Demand More Tactical Urbanism

The Maryland Avenue cycletrack is almost completely in place. This is fantastic news for anyone who wants people to be able to move safely through the city, which should be everyone. It takes a massive effort to shepherd an infrastructure project like this from inception to completion.

Bikemore first adopted the cycletrack as an advocacy priority back in 2011. Since then advocates had to overcome many bureaucratic hurdles, from finding funding and passing lengthy reviews to managing redesigns and balancing contradictory design standards. The result is a government-sanctioned, well-constructed piece of bike infrastructure Baltimore can be proud of. The only problem is it took half a decade to get there.

 There is another approach: just building it ourselves. Of course, this approach that doesn’t replace commendable work slog of working through traditional channels, but can complement it. Recently, the San Francisco Municipal Transformation Authority (SFMTrA) has been getting a lot of press for successfully creating DIY interventions on stretches of the city’s streets where cyclists and pedestrians have been killed, injured, or put in danger by drivers. The interventions, usually classified as tactical urbanism, are very low cost and direct. Sometimes are as simple as placing cones along an unprotected bike lane or using a few flowerpots to make a temporary bulb-out at an intersection. The idea is to immediately provide a safer environment while pressuring the local transportation agency to be more proactive about creating safer streets.

The SFMTrA isn’t alone in staging these forms of direct action. Groups in Seattle, New York, Denver, and Boston have been making similar efforts, some even using crowdfunding platforms to raise money for materials. A few years ago, a group in Baltimore installed some temporary lanes as well.

 The types of interventions have been successful on multiple fronts.

They make streets safer immediately. Drivers respond to the placement of barriers and lines by slowing down and staying in their lanes more often.

  1. They highlight the need and desire for these types of physical changes. Cyclists definitely notice when they are no longer buzzed careless drivers, and pedestrians feel the difference when crossing a street. Both groups get a better understanding of how things could change for the better.

  2. They demonstrate that streets can be improved both quickly and at a low cost. When residents see how quickly things can be upgraded they are more likely to pressure politicians and agencies to keep and build on these facilities (#DemandMore catalogs this effect).

 These effects add up to long term change. For instance, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency announced it will allow some guerrilla bike barriers to stand until it can install official ones.

 Tactical urbanism doesn’t always have to be unsanctioned guerilla efforts. Governments can use an action-oriented, low-cost, experimentally-minded approach, too. A more famous example is when NYC’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan oversaw the temporary transformation of Times Square into a pedestrian plaza using folding lawn chairs. Of course, the experiment showed the idea was both popular and not a disaster, so the change was made permanent. Baltimore’s own BCDOT made an attempt with it’s pop-up cycletrack that ran for a few blocks along East Pratt Street.

Unfortunately, the lane was only planned to be in place for three weeks even though it was completely functional. It would be nice to see more of these projects attempted but with more of a plan for making successful experiments permanent. Personally, I know that there is a faded bike lanes that would stand a little bit of guerrilla protection.

Connectography and Megacities

Last week the a report from the Brookings Institution named Baltimore a global “knowledge capital,” placing it in the same category as 18 other cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Zurich, and Amsterdam. According to the report, all these mid-sized cities have economies based on knowledge creation and rely on elite universities, a talented workforce, and “relatively sound infrastructure connectivity.” The report goes on to say that while knowledge capitals are currently higher achieving than their peers by some standards (GDP, productivity, patent generation), they must increase foreign investment and manage housing costs to stay relevant in the future.

 Considering that Baltimore consistently ranks as one of the most affordable cities on the east coast, and is currently working with Brookings’ own Global Cities Initiative to create a foreign investment strategic plan, this all seems like pretty good news.

 In his book Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, Parag Khanna argues that cities, not states, are the dominant forces in shaping the world and that increased global connectivity is the key to a successful city. Throughout the book, Khanna is very sanguine about the power of connectivity and will occasionally push his narrative past the point of credibility (in fact, is brand of big-picture TED-talk delivery has been called “globaloney”). However, on the whole, his contention that a city’s connective infrastructure is a fair barometer of its health, relevance, and power is sound.

 In his new city-centered map of the world, Khanna includes Baltimore as one part of the northeastern megalopolis. This unit, consisting of the archipelago of urban areas stretching from Boston to DC, holds more than 50 million people and accounts for more than 20% of the country’s GDP. So Baltimore is enmeshed in an emerging mega-cities which will only increase in power. This also seems like pretty good news.

