Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Water Quality’

When the real estate bubble burst, it left millions of homes and businesses underwater. Baltimore is no stranger to this phenomenon: over 20,000 homes have been foreclosed upon in the last five years.

A map showing all of the foreclosures that occurred in Baltimore in 2011 - this map only displays 10% of the properties foreclosed upon in the last 5 years

With communities across the country still feeling the effects of the foreclosures and lost jobs, a new study is showing how we can make the best of a bad situation. The Red Fields to Green Fields research effort is attempting to document the effects of taking “red fields”, properties with zero or negative property value, and turning them into “green fields”, public or quasi-public green spaces.

So far the study has taken a look at six cities: Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Miami, Denver and Wilmington, DE. Each city has its own unique issues but each sees red field to green field conversion as an opportunity and each has something in common with Baltimore.

Atlanta has one of the lowest parkland acreage to population ratios of any large city in the U.S. and hopes to change that by converting 2,850 acres of vacant land inside I-285 into parks. Meanwhile, in suburban Atlanta, 13,000 acres of available land will be removed from the market to create green space, strengthening the real estate market and communities.

A map showing all of the vacant lots within Atlanta's I-285

Cleveland is focusing some of its efforts on improving water quality. Cleveland’s red field plans involve taking some formerly occupied land and using it to implement neighborhood-scale solutions such as a small wetland or park. Proposals also recommend increasing the amount of vegetation along stream corridors draining into Lake Erie.

Using vacant space, Cleveland plans to create small wetland parks that aim to increase the area's ability to absorb and filter stormwater

Denver and Miami are putting a lot of effort and money into creating parks near proposed and existing rail stations. It seems that governments have realized that, in order for Transit Oriented Development (TOD) to be successful, new development must have access to parkland as well as transit.

A map of park expansion and how it would reinforce Transit Oriented Development in Denver

Miami, on the other hand, sees Transit Oriented Parks as potential centers for new neighborhoods and as a way to increase transit ridership by making the area around the station more livable.

A before and after rendering of a Transit Oriented Park in Miami

Philadelphia is taking a look at the inequity in available green space. Some neighborhoods have access to wonderful  parks while others are entirely without access. Many of the areas without access to parks are also areas with an excess of vacant land.

A map of Philadelphia showing access to parkland

Wilmington has perhaps the most interesting and relevant proposals. The city is faced with neighborhoods facing shortages of green space and large scale abandonment and vacancy problems. Each of these issues contributes to a cycle of disinvestment and a continued decrease in property values (sound familiar, Baltimoreans?). Wilmington intends to remove blighted and vacant properties from the real estate market and, more importantly, the neighborhood. By converting these properties into “pocket parks”, the neighborhoods would, ideally, begin to stabilize themselves.

A formerly abandoned row house in Wilmington has been converted to a small green space

Perhaps what’s most intriguing about Wilmington’s plan is its small scale and neighborhood-level impact. Wilmington’s approach is only estimated to cost about $22 million; the other proposals, however, are estimated to cost over $1 billion and some will cost much more than that. Baltimore is not a city rolling in cash and, therefore, the small solutions may work best here. That said, there’s something Baltimore can learn from each of the proposals above.

1.) From Atlanta – a row house does not need to remain a row house. Analysis of the supply and demand in a neighborhood would likely show the need for more demolition and open space conversion.

2.) From Cleveland – converting small parcels into natural areas can make a difference in water quality. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor suffers from terrible water quality while the City has an overabundance of vacant properties, there’s a solution in the making here.

3.) From Denver – transit isn’t everything to TOD. Developments planned around Baltimore’s proposed Red Line must have access to parks as well as transit.

4.) From Miami – surrounding transit centers with parkland can be a great way of reinforcing a neighborhood’s center and increasing transit ridership. Creating nodes where transit and parkland intersect could create vibrant neighborhoods.

5.) From Philadelphia – equal access to green space is more important than having more or larger parks. Greenways and small open spaces are great ways to ensure that everyone has access to a park.

6.) From Wilmington – low cost, neighborhood level solutions can be an effective revitalization technique. Sometimes the large-scale solutions intimidate Baltimore. Well, sometimes a small park in the right place can change a whole block. Put it on a corner, and it could change two blocks. Baltimore should make the most of its vacant properties and use them as instruments for neighborhood revitalization.

