Connectography and Megacities

Last week the a report from the Brookings Institution named Baltimore a global “knowledge capital,” placing it in the same category as 18 other cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Zurich, and Amsterdam. According to the report, all these mid-sized cities have economies based on knowledge creation and rely on elite universities, a talented workforce, and “relatively sound infrastructure connectivity.” The report goes on to say that while knowledge capitals are currently higher achieving than their peers by some standards (GDP, productivity, patent generation), they must increase foreign investment and manage housing costs to stay relevant in the future.

 Considering that Baltimore consistently ranks as one of the most affordable cities on the east coast, and is currently working with Brookings’ own Global Cities Initiative to create a foreign investment strategic plan, this all seems like pretty good news.

 In his book Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, Parag Khanna argues that cities, not states, are the dominant forces in shaping the world and that increased global connectivity is the key to a successful city. Throughout the book, Khanna is very sanguine about the power of connectivity and will occasionally push his narrative past the point of credibility (in fact, is brand of big-picture TED-talk delivery has been called “globaloney”). However, on the whole, his contention that a city’s connective infrastructure is a fair barometer of its health, relevance, and power is sound.

 In his new city-centered map of the world, Khanna includes Baltimore as one part of the northeastern megalopolis. This unit, consisting of the archipelago of urban areas stretching from Boston to DC, holds more than 50 million people and accounts for more than 20% of the country’s GDP. So Baltimore is enmeshed in an emerging mega-cities which will only increase in power. This also seems like pretty good news.

 Baltimore’s inclusion as part of the a globally-connected megacity undoubtedly helped it achieve its status as a knowledge capital. Being a short train ride from both NYC and DC has been cited as part of Baltimore’s appeal to tech entrepreneurs. While regional connectivity via Acela is helpful for staying in touch with the financiers and talent pools up and down the coast, internal connective infrastructure is just as important. Unfortunately, Baltimore’s weak connective infrastructure is hampering its ability to succeed as knowledge capital while also limiting who is able to benefit from the gains it does make.

 This report from the the Abell Foundation points out that the “creative class,” the type of people who would drive a knowledge capital’s economy, prefer living in urban areas that are “walkable and bikeable, and have effective public transit.” This is both a lifestyle preference and a pragmatic one as these types of infrastructure increase an area’s effective density allowing greater collaboration between individuals and organizations while increasing positive network effects. This lack of mobility inside of the city is of of the reasons Baltimore is home to only about 350 startups while Boston, a similarly-sized city is home to nearly 2000. As the report puts it:

 Travelling from Fells Point—an attractive neighborhood for young potential entrepreneurs—to Hopkins’ Homewood campus, for example, requires a 5 mile/ 30 minute bus ride, and it is considered unusual for students to use public transportation to get between them. An analogous trip in Boston—between, say, Jamaica Plain and Harvard University—can be easily done via the “T.”

 Compounding this problem is that the connective infrastructure that is in place only serves a portion of the population. More than a third of Baltimore residents do not even own a car, yet many parts of the city do not have access to effective public transportation. What transit exists best serves whiter and wealthier neighborhoods. This means that even where the knowledge capital economy is creating jobs, many people, especially from certain neighborhoods, cannot get to them. It’s great the there are places like Open Works and Betamore, but to someone living in Edmondson or Westport, what good are these markers innovation if they are physically inaccessible. The absurd cancellation of the Red Line ensure that this problem will continue into the future.

As this map from the Baltimore Chop helpfully illustrates, the Charm City Circulator leaves out many majority-minority neighborhoods.

Poor transportation infrastructure isn’t the only connectivity gap holding the city back. Baltimore’s communications infrastructure is also lacking. Only 70% of Baltimore homes have internet connectivity (again, with the holes mostly being in poorer minority neighborhoods) and the internet connections that do exist are not up to the speeds available in other parts of the east coast megalopolis. This ongoing struggle prevents some neighborhoods, and really the city as a whole, from really being an effective knowledge capital. And even while Baltimore is home to fairly successful startup accelerators and tech incubators, these programs only serve a small portion of the population. The city does not have the financial infrastructure in place to allow its wider population to be economically productive. Again, this divide usually falls along racial lines. When black residents are struggling to get a simple home loan, it’s not surprising that African Americans also have the lowest rate of business ownership in the city.

All these factors add up to Baltimore really only being a knowledge capital for a few. It also means the city is less likely to benefit in Khanna’s world of rising global megacities. Not exactly good news.


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