Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Green space for urban regeneration

Cities have a rich history of using green spaces strategically for value creation, although the Olmsted brothers or General Oglethorpe wouldn't have it described that way when they planned urban parks in many US cities (Olmsted) or the 22 green squares in Savannah (Oglethorpe).

D center event poster designed by Zoe Clarkwest
Today green space in the city doesn't just have to look good or provide a romantic connection to nature, it also needs to leverage economic development, enable equity, provide food in food deserts, be a place for education and innovation and enable urban regeneration. This is such a tall order that most of reality has little to do with these lofty goals: More often than not, urban green spaces are leftover spots with no strategic import other than hiding disinvestment in impoverished communities as little fig leaves. Those spaces are the result of neglect or demolition, not planning.

As part of their successful series of "Design Conversations" D center brought together a panel of individuals in Conversation #79, each proving what green spaces can do in spite of the fact that so many of them were created more by accident than by design.
Each panelist shed light on the role of open spaces from a different angle and with a different perspective.

Design Conversations had sagged in recent months. To entice folks to give the Conversations another chance, D center provided free first drinks and snacks at the venue at WindUp Space in Station North, a gallery and event space run by Russell de Ocampo, one of the original pioneers turning Station North around.

All panelists emphasized their goal of strengthening the local, disenfranchised communities they work in by employing jobless people or those on re-entry after incarceration, by providing healthy food in food deserts, by growing skills that can be used right in the community and by eliminating blight.
Design Conversation #79 (photo: Philipsen)

Elder CW Harris, also known as the "Mayor of Sandtown", a spiritual leader who works in many ways on the transformation of Sandtown spoke first. He assists and leads in a multitude of non-profits under the umbrella of Clergy United for the Transformation of Sandtown and Intersection of Change, a group of which includes Martha’s Place, a transitional house for women, Jubilee Arts, a program that teaches arts and dance to people of all ages, and Strength to Love 2, an urban farming program. The farm program helps re-entries to become productive with 16 greenhouses erected on demolition lots on 2 acres of land in the middle of Sandtown.
Elder Harris told the audience that the urban farm includes a facility for rain collection, that it is trying to eliminate what he calls food blight and that his operations are totally open and still largely free of vandalism. The one time a "hoop house" (The plastic sheets covered green house) was burnt down by someone, 75 people showed up the next day to rebuild it.
Elder CW Harris at the Sandtown Hoop Farm
(photo: Philipsen)

 J.J. Reidy, Founder and CEO of Urban Pastoral who started out as a history Major, founded the development firm Urban Pastoral in 2014 as an entrepreneur, global food activist and social entrepreneur who has collected experience internationally in places like Milan, Italy, Ethiopia. His work on developing urban food ecosystems has been recognized at the World Expo, Bon App├ętech, and Food Tech in Stockholm.
Reidy said that Urban Pastoral wants to employ principles of symbiosis and plant design in social systems. They partner in Baltimore with Humanim which built their headquarters in East Baltimore in the former brewery on the hill, has received an Abell grant for proof of concept. Reidy explained the concept of hydroponic plant growth in nutrient rich water that is also employed by the Sandtown hoop farm. This way Urban Pastoral  can produce 100 pounds of produce a week, even in winter and provide food for a winter CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). From his international background Reidy concluded that  "in the US we don't use our land efficiently because we don't have to". bringing derelict land back into use in East Baltimore is a test. for being more careful with the land. Urban Pastoral is selling food to Hopkins, restaurants in what he called a symbiotic network of businesses. His most recent foray is a 700 sf restaurant in the Remington R House that created created 13 jobs. (His operation also provide salads to try out at the event).
The next step for the company will be to bring the farm up to the next level. He sees a large market in the city where 90% of produce comes from outside the market. As an example of an integrated eco-system he showed a sketch of an envisioned operation in conjunction with the Peabody Brewery where he would use the brewery byproducts. " Food deserts are more about job creation than food" he said and described his approach as one of urban regeneration. He thinks that lots of countries are looking at Baltimore and how we are solving our problems here. 