Read Full Post »

A recent post on The Atlantic Cities website tallies up the economic benefits of urban trees. Each tree in Tennessee’s cities was found to have $2.25 in “measurable economic benefit” each year. The City of Baltimore holds between 2.6 and 2.8 million trees, depending on the source you consult. If the economic benefits hold consistent between Tennessee and Maryland, Baltimore saves between $5.85 and $6.3 million each year. The City of Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks measures the benefits of its trees differently, calculating the following economic benefits:

  • $3.3 million a year in energy savings by shading buildings from the summer sun and blocking winter winds.
  • $10.7 million a year by storing 527 tons of carbon
  • $3.8 million a year by removing 700 metric tons of air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide
  • $1.6 million a year by removing 244 metric tons of ozone, the main ingredient in smog and a leading factor contributing to asthma

According to the Baltimore Tree Trust, Baltimore’s tree canopy has declined by one third and only covers about 25% of Baltimore’s land area. The goal of the Tree Trust is to increase the City’s tree canopy to 40% of its surface area by 2040. This seems like a pretty modest goal, but in order to achieve this goal, Baltimore City and its residents must plant a total of 750,000 trees over the next 28 years or about 26,000 trees per year. Baltimore City cannot do this by itself (the City doesn’t even plant 10,000 trees per year) but that’s only about 1.2 trees per person. So, as with so many other lofty goals, the key to reforesting Baltimore is public involvement.

A map of Baltimore’s tree canopy

In order to encourage people to plant trees in their neighborhood or on their property, it might be helpful to share some facts. For example, all property owners should know that both heating and cooling costs are reduced by 10% due to the tempered winds and shade provided by trees. Businesses might like to know that shoppers prefer shopping on tree-lined streets. In fact, shoppers tend to spend more time on shadier streets and are willing to pay %11 more for goods and services sold on such streets. Home values also tend to rise in areas with lots of trees. Finally, every taxpayer in Baltimore should know that neighborhoods with more street trees often have lower rates of violent and property crime.

Every city could benefit from more trees but Baltimore, in particular, has some issues that trees could help to address. With summer fast approaching, most Baltimoreans are not looking forward to the prospect of being outside in June, July, August and even September. A small amount of shade can make a huge difference in terms of reducing the Urban Heat Island Effect.

In order to combat this effect and increase its own canopy, Baltimore County, which suffers less from this effect than does Baltimore City, sells trees native to Maryland at a reduced rate. A similar program in Baltimore City could have a significant impact. Of course the residents are the ones who will make the biggest difference. Unfortunately, many Baltimoreans don’t have access to a car and can’t get to a nursery let alone bring a tree home. In order to reach its goal of a 40% land-cover tree canopy, strong partnerships must be forged between neighborhood associations, residents, the City and non-profits like Baltimore Green Works and The Baltimore Tree Trust. There is also no shortage of innovative programs across the country that aim to reduce the Heat Island Effect, any number of these programs could work well in Baltimore and help to address the other factors that contribute to the Heat Island Effect.

Read Full Post »

There has been a common theme in the news recently: invest now, save later. There are two huge issues before Maryland’s legislature. One involves raising the gas tax; the other involves raising billions of dollars for school improvements and construction in Baltimore City. The common thread is the need now and the payoff later.

The Gas Tax:

There is a lot of opposition to the gas tax but there is also a demonstrated need for it: just last year, Maryland passed New York as the state with the highest average commute time– almost 32 minutes. The gas tax would pay for much needed improvements to roads, bridges and mass transit. These projects would help to lower commute time and repair the State’s ailing infrastructure in other areas. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reported that Maryland’s water systems (both drinking and wastewater) need $9.4 Billion in investment over the next 20 years. Water quality improvements are not just for the benefit of the Chesapeake Bay, they will ensure Marylanders’ access to safe drinking water.

The ASCE also reported that in Maryland:

  • 29% of bridges are structurally deficient
  • 44% of Major Roads are in mediocre or poor condition and
  • 55% of Major Urban Highways are congested

Traffic on I-83 - lane closures caused by high water - a sign of things to come without investment in stormwater management and transportation infrastructure

Rebuilding Maryland’s infrastructure should be a high priority even for those who will pay more at the pump. Those same Marylanders who are opposed to a gas tax hike are likely the ones will suffer most from increased commute times as a result of inaction. The Baltimore Sun recently exposed the dangers of  allowing the State’s infrastructure to fall apart and the threat of such degradation on an already fragile economy.

Education:

A bill before the Maryland General Assembly would help Baltimore City reach its goal of raising $2.8 billion to put toward improving the City’s schools, many of which lack basics such as heating and cooling systems. Many in Maryland are not in favor of the bill including the Executive Director of the Public School Construction Program, David Lever. Mr. Lever’s criticism is that, if passed, this bill would grant the City a larger amount of money than other jurisdictions which he insists is not “fair”. However, a quick look at the map below will show that Baltimore’s request isn’t about fairness, it’s about need.

A map showing the conditions of various Baltimore City Schools

The allocation of money to Baltimore City over other jurisdictions may not be “fair” from a statewide perspective but it is smart: if the State does not act now, the $2.8 billion will likely grow to 3, 4 or even 5 billion dollars.In other words, the State’s unwillingness to act now will cost taxpayers later. In fact, a recent op-ed in the Baltimore Sun suggests “that for every $1 invested in early childhood education, society saves as much as $16, offsetting the cost of remedial education, teen pregnancies, juvenile delinquency and incarceration.” That kind of return is one most investors can only dream of and hardly one the State can afford to pass up.

