on the move," such as Canton. A panel of experts selected these neighborhoods based on their reputations, history and the dominant role of market forces, not government intervention.

The project was part of an assignment for the core Policy Analysis course taught by Sandra Newman, professor of policy studies and the director of the Institute for Policy Studies. Newman detailed the assignment in a hypothetical memo from Mayor Martin O'Malley to Charles Graves, director of the Baltimore City Planning Department: "Is my perception correct that conventional wisdom about population growth and loss does not always hold in Baltimore neighborhoods?" the memo said. "If so, then we can keep our focus on strengthening the assets that already make us a great American city and developing others that make sense for Baltimore at the start of the 21st century."

While city neighborhoods have lost the most population in the category of households with children, some have posted significant gains in nonelderly, childless households. Canton, one of the few city neighborhoods to register a significant increase in population, 19 percent, over the past two decades, lost 105 households with children but gained 465 nonelderly, childless residents. Even Hampden, reputedly a neighborhood in decline with a loss of 576 households with children and of 954 with elderly residents, gained 1,590 nonelderly, childless households.

For these new young urban residents, crime and school quality, often cited as the primary reasons for city flight by families with children, are not as important as physical environment, investment value and image, the students found. All 10 analyses cited the importance of physical environment, which includes such assets as the size and affordability of housing units. Social environment, such as civic engagement and strong neighborhood organizations, appeared as the next most important asset. Homeownership did not turn out to be as important as expected in certain neighborhoods. For example, Seton Hill, which appears to be a neighborhood of choice, boosted its number of renters by 59 percent since 1980.

True to conventional wisdom, students found that private investment in development has led to improvements in several neighborhoods, including Canton, Locust Point and Bolton Hill. The role played by a neighborhood's image is more difficult to measure, according to the MAPS research. Section 8 vouchers, which some public housing residents are using to relocate from public housing high-rises, was reputed "to tarnish the image of Hamilton" despite the fact that only eight homes were involved, Buck said.

The students suggested that for the immediate future, Baltimore should focus on its current strength: attracting nonelderly, childless households. This group is easier to attract, increases the tax base and demands a relatively low level of services, students said in their conclusion. It also is diverse, composed of subgroups such as artists, yuppies and empty nesters that can be attracted, without a large investment, to assets in particular neighborhoods.

Students noted other cities that are doing well by attracting nonelderly, childless households. San Francisco gained 20 percent in nonelderly childless households in the past decade, Atlanta increased by 33 percent, and Boston added 23 percent in this category.

In the question-and-answer period that followed the presentation, Graves, the city's planning director, welcomed the student's "insightful" research, which he said he would pass on to the mayor, who is investigating the same issues raised by the MAPS study. He agreed with the student strategy of "marketing our neighborhoods," but said, "We also need to realize what our challenges are." He said the city must find a way to keep those young singles once they begin to think about having children and before they move out to the county.

While students did not disagree, they stressed that their research did not extend to those who have fled the city. "We focused on those who chose to stay," explained MAPS student Eden Savino.