Richard May, expanded further on the aspects of urban regeneration and economic inclusion. May is Chairman of Innovation Village Baltimore, a multi-sector partnership anchored by the
Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Coppin State University, City of Baltimore, and State of
Maryland which seeks to revitalize West Baltimore through economic inclusion, equitable access to
opportunities, job creation, entrepreneurship, and small business.
Innovation Hub at Madison Park North (Rendering: CBH Architects)
Innovation Village is Baltimore’s 1st innovation business district and covers over 1200 acres of "culturally rich and historic neighborhoods" in West Baltimore. Richard comes from the private sector where he had been with Deloitte, the world’s largest consulting firm, providing business and IT advisory expertise to global technology firms. He is also has been supporting startups with equity. The Mount Royal Community Development Corporation Board of Directors is currently the official anchor of Innovation Village. May asked "What the hell does innovation district mean?" and explained that "we have all the talent in the area. We want a better community and we want to do it together. This city has more creative talent per square mile than any other city, hands down." He talked about the "peanut butter and jelly" approach how to include include everybody, the so called "white L" of Baltimore (where the wealth is concentrated) and asked "do our investments benefit the majority of people most of the time?".  May still has his hands full trying to convince the many organizations active in West Baltimore for years, that he is not just an interloper. With the rebuild of the former "murder mall" complex as Madison North  with a 50,000sf  innovation hub real tangible progress will be the proof that Innovation Village is truly a path forward.

Finally, China Boak Terrell spoke about the much discussed new Food Hub in East Baltimore to which she came only in June of last year. She is CEO of American Communities Trust (ACT) and, like Richard May, comes with a blend of community and corporate experience. Boak Terrell has served as a corporate lawyer leading multi-million dollar transactions, as business developer, liaison and advisor to agency heads, elected officials, and corporate leaders. She was also General Counsel for the District of Columbia's legislative committee on human services. In her first 100 days of  joining American Communities Trust she raised $2 million for the continuation of the Baltimore Food Hub project, still not enough money as she said, but construction could finally begin in September '16 after she closed on the property acquisition.  ACT has issued nearly $50k in low-cost performance-based loans to local food entrepreneurs. ACT is planning to launch the next phase of its strategic planning.
China Boak Terrell speaks about the Food Hub
(Photo: Philipsen)

China described the location of the food hub north of the Amtrak tracks as a place "where Johns Hopkins owns nothing" and where the hub "will bring the energy of south of the track to the north." The purpose of the "the Baltimore Food Hub is ... to bring the Maryland Food economy to Baltimore". She said  "JJ [Reid] is digging in where poor people are. By having job opportunities that target people with disabilities and below the poverty line the food economy makes it easier to enter the market." She came back to Baltimore  because "every time we came to Baltimore we had so much fun. My husband is such a foody" she explained. "We are not about aggregation and distribution. We are not a Food hall. What are doing is co-locating food businesses from farm to table."  She said food access is also about learning what choices to make". Referring to the title of the event, she stated that "the common space is outside". The Food Hub "site was owned by the city for over a 200 years and degraded severly. We are giving it back to the community as a green space". She acknowledged that the project was stuck for a long time because "the numbers don't make sense. Who is going to fund it". She says the project almost entirely depends on grant dollars.

Robbyn Lewis, a community activist, invited to be part of the panel, could not attend because the event fell on the day where she was sworn in as a delegate in Annapolis.
Russell de Ocampo

Event organizers Zoe Clarkwest and Lori Rubeling are hopeful that this Design Conversation can be the rejuvenation of the popular D center event series at the Windup Space. Owner Russel de Ocampo was happy with the energy in the room. A conversation about transportation is planned for the first Tuesday in February.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

I am a co-founder of D-center and a continuing board member of the non-profit.


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