Historic Cities Rally to Become Centers of Innovation

Watch and review cities’ plans to inspire citizen participation.
March 30, 2015 AT 11:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Baltimore and Atlanta are cities steeped in U.S. history and both have equally rich backgrounds in the science and art of urban innovation.

Baltimore traces back to the beginning of the United States and has experienced numerous armies and raiding parties trampling through it over the centuries. Most significantly, the city was saved from invasion by the British in the War of 1812. Troops manning Fort McHenry successfully defended the city and famously provided the inspiration for a poem that became "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Atlanta was a center of industry and trade in the pre-Civil War era until it was rather infamously burned to the ground by General William Tecumseh Sherman in September 1864. Interestingly, that drastic act of war, intended to demoralize the population, seemed to do more to strengthen the resolve of the citizenry and set the stage for the New South to rise from the ashes.

However, as urban areas began to decline after World War II, Baltimore and Atlanta suffered the same sort of deterioration of their downtowns and other parts of their urban cores. Both cities rallied their leadership and fought back against the declining central city development trends in different but equally drastic ways.


The city of Baltimore developed as a sea port with a shallow harbor that served the community well during its early history. However, over the years, the physical limitations of the inner harbor led to its decline in importance as a significant center of trade, and it was surpassed and supplanted by larger, deeper ports better able to handle ocean vessels. By the middle of the 20th century, Baltimore's Inner Harbor was a dirty and dangerous place with rotting wharves and warehouses surrounded by a dismal mix of deteriorating and largely vacant urban residential and retail development.

Rather than accepting the situation as inevitable, Baltimore's leaders rallied and focused new energies and attention on remaking the Inner Harbor into something new and inviting – an asset instead of a liability. Over the course of several decades and spanning the terms of several mayors, the Baltimore Inner Harbor became a landmark of urban transformation. The outdated and dilapidated structures were largely demolished and replaced with new development and green space. A shining new trade center was constructed. The Rouse Company invented the festival marketplace. And the National Aquarium settled in to an exciting new home as a centerpiece attraction. Salvageable historic townhouses were offered free to urban homesteaders willing to invest their lives and sweat equity into bringing back surrounding neighborhoods. In short, it was innovation at its best.


It is common for cities throughout the South to compare themselves to Atlanta and speculate how things might have turned out differently if development trends had gone another way. Atlanta has always been a center of trade located centrally, prominently and conveniently on a crossroads of rail and highway transportation. The city's dramatic rise after the Civil War and especially during the 20th century cemented Atlanta as the Capital of the South.

Even so, Atlanta's central city began to suffer from the same forces of deterioration and decline as affected Baltimore and other cities. As air travel eclipsed rail following World War II, Atlanta's large and important downtown rail terminal lost traffic and the surrounding area slipped further into economic despair. The trend was not unlike that of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Like Baltimore, the response of Atlanta's leaders was also dramatic and determined. A lost and largely forgotten part of the city – literally beneath the city's streets that had been elevated on viaducts above the mass of at-grade railroad tracks – became a new center of entertainment and tourism known as Underground Atlanta. Just a few blocks away, Atlanta Architect John Portman assembled central pieces of outdated real estate and built a sleek new business hub – Peachtree Center – replacing outdated hotels and inefficient structures with something shiny and new. While that new center of Atlanta has been criticized for its elevated pedestrian bridges and other features of the 1960s and 70s that took away from the livelihood of the street, it unquestionably succeeded in restoring confidence in downtown Atlanta as a place for investment.

Baltimore and Atlanta: Common Elements

In spite of their historic, geographic and topographic differences, Atlanta and Baltimore have followed similar paths in more recent decades. Both cities have invested heavily in professional sports facilities, which created intense periods of civic engagement needed in the effective location and planning of such major economic engines. While it might be argued that the pattern of constructing and reconstructing major sports facilities has yielded mixed results in terms of benefits to the total community, these projects do attract attention and serve to focus the communities energies, if only briefly. However, in another marker of civic engagement – elections – both Atlanta and Baltimore have seen less than stellar voter turnout in recent national, state and local contests. In that sense, the cities are part of a disturbing national trend.

Atlanta and Baltimore are also both featured in the Brookings Institution paper, "All Cities Are Not Created Unequal,” which presents a Top 10 list of large cities registering the highest levels of income inequality. At the top of the list is Atlanta, where the richest 5 percent of households earned approximately $280,000, while the poorest 20 percent earned less than $15,000. Baltimore was number 10 on the list, with the top 5 percent earning about $165,000 compared with the lowest 20 percent earning about $13,500. This is not a Top 10 list likely to be highlighted by the Chamber of Commerce – and it’s a clear indicator that both cities have serious work to do to address income inequality.

The Promise of City Accelerator

The videos submitted by Baltimore and Atlanta as part of the selection process for Cohort II of the City Accelerator clearly show leaders in each city are aware of the deficiencies that must be addressed if all of their citizens are to experience an improved quality of life. As discussed, Baltimore and Atlanta have faced great difficulties in the past and have shown real leadership in addressing the common problems faced by urban communities everywhere.

Cities are notorious for stealing successful ideas and few cities have been copied more than Atlanta and Baltimore. Even my own community, Chattanooga, has a signature downtown building designed by Atlanta's John Portman, in addition to a reclaimed and revitalized riverfront with a large fresh water aquarium that bears a strong resemblance to the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Baltimore and Atlanta have more in common than might initially meet the eye. These cities are battle-tested leaders in urban innovation and despite their difficulties, still have much to teach the rest of us.

You can help Atlanta and Baltimore’s efforts to enter the Accelerator by viewing and reviewing their pitch videos here and here.

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