The Public Square

The Public Square

Baltimore like other major cities faces a fiscal crisis generated by decades of poor public policy that places the needs of corporations over the needs of its citizens. Perhaps no other place can this be better seen than in its spending on parks and recreation on the one hand, and in the way it has chosen to develop its burgeoning artistic community on the other. Much as the city regards tax policy and business development policy as shared assets and needs—- a “public square”—we should regard even more so our shared natural, cultural, and recreational spaces as places in which the next Baltimore can emerge.

Parks and recreation

Over the past 25 years, Baltimore spending on parks and recreation has remained remarkably constant at approximately $36 million/year. It bears reiterating that over the same period Baltimore’s spending on police has increased from approximately $145 to $445 million over the same period. Opportunities in community recreation centers have decreased markedly, depriving neighborhoods of chances for security, mentoring and play, inter-generational community-building, and important information-sharing—all things, it’s worth noting, that can actually increase safety and social cohesion, where policing cannot— that facilitate other city-wide initiatives. The budgetary de facto replacement, policing, has offered neighborhoods, in many ways, the opposites of these.

Funding for green spaces and playgrounds, while it has improved and developed a number of areas, has often followed the same logic as business development: invest in areas that will bring in a “higher tax base,” and follow a political imagination that, as with education, lacks any democratic-control mechanism, e.g., neighborhood or quadrant-wide councils with real political power and/or budget discretion.

Specific policies that could enhance Baltimore’s commitment to public space would include:

  • Reversing the privatization of recreation centers.
  • Increasing Parks and Recreation funding
  • Invest in neighborhood or quadrant-wide councils to decide on the uses for public space.
  • Turning a percentage of salvageable vacants into community centers.

Cultural affairs and production

Over the past several years, Baltimore has become a vibrant artistic hub, and events like Artscape and the Baltimore Book Festival, destinations like the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, and districts like Station North and Bromo have significantly increased Baltimore’s artistic footprint. However, these projects have arguably done more to enhance the city’s reputation as a tourist destination than they have to widen access to and increase participation in the arts.

This is partly because the city’s vision for these entities has been embedded in a property rights framework, and not a human rights framework[25], which results in a “settler mentality” that sees existing and longstanding cultural workers and communities as resources to be mined, even as that mining might be thought of as “appreciating” or “supporting.” As with other organizations’ gatekeeping dynamics, the leadership is rarely if ever reflective of the communities they serve; thus a pursuit of a “creative class”[26] in which “creativity” is only defined by what is culturally legible to the gatekeepers, whose own tastes are usually shaped by similar gatekeeping, occurring at the national or international level. Even though many important and positive changes have happened, at the conscious behest of these organizations, they still often transmit, without meaning, a “disbelonging” (Bedoya). Efforts at “placemaking” show an inattention to metaphor and message, in addition to mirroring the racial and other inequities that many anchor institutions embody.

And unlike many other major cities, Baltimore has no department tasked with the responsibility of generating a coherent democratic vision for the role of the arts in the city. Although we do have two nonprofit institutions that perform many parts of this work, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA)  and the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance (GBCA), it’s significant that they are non-governmental in nature.[27] In the last year there have been numerous artists and advocates who have asked for greater accountability from governmental (e.g., MD State Arts Council, MD Humanities Council), nongovernmental (e.g., BOPA, GBCA, the BMA, the Walters), and hybrids (Impact Hub, other institutional/community partnerships), with regard to racial equity. There are no citywide or enforceable oversight or guidelines, for instance, with regard to the makeup of Boards of Directors, processes by which proposals are assessed, or how institutions can carry out the city’s larger aims for accountability and inclusion.[28]

With this in mind we suggest the following policies designed to aid the progressive development of the arts in Baltimore:

