Cusp In The Media

The New Urban Science

Communications Home Feature

Mosher Street, on the west side of Baltimore, could serve as the set for a feature film on urban entropy. Drive through and you’ll see block after block of century-old row houses, most of them long without residents, in mid-crumble. Endless eyesores cause headaches for a cash-strapped city like this one: among them fire, a potential for collapse, damage to occupied homes next door, and use by criminals or drug addicts.

Even more, what they call “vacants” here — around 17,000 of them — present city leaders with a persistent challenge: How do you build a vibrant city, or even renew a small part of it, when so much of it is falling apart?

Recently a Johns Hopkins statistician named Tamás Budavári, supported by the university’s new 21st Century Cities Initiative, came up with an idea: Why not use data from the city’s water system to determine which homes are newly vacant, and then inform city officials? Given a heads up, officials would have a chance to intensify homeownership incentive programs in the area or offer neighborhoods help in maintaining a property. Keeping a newly empty house from becoming an abandoned one could save the city tens of thousands of dollars in renovation or demolition costs, as well as stave off blight.

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