(Photo by Flickr user Sue, used under a Creative Commons license)
As cities prepare for a future reshaped by the pandemic, it’s a moment to rethink downtown.
Over 150 entrepreneurs, politicians and stakeholders from the Baltimore area gathered virtually Tuesday to discuss the “State of Downtown Baltimore” at an event featuring a keynote presentation by Richard Florida.
The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore invited Florida, the noted urbanist scholar who has long tracked the creative class, to present on “building a better post-pandemic Baltimore.” He offered a looked a the history of past pandemics and emerging trends to discuss ways to change Baltimore’s downtown area for the better.
His chief thought: An urban exodus isn’t on the horizon, but rather a change in what it means to work and live in the city.
“We have a once-in-a-century opportunity to build our communities and cities back better,” said Florida. “We’re beginning a fundamental reset in the way, work, live, shop and how we go about our everyday lives.”
To be sure, the city’s densest area for businesses and visitors saw a drop in activity due to COVID-19. According to data for 2020 released by the Partnership in a report on Tuesday, downtown Baltimore lost 6,815 jobs during the pandemic, and has a 23.3% office vacancy — a 5.5% increase from 2019.
With vaccines becoming more widely available, there are reasons to think those trends could change. But don’t expect a return to the old ways, Florida said. Cities like Baltimore will need to acknowledge their strengths and lean into them to adapt to the new world of remote work and how that changes the calculus on deciding where someone wants to live.
“Capital follows talent, and the places that attract and retain talent will win,” said Florida.
When it comes to winning that talent, Florida listed some of Baltimore’s strengths. The Partnership’s report analyzed other strengths and weaknesses of the city’s downtown, too.
The strengths: Baltimore is a distinguished global startup hub, attracting more $400 million annually in venture capital, like Vancouver, Portland and Amsterdam. Plus, it’s located in what Florida describes as the Bos-Wash mega-region, which holds 50 million people and altogether boasts a $3.4 trillion gross domestic product.
In the big picture, all cities in the new remote work economy have an opportunity to reimagine downtown or the central business district into a place that better mixes the uses of residential, business, and recreation, Florida said.
One line of comparison to consider is the roaring 20s. The 1920s were preceded by the Spanish flu, as the 2020s have been opened by Covid-19. Florida noted that the 1920s was an era of great prosperity but also the largest inequities, something that is mirrored in the modern 2020s.
“People are projecting rates of economic growth I haven’t seen in my life,” said Florida. “but it’s horrifically economically socially, in terms of race, class and geography, unequal.”
So Florida left the audience with a choice: They can reset these downtowns and be intentional about building more inclusive and resilient cities, or let history repeat itself.
Check out video of the complete event below:
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.-30-
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