  • Create a Department of Culture and Cultural Affairs
  • Create a Baltimore Cultural Plan.
  • Elevate and expand neighborhood cultural assets.
  • Strengthen the role neighborhood residents play in cultural planning by creating “neighborhood cultural councils”.
  • Improve zoning policies to make neighborhood cultural initiatives more feasible.
  • Create incentive programs to convert underutilized spaces for cultural use.
  • Create a funded “artist-in-residence” program for every neighborhood, with the artist-in-residence responsible for local cultural enrichment.
  • Grow sustainable support structures for self-funded arts programs and projects.
  • Diversify grants for cultural arts supported by philanthropy, the private and public sectors, and individuals.
  • Advocate for funding strategies among philanthropic, private, and public sectors that respond to the cultural sector’s operating realities.
  • Support the development of council-person arts initiatives.
  • Create and implement culture-specific performance measures for city departments and agencies.
  • Create a dedicated revenue stream for arts and culture by exploring the augmentation of an existing tax or fee.

Green spaces and the natural environment

Few policy areas illustrate the commonness of our city than the natural environment. This is true not only in our public green spaces/parks, but our regard for private so-called vacant lots; the access we offer to, investment in, and treatment of water, waterways, and sewage; the concentration of potentially-toxic industry in high-poverty neighborhoods; the lack of support for toxic lead abatement in high-poverty neighborhoods; in budgetary lack of support for citywide (not just whomever can afford it) environmentally-friendly upgrades.

As in other areas, solidarity economics offer a way around national-level economic truisms, such as “solar is too expensive,” while adding numerous other benefits to both social and financial bottom lines.[29] Current state and municipal investment in solar requires homeownership and financial stability that is out of reach to many poor or working class families and so, in this way, our energy policies actually continue the policies of redlining (Duda).

Further, over the past decade the realities of climate change have been made starkly clear. Extreme snow/rainfall and drastic temperature changes pose significant risks, particularly for coastal cities and cities with high levels of hypersegregation. As Baltimore fills both criteria it is more at risk of experiencing an environmentally caused catastrophe that significantly alters its capacity to function in the event of a severe weather related emergency. While some correctly view climate change as a signal threat, we believe it also represents a signal opportunity to redesign how the city functions. Baltimore has already made tentative steps in the right direction. Indeed, Baltimore received a 5-star rating from Star Communities, and has a sustainability plan designed to transition Baltimore from an industrial city to a green one. Along these lines we make the following proposals:

  • Secure funding for green jobs for Baltimore residents.
  • Provide targeted support for solar cooperatives, solar worker cooperatives, community solar gardens, virtual net metering, on bill financing.[30]
  • Add an air-quality and climate change evaluation to all government funded projects.
  • Adopt a policy and plan for the elimination of pesticide use and other toxic chemicals.
  • Adopt the “Precautionary Principle” as the underlying policy standard.
  • Enact an ordinance prohibiting the use of known toxins in health care delivery settings.
  • Mandate efficiency upgrades to homes at point of sale.
  • Develop and implement a system to regenerate soil health in Baltimore city.
  • Work with the MTA to develop and implement an ideal transit service profile for MTA routes.
  • Track the disparity of transportation costs by neighborhood relative to income.
  • Identify strategies to reduce the disparity in cost of transportation relative to income.
  • Develop a pedestrian master plan.

[25]For example, the UN Sustainable Development Goals:

[26]A term coined by scholarship by Richard Florida, which was quoted extensively in the Battelle market analysis for Port Covington.

[27]As an example of alternatives, see NYC’s Naturally Occurring Arts Districts NY (NOCD-NY), in Caron Atlas’s “How Arts and Culture can Advance a Neighborhood-centered Progressive Agenda.” 2013.

[28]Allied Media and Detroit People’s Platform. “12 Recommendations for Detroit Funders.” 12/15/2015

[29]As an example of a different view, see the Center for Social Inclusion’s “Energy Democracy,” available at:

[30]Duda, John. “Energy, Democracy, Community.” Aug 3, 2015.