Journal from Baltimore: Going back to the city’s weeds and water

We stopped for creamy smoothies at a café and market called Milk and Honey in Baltimore. After a day of touring the seemingly worn-down city, we entered a place catering to locavores and evoking in its name the Israelites’ Promised Land.

This environmentally friendly café was just one of the nontraditional green spaces we saw in Baltimore. These unconventional places—including hole-in-the-wall green cafés, wild plants growing on condemned buildings, and undeveloped stretches of waterfront—seemed to have the greatest potential for making Baltimore a healthier, happier city in the long run.

Baltimore has a reputation for high crime rates, heavy drug use, and debilitating poverty. While Maryland boasts the highest median income levels in the United States, the median income in Baltimore is 23 percent below the national average. It is the U.S. city with the second highest number of murders per year, following Detroit.

Baltimore also consistently does not make it into lists of America’s green cities. And this got me thinking.

A study in Chicago found that public housing buildings near green spaces experienced 52 percent fewer crimes than buildings with a dearth of green spaces. And while I noticed some environmentally friendly steps that Baltimore had taken—including free, eco-friendly buses and solar-power trashcans—the city lacked spaces that reflected this same green outlook. With few traditional green spaces to explore, I couldn’t help but examine the city’s unorthodox green spaces, and think about what clues they might hold for a healthy, sustainable future for Baltimore.

Upon jumping down from the bus, one of the first things that stood out was the amount of weeds that grew thickly around empty warehouses. These weeds, no doubt nurtured by the recent rains and forgotten by the city’s gardeners, formed a wreath around the wreckage. Amid cracking and rickety wooden boards, the plants grew strong. They were haphazard and unplanned, but they merited a more positive title than “weeds.”

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We also wove away from the main road to traverse a rusted bridge, surrounded by verdant bushes and adjacent to a family of tractors. This blue space, while surrounded by development and remnants of industrialism, remained peaceful and stoic, despite the noise from the nearby construction of a casino.

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This watery enclave, the weed-covered warehouses, and the green café seemed timeless, and necessarily local. These were important spaces, both from a practical standpoint and in the way they sought to heal the industrial wounds of the city’s past.

I also appreciated the planned green and blue spaces that we experienced, but I was struck by how manicured they were. (Don’t get me started on authenticity and local spirit!). For instance, the cross-shaped green park in Mount Vernon, one of Baltimore’s wealthier neighborhoods, comprised four fragmented rectangle parks, each with a fountain or a statue. This was a pleasant space of conversation, but there was a lack of fluidity and local charm from one segment to the next. (Even as we observed illustrious statues of Lafayette and Washington, questioning the legitimacy of this high and mighty location, a dog pooped right in front of us.)

As for the main blue space that we visited, the Inner Harbor, we sought to discover whether it lived up to its reputation as one of the greatest waterfront initiatives in recent American history. But from its chain restaurants to its tourist-oriented water taxis, it felt like a generic American space, despite the harbor’s rich history of commerce and industry. While we saw signage discussing this history, there did not seem to be much local or historical pride in the waterfront’s design. It was the Baltimore equivalent of New York’s Times Square or San Francisco’s Pier 39.

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Baltimore was once great because of its connection with its water, and old paintings show fishermen, mariners, and farmers all using water, together, to fuel the city’s economy. In a place where an increasing importance is placed on the local—as we saw in the form of green coffee shops—perhaps the waterfront and the parks could use a dose of local charm. Perhaps Baltimore can recapture its happy relationship with nature through sustainable urban design.

Designing harbor spaces that cater to local businesses and are more ecologically sound could boost confidence and foster a sense of local pride. Creating more green spaces—not only parks, but also plants alongside buildings and trees along the sidewalk—could lead to a healthier, safer Baltimore. Opening more blue and green spaces that aren’t divided by artificial barriers could create a more open Baltimore environment, attracting more young professionals. These steps could also boost tourism.

Before becoming too idealistic, however, I should remember trash-covered field that we passed. Fast food cartons, which once contained the opposite of local fare, lay on the grass, right next to trashcans. What a cry of protest against the city this seemed to be. Greasy wrappers curled into a ball on a bed of glorious weeds and waited for the rain, and I wondered whether green spaces were really the solution after all.

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