 Baltimore’s inclusion as part of the a globally-connected megacity undoubtedly helped it achieve its status as a knowledge capital. Being a short train ride from both NYC and DC has been cited as part of Baltimore’s appeal to tech entrepreneurs. While regional connectivity via Acela is helpful for staying in touch with the financiers and talent pools up and down the coast, internal connective infrastructure is just as important. Unfortunately, Baltimore’s weak connective infrastructure is hampering its ability to succeed as knowledge capital while also limiting who is able to benefit from the gains it does make.

 This report from the the Abell Foundation points out that the “creative class,” the type of people who would drive a knowledge capital’s economy, prefer living in urban areas that are “walkable and bikeable, and have effective public transit.” This is both a lifestyle preference and a pragmatic one as these types of infrastructure increase an area’s effective density allowing greater collaboration between individuals and organizations while increasing positive network effects. This lack of mobility inside of the city is of of the reasons Baltimore is home to only about 350 startups while Boston, a similarly-sized city is home to nearly 2000. As the report puts it:

 Travelling from Fells Point—an attractive neighborhood for young potential entrepreneurs—to Hopkins’ Homewood campus, for example, requires a 5 mile/ 30 minute bus ride, and it is considered unusual for students to use public transportation to get between them. An analogous trip in Boston—between, say, Jamaica Plain and Harvard University—can be easily done via the “T.”

 Compounding this problem is that the connective infrastructure that is in place only serves a portion of the population. More than a third of Baltimore residents do not even own a car, yet many parts of the city do not have access to effective public transportation. What transit exists best serves whiter and wealthier neighborhoods. This means that even where the knowledge capital economy is creating jobs, many people, especially from certain neighborhoods, cannot get to them. It’s great the there are places like Open Works and Betamore, but to someone living in Edmondson or Westport, what good are these markers innovation if they are physically inaccessible. The absurd cancellation of the Red Line ensure that this problem will continue into the future.

As this map from the Baltimore Chop helpfully illustrates, the Charm City Circulator leaves out many majority-minority neighborhoods.

Poor transportation infrastructure isn’t the only connectivity gap holding the city back. Baltimore’s communications infrastructure is also lacking. Only 70% of Baltimore homes have internet connectivity (again, with the holes mostly being in poorer minority neighborhoods) and the internet connections that do exist are not up to the speeds available in other parts of the east coast megalopolis. This ongoing struggle prevents some neighborhoods, and really the city as a whole, from really being an effective knowledge capital. And even while Baltimore is home to fairly successful startup accelerators and tech incubators, these programs only serve a small portion of the population. The city does not have the financial infrastructure in place to allow its wider population to be economically productive. Again, this divide usually falls along racial lines. When black residents are struggling to get a simple home loan, it’s not surprising that African Americans also have the lowest rate of business ownership in the city.

All these factors add up to Baltimore really only being a knowledge capital for a few. It also means the city is less likely to benefit in Khanna’s world of rising global megacities. Not exactly good news.

Dream Cities: Monuments

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This spring the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore will spend more than six million dollars to revamp Preston Gardens, a three-acre strip of park that runs along St. Paul Street between Mt. Vernon and downtown. As a park, it’s a little strange. It’s got fantastic Beaux-Arts details and a grand stairway, but it’s also sandwiched between two high auto-traffic roads and is much longer than it is wide. This odd bit of green space is a leftover of Baltimore’s brief flirtation with the City Beautiful movement, a urban design philosophy that was all the rage at the turn of the century. The second chapter of Dream Cities, Monuments, discusses how the City Beautiful movement and it’s boosters Daniel Burnham and Frederick Olmsted deeply influenced the shape of cities across the world. Baltimore is no exception.

A rendering of a possible future for Preston Gardens, courtesy of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

The origin of the City Beautiful movement is usually traced to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fair, which hosted nearly 30 million visitors over the few months it was open, was centered around the White City built on the outskirts of Chicago. Designed by Burnham in collaboration with other leading architects, the White City was constructed completely from scratch which allowed it to conform to the exact vision Burnham had for the model city. Rejecting the modern skyscrapers and cleaner facades beginning to appear in American skylines, Burnham opted for building in a stately neoclassical style. The final product was a vision of a new type of city. Gleaming white buildings complete with massive domes and  imposing columns were arranged along broad promenades and set among lush gardens.

 The architecture and design of the fair were widely praised. The grandiose buildings recalled classical Rome and other European capitals, which spoke many American’s rising desire to be seen as a world power. Additionally, the wide boulevards, parks, lakes, and plazas were seen as cures for the stifling crowds and dirty streets found in America’s growing cities, which made the design appeal the ascendent progressive movement. If the United States was to become a respected imperial power and do away with it’s social ills, it’s cities should look like the White City. They should be massive, and monumental, and inspire civic pride through powerful architure.

