Interview with Chris Ryer, Baltimore City Planning Director
Chris Ryer has a history of “coming home” to Baltimore. As an emerging planner, he moved back to the city from California to be closer with family and to enroll in the University of Maryland’s Master of Community Planning program, which, at the time, was partnered with the school of social work and located in the heart of downtown Baltimore. He kicked off his career as an intern in the Baltimore City Department of Planning’s neighborhoods division, growing into a full-time position where he worked for many years. Later, Ryer served as executive director of the Southeast Community Development Corporation for 11 years. He recently returned to the Planning Department as its new director — coming home once again to the agency where he got his start. Chris Ryer sat down with current University of Maryland Community Planning students Anna Brinley and Kari Nye to discuss his career, advice for students, and his vision for Baltimore’s “future city.” The following interview was transcribed from a recording and has been condensed for clarity and readability.
Anna Brinley and Kari Nye: Tell us how you got started in planning.
Chris Ryer: The program for me was a process of moving back from California. My parents lived in D.C., and I was trying to work my way back to my grandparents who lived here, and at the time the [UMD planning master’s] program was based in downtown Baltimore as part of the School of Social Work. I went through this process of discovering the program as a way of coming home.
AB & KN: How did you get your start with Baltimore City government?
CR: Howie Baum — he was before your time — he said he thought that a planner’s job satisfaction was higher at the local level than at the state or federal level, and I listened to that. I knew I wanted to work for the city, so I went to the City Planning Department, but they wouldn’t take interns — interns were basically too much trouble. But me and this guy from Morgan State talked them into it, and so I was assigned to a neighborhood planner for Northwest Baltimore, and that's where I discovered that neighborhood planning side of things.
AB & KN: Can you describe your early work as a neighborhood planner?
CR: My first main project in Southeast Baltimore — which is where I ended up working for several years — was an urban renewal ordinance for Little Italy. The words “urban renewal” were loaded. It was a working-class community, just like today: sort of the younger folks versus the older folks. This question of development came down to a 50-50 vote. And it was decided by one vote against. It was a classic Baltimore story. Of course all meetings were in the church basement in Little Italy, and they were kind of raucous. Both sides felt very passionate about their position. They were holding the vote and it was deadlocked. I kid you not — a guy came out of the bathroom and said, “I’m against it!” And the ordinance never happened. That was 30 years ago.
AB & KN: What is the Planning Department’s approach to community development in the city?
CR: It’s what we would call a “middle neighborhood strategy”: neighborhoods that are not wealthy, not in good shape, but not highly distressed. Fifty percent of Baltimore’s population live in these middle neighborhoods — not highly distressed, but not highly successful. They could go either way. This is where the community development world plays now, because they don't typically have the resources for the distressed neighborhoods. We know in middle neighborhoods, our target areas, there are certain corridors that matter a lot: Greenmount Avenue in Waverly or Pennsylvania Avenue or any arterial in middle neighborhoods. They’re typically a mixture of residential and commercial, one of which is not really functioning in the market.
AB & KN: What can you tell us about where the city is headed?
CR: The retail world is changing dramatically and quickly, so we need to take a look at that. And we’re changing the Green Network Plan because we’re outgrowing it. The city is also in the middle of a very ambitious demolition schedule. We’re working on a ‘whole block strategy’, which is basically trying to maximize clusters of deconstruction. So we’re moving families to much better spots, to get them into a better position and to make the demolition strategy work.
Next, we’ll have an opportunity to step back for a minute and say, ‘OK, now that we're out of the immediate crisis, what kind of city are we trying to build in the future?’ We can start to look at what kind of open spaces we're creating and what kind of development sites. So that's pretty exciting — that's what we're trying to turn on right now, and there will be a big effort to figure out how to manage all this new land that's going to be a big issue.
AB & KN: What skills do you think students need in order to work as planners for Baltimore City?
CR: There's a fair amount of literature out there that 80 to 90 percent of planning jobs and planning teaching is on how to manage growth. But that's not what we're about here. If you want to work in Howard County it's very helpful to know how to manage growth. But in some ways what we do is manage decline, and so it would be very helpful if schools could get on board with that — we could help them teach that...Where we’re sort of cutting edge is in sustainability and food policy — that’s where this department shines in the national arena. Someone interested in those topics could do well here.
AB & KN: Any closing advice for hungry students? Things we should know?
CR: The nature of this work in Baltimore is not really planning; it's community development. There’s a community-organizing component, which means getting people to work together, on the same page, in the same direction, over the long haul. And there’s a real estate component. These are not many places where large-scale investment is happening. It is really incremental change over time. Lots of smaller things, knowing that you're trying to change the real estate market. We're training planners to be more holistic: look at child care, access to transportation, et cetera. That’s our core strategy.
AB & KN: Thank you so much!