Thursday, June 16, 2016

Green network or backdoor for demolition?

The value of green spaces is widely recognized. Lately a study even claimed that well maintained green spaces can help reduce crime. Green spaces improve stormwater runoff, recharge groundwater, filter the air, provide space for healthy outdoor activity, provide opportunity to observe nature, can serve as an urban garden for food production, can provide shade, reduce the urban heat island effect, provide a calm respite from urban bustle and increase property values. They can also be aesthetically pleasing. What else could one wish for?
 Green Network poster: Kickoff this week

No wonder then, that the idea of tearing old dilapidated houses down in order to create green space is popular from the Governor to the Housing Department and from landscape architects to local residents. As the City Paper's Michael Farley puts it in a scathing comment column this week:
The truth is, Baltimore is overjoyed at the prospect of getting more nothing, and by god our elected officials will fight tooth and nail to get the full $700 million of it. Most community groups are probably overjoyed at the prospect of demolishing "eyesore" historic buildings and replacing them with gorgeous vacant lots. "Amber waves of grain," or something. Nothing is Baltimore's largest export and our biggest import.
It may surprise those who associate West Baltimore with barren concrete, asphalt and abandonment (following the rule that that the higher the property values, the higher the amount of green space or the leafier the neighborhoods the higher the property values), that Sandtown Winchester and many other poor communities are actually dotted with a large number of open spaces. Those spaces range from small community gardens to urban farms and from neatly tended community lots to weedy demolition sites. True, no matter how many of those green patches there are, or how well tended they are, they never add up to what makes Roland Park or Guilford so exquisite.
Open space after demolition: Community clean up

The reason is that they weren't planned with vistas and termination of view corridors in mind. They are not complementary to the buildings or elegant ways of transitioning higher and lower terrain. Thery don't line grand boulevards and they do not form recreational pathways. They are just empty lots, even if they have shrubs on them, a bench and some fancy placque. They are lots of opportunity, created in reaction to building blight not based on need or any logic that is based on urban landscape architecture. These many sites are just a wild patchwork of empty lots, far from amounting to an open spaces system or network.

The City of Baltimore wants to change that with the Green Network Plan, an effort that kicked off last night with a public meeting.
The Department of Planning is working in partnership with residents, other City agencies, nonprofit organizations and other interested entities. A highly qualified consultant team led by Biohabitats is assisting the Plan development process, using real estate data, computer mapping and environmental planning techniques. To gather public input about the needs and opportunities in target neighborhoods, Planning staff and the consultant team will conduct a series of public meetings and fully engage communities in the process.
Green corners with exposed mural adorned fire-walls are not the result of
urban design
While these objectives are laudable, caution is advisable. The green plan could just be the Trojan Horse that hides the unbridled desire to unleash a huge demolition derby fueled by the Gov's new funds. Demolition that could much more likely destroy heritage, community identity, often beautiful architecture and the potential to re-achieve the cohesion that communities need to have to once again become successful than form an open space network.

On the other hand, if done right, a really strategically developed green space network put together with green infrastructure around watersheds, recreational pathways and eco systems could become a powerful tool for healthier and more livable communities and strengthen Baltimore's overall natural sustainability at the same time.
The most likely outcome of wholesale demolition: weed fields

For that to happen the "green network plan" which the City created as the starting point would have to go a long way. From all green spaces and the tree canopies marked equally as simple land use markings a true strategic network plan would have to rank the viability of all areas on the map in terms of social, environmental and economical needs. Community preferences would have to be explored and weighed regarding recreational, ecological or social priorities. For this network plan to be successful, it has to be strategic and use criteria of green infrastructure as the starting point, not the coincidental occurrence of blight. The potential value of sites in a network can be environmental (watershed, stormwater cleaning, forestation, plant and animal habitats etc.), it can be recreational (playgrounds, trails, exercise etc.), social (memorial gardens, meeting places etc.), health or education related (food production, open air classrooms about nature), but rarely can one space be all of it at the same time. Green infrastructure is in that regard comparable to transportation infrastructure where highways, bike trails, bus-ways, passenger rail, freight lines and ferry routes all constitute the mobility network, but rarely are all elements in the same space and never do they come about without a strategic vision about the desired outcome.
No lack of green spaces: Detroit (2013 image)

Baltimore has rich history of trailblazing landscape urbanism going back to the famous Olmstead green masterplan for Baltimore that was never fully completed. It also has a rich history of neighborhoods and opulent architecture. To find the appropriate intersection between those two is a tall task.


Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

City Paper 6/15/16 Charm City Demolition Derby