 From here the movement took off. Throughout the early 1900s many cities tore out entire neighborhoods—unsurprisingly, usually the homes of minorities, immigrants, and the poor—and replaced them with broad boulevards and civic centers. These civic centers were supposed to inspire a more dignified and productive citizenry with imposing courthouses, art museums, banks, and monuments. The most famous of these projects are the National Mall in DC, the Group Plan in downtown Cleveland, and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway museum district in Philadelphia. These reforms and aesthetic adornments did inspire civic pride and provide new much-appreciated greenspace. However, they mostly did so for the elites, at the expense of marginalized groups. Which leads us to Baltimore.

In 1910, Baltimore was still rebuilding from the 1904 fire when Frederick Olmsted was hired to work with the architecture firm Carrère and Hastings to put together a master plan for the city. Like many City Beautiful plans, the final design called for creating a monumental civic center based around City Hall (which ended up as War Memorial Plaza) and a grand boulevard up what is now the JFX (which never came to fruition). The plan also included Preston Gardens, which was supposed to serve as a monumental connector between the plaza and the Washington Monument in Mt. Vernon.

 While this plan would create a picture-perfect scene you could slap on a postcard, constructing Preston Gardens required removing anything in it’s path, which in this case was Gallows Hill, a wealthy black neighborhood. As Antero Pietila  points out in his book Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City, this was not a problem for then-mayor James H. Preston. Preston, a proud defender of segregation, broke new ground in the field of racist city planning. In 1917 he condemned large swaths of the neighborhood as slums arguing that the black population “constitut[ed] a menace to the health of the white population.”  In the ensuing years, he forcibly relocated the residents and make way for his gardens.

War Memorial Plaza
Baltimore, trying to fit into the City Beautiful movement.
The proposed Baltimore Civic Center
Sketch showing the unrealized City Beautiful plan.
  The gardens still stand today, though Baltimore’s entire beautification project never panned out on the scale it did in other cities. As Community Architect Daily puts it, “Baltimore has a way of pragmatically muddling through instead of letting one big idea get the upper hand for too long and so Preston Gardens was soon to be brutally bisected by the Orleans Street Viaduct.” As for the project’s aim of creating a model city for a healthier body politic, the results are just as muddled. While many may feel the swell of civic pride standing on War Memorial Plaza, the ramifications from Preston’s racist beautification project and other like it are still playing out in the inequalities Baltimore struggles with today.

But here’s something: There have recently been calls to rename Preston Gardens, dropping the name of our racist former mayor and instead honoring Henrietta Lacks. While the change wouldn’t do much to remedy the material harm caused by Preston, it would be fitting as a monument. The gardens were supposed improve the health of Baltimore’s citizens, and on this front, Lacks certainly contributed more than Preston ever did.

This post is part two of a series that uses Dream Cities as a guide to explore how different urban planning ideas have shaped Baltimore.

The Other Intersectionality

Later this week, Bikemore will be pairing up with public artist Graham Coreil-Allen to create a temporary crosswalk connecting Auchentoroly Terrace to Druid Hill Park. The idea is to create a “demonstration crosswalk” and have supporters walk and bike across the path to show their support for more walkable infrastructure.

This location makes a lot of sense for this type of action; while Druid Hill contains all types of amenities resident want, the park is separated from the adjoining Woodbrook neighborhood by up to eight lanes of automobile traffic. Even with traffic signals, these lanes create a barrier that deters pedestrians from interacting with the park.

This is a problem throughout Baltimore, where hundreds of pedestrians are struck by automobiles a year, often while attempting to cross at designated intersections. This problem is only exacerbated where heavily traffic roads create barriers to destinations. Community Architect Daily has discussed this at length as it relates to the Inner Harbor.

  

 There are ways to makes crossings and intersections safer for pedestrians, many of which involved adding physical features that slow automobile traffic and force drivers to be more attentive to the the movement of their car. These include things like bump outs, raised crossings, and tight curb radii. San Francisco has adopted many of these features in their guidelines for creating more pedestrian friendly intersections. NextCity also has a fairly good round up of pedestrian-friendly features.

 It’s obvious to anyone who has walked in Baltimore that the city does not embody many of these standards, much to the detriment of anyone not in car. Even areas with high pedestrian traffic still use beg buttons, are missing curb cuts, or even lack marked crossings.

There are small signs of hope, though. For instance, BDOT is experimenting with adding a Barnes Dance to the intersection at Pratt and Gay Streets downtown. Popularized by Henry Barnes, who once served as Baltimore’s traffic commissioner, the Barnes Dance is an intersection with a pedestrian-only signal phase that allows people cross from every direction at once.

While car-centric engineering has removed a lot of these types of intersections, they are making a comeback in many major cities. DC has recently installed a Dance at the intersection of 7 and H in Chinatown complete with bright and colorful crossing markings which clearly mark the intersection as being open to pedestrians. While a Barnes Dance isn’t appropriate for the Auchentoroly Terrace crossing, there are many intersections in the city that could benefit from prioritizing pedestrians in this way. I hope Bikemore and Coreil-Allen continue setting up demonstration crosswalks across the city. If we’re lucky, Baltimore will hop on this trend and begin putting some of our local artists to work creating colorful, ped-friendly intersections of our own.

Dream Cities: Castles

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This past week I have been reading Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World by Wade Graham. In each chapter the book covers a different way of understanding a city, how it should look, how it should function, and what kind of lives it should facilitate. The chapters are mostly structured around biography of various thinkers―Le Corbusier, for example―and how, their ideas took root and shaped urban landscapes. While this approach occasionally leaves out broader structural factors in favor of Big Man history, the book does a fantastic job showing how the built environment is often a product of ideology. I want to go through each chapter and see how each concept applies to Baltimore.

The first concept Graham looks at is castles, and he does this through the lives of architects Bertram Goodhue and Frederick Law Olmsted. Both Goodhue and Olmsted were highly celebrated architects in the decades around the turn on the 19th century (And they were wildly prolific. Even if you haven’t been to Olmsted’s most famous work, NYC’s central park, you’ve probably been on one of the hundreds of college campuses he designed). They worked at a time when industrialization was taking hold in the West and cities were absorbing large numbers of the rural poor to work their booming factories. The resulting soot and squalor was a major cause for concern and cities increasingly became associated with danger, vice, and a general fallen moral state (think Dickens’ portrayal of London). Those who could afford to leave, did.

This is where Goodhue and Olmsted come in. Fueled by a general anti-urban ethos and a romantic vision of pre-industrial life, these architects helped created the first railroad suburbs. These were bedroom communities built on the outskirts of cities, far enough away to be removed the bustle of the city but still connected by rail. These suburbs employed ornamental architecture to conjure the past and create an illusion of unspoiled rural life. Stand alone houses were built to resemble English manors, Mediterranean villas, or Gothic castles. Resplendent with winding roads, large yards, and well-kept gardens, these communities offered the upper classes the fantasy of living in a country estate without sacrificing the ability to still operate a factory downtown.

One of the earliest examples of this set up is Roland Park here in Baltimore, which was partially designed by Olmsted. The folks over at Ghosts of Baltimore go into lots of detail about the history of this suburb, though I think it’s also interesting to look at how the ideas behind its construction are still legible today. For instance, the streetscape and layout.

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Looking at a map, you can see that the layout of Roland Park departs from the fairly consistent street grid that makes up the majority of central Baltimore. Grids, of course, were too urban and unfashionable. They were an artifact the the vice-filled city which should be forgotten as soon as you step off your train home. Same goes with connected row houses. While just a bit south row houses dominate the city, here you’ll only find large, unattached homes in English Tudor, Georgian, and British Arts and Crafts styles evocative of simpler times (Arts and Crafts itself being a movement against industrialization). Here every man got his own castle and the reality of the city was kept at bay. This goal was implicit in the design, but it was also explicit in how the community was sold. In fact, early advertisements for the development asked prospective buyers, “”Are you satisfied to always breathe the city atmosphere of smells, dust and decaying filth?”

Of course, keeping the city at a distance wasn’t purely an aesthetic pursuit. It’s hard to overstate the role racism played in driving these communities. Roland Park didn’t just pioneer faux-bucolic design, it also was one of the first communities to have a restrictive covenant that explicitly banned African Americans from living within its borders. These exclusionary clauses went on to be de rigeur for many wealthy garden suburbs in Baltimore and across the country.

While these racist laws are no longer formally written into the governance of Roland Park, the exclusionary intent of these communities are still coded into the physical structures.  The podcast 99% Invisible looks how this manifests in an adjacent neighborhood  in the episode “The Arsenal of Exclusion.” Essentially, you can make a strong argument that the design of Roland Park still subtly works to keep out people who “don’t belong.”

As for Goodhue, he also left his mark on Baltimore in the form of the Cathedral of the Incarnation, located just off Johns Hopkins’ campus. It’s one of his earlier works―he had yet to start designing in the Spanish Colonial Revival style that would be his largest legacy―but its ornate Gothic features and attention to ornamental detail still carry his message: cities should look toward the past.