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Diverging Demography of Baltimore and Africa

Someone tell the mayor of Baltimore that there are more important things to focus on than population growth.
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A nighttime view of Baltimore's Inner Harbor in July 2005. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

A nighttime view of Baltimore's Inner Harbor in July 2005. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Demographically, Baltimore wants to be Africa. A growing population means vibrancy. A declining population signals a death spiral. Greener grass across the Atlantic Ocean:

The California-to-Lagos commodities supply route would have been unthinkable only a decade ago, when international businesses still considered Africa a continent of declining economic activity. But as economic growth accelerates, driven by increasing political stability, booming populations, the spread of mobile telecommunications, high commodity prices and surging foreign direct investment, so does commodities demand within Africa.

Baltimore has been there, done that. It boomed during the 19th century. Well off its population peak today, the city clings to the past:

“I’m trying to grow the city, not get smaller,” said Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore’s mayor, about the notion that the city could be fine with between 500,000 and 600,000 people. “I’m not the first to say that a city that’s not growing is dying.”

Baltimore lost nearly 110,000 jobs from 1990 to 2010, about 23 percent, and has seen its population drop from 950,000 in 1950 to 621,000 today. The city has 20,000 vacant buildings and lots, and more than one house in eight is vacant.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake wants to attract 10,000 families to the city within a decade and has reached out to immigrants, gays and lesbians (Maryland allows same-sex marriage), and Orthodox Jews who might want to buy newly refurbished three-story rowhouses that the city is selling for as little as $100,000.

Baltimore refuses to look forward. The region is in a different economic cycle than the rapid industrialization occurring in much of Africa. In contrast, Estonia embraces demographic sabermetrics:

But Andres Vikat, the head of social and demographic statistics at the UN's Economic Commission for Europe, said a slight decrease in population is not in itself a major problem. Moreover, Vikat said, many Estonians are just temporary migrants and Estonia actually has a high rate of return to the homeland.

A declining population, Vikat said, will not necessarily impede growth or lower a country's quality of life. Many countries continue to be successful despite negative population trends, he said, with around half of EU member states having declining population.

"The problems arise when it is no longer possible to raise the quality of life and when the nation's health or education level is declining and thereby the competitiveness of the nation as a whole. But the decreasing number is not in itself something fatal," Vikat said.

Estonia can have economic growth without population growth. Baltimore can, too. It already does. But the community psyche can't handle the dwindling residents. Something must be wrong with the place. Baltimore is dying.

Baltimore is not dying. Like many other U.S. cities, downtown is attracting newcomers. Immigration blesses certain neighborhoods. Regardless, successful cities such as New York and London lose more people than they take in. At this point, I usually get an email message or two reminding me that those two global cities have growing populations. Duh: "It's the birth rate, stupid."