Though investment in our schools may be fiscally responsible, it isn’t about the money. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, understands that and has proposed a $300 million bond to the Baltimore City Council which would be paid for by an increased bottle tax. Baltimore’s kids can’t wait; according to a report issued by Baltimore City Public Schools, students are being taught in schools built an average of 40 years ago, the highest average age of school buildings in the State. Meanwhile, the $32 million made available by the State to the City for school construction in 2012 is barely enough to make the repairs necessary to keep old schools operational. Baltimore’s public schools need a big investment now in order to turn them into great places to learn.

Read Full Post »

What is the Jones Falls, an expressway or a stream?

Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun, a photo of traffic on the JFX

Courtesy of Urbanite Magazine, a photo of the Jones Falls

The answer probably depends on who you ask. Sadly, the Jones Falls has been branded as an expressway. We hear it every day on TV and radio traffic reports and it doesn’t help that over 100,000 vehicles and over 35,000 transit riders use the corridor it forms to get to work every day. In reality, the Jones Falls is not a thoroughfare, it’s a stream that runs from north to south through Baltimore meeting up with the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River or Inner Harbor at its mouth. The Jones Falls Watershed comprises 58 square miles of urban and suburban Baltimore.

The pink area on the map represents the Jones Falls watershed. The yellow area represents the Direct Harbor watershed and the blue section is the Gwynns Falls watershed.

A Little History

The ravine-like valley formed by the Jones Falls used to be a hub for mill activity. Industrial uses along the Jones Falls began disappearing when waterpower became a thing of the past.

A bird's eye view of Penn Station and the Jones Falls prior to the construction of I-83 - the bridge in the foreground is the St. Paul Street bridge.

It has since become a transit right of way that carries commuters into Baltimore via the Light Rail, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and the eponymous expressway. The Jones Falls Expressway, or JFX, was completed in the early 1960’s up to Guilford Avenue. The expressway follows the path of the Jones Falls for almost about 7 miles toward its southern end.

A view of the Jones Falls corridor from the St. Paul Street bridge after the construction of the JFX

The Human and Environmental Costs

The Jones Falls Trail, like the JFX, follows the stream and provides important recreational access for Baltimoreans living in the northern half of the city.

A map of the Jones Falls Trail with the portion yet to be built in purple

However, starting just south of Penn Station, there is almost no public access to and no visibility of the stream itself. This is perhaps one of the largest issues that results from having a highway that follows and, in some cases, covers the stream. A visit to a park or other area where one can connect with the environment and see the importance of the stream ought to be more of a possibility. Unfortunately, the Jones Falls ends unceremoniously as a spillway, essentially eliminating public access to the stream as it becomes a concrete trough, designed to carry water efficiently to its outlet at the Inner Harbor. Despite comprising a relatively small portion of its total watershed, these final miles are perhaps the most important.

Over the course of these two miles:

1.)  The Jones Falls runs either underneath highways and roads or out of sight and out of mind. Exposing the Jones Falls to the public in Downtown Baltimore could go a long way toward creating a greater respect for Baltimore’s waterways.

2.)  The population density increases fairly dramatically meaning a greater number of people have less access to the stream and may not be aware of the impact that littering and other forms of pollution have on the Inner Harbor, the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay.

3.)  The amount of pervious land such as parks, lawns and fields (anything not covered in concrete or asphalt) decreases which amplifies the effect that pollutants have as they cannot be absorbed by or filtered through the soil and go directly into Baltimore’s Waterways.

There are obviously more factors contributing to the overall pollution of the Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay but a campaign to reconnect the Jones Falls to the downtown neighborhoods through which it runs could help turn this forgotten waterway into a cleaner one.

What’s Next?

The Jones Falls Expressway needs to be reinforced, rethought or torn down in the next ten years. The Infrastructurist, an infrastructure and urban design blog, ranked it as one of the most important highways to tear down. If the highway is to be removed, a new urban boulevard could solve a lot of problems that the elevated portion of the JFX has created.

What an urban boulevard might look like

There is a tremendous opportunity to reincorporate the Jones Falls itself into Baltimore’s urban fabric, connect formerly divided neighborhoods and add options for parkland and transit. An excellent design option that is truly ambitious and goes far above and beyond many other proposals can be found here.

A rendering of the proposed Jones Falls Boulevard including a riverfront promenade, tram line, bike lane and infill buildings

The entire proposal can be found on Envision Baltimore’s Blog. The proposal, by Marc Szarkowski, would promote access to the Jones Falls, provide for a bike-able corridor and a transit friendly one, presenting alternatives to automotive use. Though definitely far from a reality, this proposal would make central Baltimore into a much more beautiful urban environment.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: