Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 10

We've examined many kinds of border vacuums over the last year – parking lots and arterial roads, trenches and viaducts, institutional facilities and superblocks, antiurban utopian experiments, “green spaces” and campuses – so let's conclude the series with Jacobs' thoughts on vacuum-inducing neighborhood “turfs” and the “great blight of dullness.”

Some border vacuums, like large cemeteries and prisons, are particularly challenging to deal with. We can't exactly encourage cross-use between a prison and its adjacent neighborhoods, so is there any other way to address its border vacuum?

Eastern State Penitentiary presents a blank wall to Fairmount Avenue...
In cases like this, Jacobs suggests using “extraordinarily strong counterforces” to confine the vacuums to small areas: “Population concentration ought to be made deliberately high near such borders, the blocks close to them should be especially short and their street use extremely fluid, and mixtures of uses should be abundant. This may not bring much intensity right up to the borders, but it can help confine their vacuums to small zones (268-269).”

The stretch of Fairmount Avenue across from Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary employs just such a counterforce, and it could be deployed around Baltimore's prison complex as well. Fairmount Avenue's mix of shopfronts, rowhouses, small apartment buildings, and offices helps confine Eastern State's border vacuum to the sidewalk next to the prison's blank wall (but even there the prison's architecture offers some visual interest).

 ...but Fairmount Avenue counters the border vacuum with a mixed-use street wall.
I'll counter the anticipated skepticism – “But Eastern State Penitentiary is a museum, whereas Baltimore's prison complex is still active!” – by pointing out that the mixed-use street wall across from Eastern State was already there when that prison was active!

If (1) the Metropolitan Transition Center’s interesting architecture was extended to enclose the entire prison complex, (2) an intensely fine-grained, mixed-use street-and-block fabric was introduced to extend the Johnston Square, Oldtown, and Jonestown neighborhoods right up to the prison walls, and (3) the border vacuums around the JFX and the nearby housing projects were also dissolved, then I think the complex's border vacuum would be successfully confined.

In short, I don't think it's necessary to move the prison complex out of central Baltimore at all. After all, even though its prisoners can't interact with surrounding neighborhoods, the complex's employees can enliven those neighborhoods with cross-use.

Greenmount Cemetery is ringed by a vacuum of vacant lots.
What about cemeteries, like Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery? A quick glance at an aerial view of Greenmount Cemetery reveals that the decay gets worse the closer one gets to the cemetery.

Save for two portals to Greenmount Avenue, the cemetery presents nothing but blank walls to surrounding neighborhoods. But these neighborhoods in turn present nothing but rapidly-built-up blocks of uniform, single-use rowhouses to the cemetery, and as discussed in the previous post, the resulting border vacuum isn't surprising.

It's possible to deploy “extraordinarily strong counterforces” around Greenmount Cemetery too - the recently-built City Arts Apartments attempt to do this, though they offer a relatively-bland frontage to Greenmount Avenue.

Greenmount Cemetery could be activated with cross-use.
But Greenmount Cemetery actually contains numerous architectural and historical assets, and these could be leveraged to activate the cemetery with cross-use and transform it into a recreational centerpiece for central Baltimore. For example, new Gothic portals could be added to the cemetery's corners and t-intersection streets, which would allow pedestrians and cyclists to use it as a shortcut between surrounding neighborhoods.

Furthermore, if Greenmount Cemetery was enclosed with mixed-use infill, this infill could foster cross-use by supporting recreational amenities placed strategically along the cemetery's perimeter: “An example would be a skating rink brought immediately up to a park border, and across the street on the city side, a cafe where skaters could get refreshments and observe other skaters across the way (166).”

There isn't room for a skating rink inside Greenmount Cemetery, of course, but even though most of its area is dedicated to gravestones and monuments, the cemetery's peripheral grounds offer pockets of space for smaller recreational amenities. (It may even be worth moving some peripheral gravestones to accommodate these amenities.)

Lest anyone think it obscene to turn a sacred resting place into a place of recreation, I hasten to insert that cemeteries like Greenmount were originally conceived as recreational amenities: “Here [in Greenmount Cemetery] were reserved acres of rolling, landscaped ground where visitors could stroll on Sundays and contemplate the meaning of mortality (The Baltimore Rowhouse, 57-58).” Only in the last century or so have we treated them as inert warehouses for the dead!

Jacobs stresses that border vacuums are most problematic where they carve cities into helpless fragments: “The trouble arises when districts are bisected by borders such that the neighborhoods sundered are weak fragments and a district cannot functionally exist. Frequent borders can in this way tear a city to tatters (264-265).”

This city-carving is also a symptom of the “turf” phenomenon, which in turn is a symptom of the feel-good notion that cities are mere collections of putatively “self-sufficient” villages:

“Planning theory is [even today!] committed to the ideal of supposedly cozy, inwardly-turned city neighborhoods. To see why this is a silly and even harmful ideal for cities, we must recognize a basic difference between town and city life. The connections among the people in a town keep crossing to form cohesive communities, but a population in a city has no such innate degree of cross-connections, nor can neighborhood planning change this fact. If it could, the price would be the destruction of a city by converting it into a parcel of mutually-suspicious and hostile turfs. City people aren't stuck with the provincialism of a neighborhood, and why should they be – isn't wide choice and rich opportunity the point of cities? (115-116).”

Bolton Hill retreats from Reservoir Hill...
Unfortunately a large swath of central Baltimore has already been converted into a collection of mutually-suspicious turfs:

“Under the turf system, a gang appropriates as its own territory certain streets, housing projects, and parks. Now consider the “islands within the city” and “cities within the city” redevelopment projects in cities. The technique here is also to designate turf and fence other gangs out. At first the fences weren't visible, but now they have become literal – perhaps the first was the fence around a Radiant Garden City project adjoining Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore (47-48).”

As Jacobs discusses in Chapters 6 and 20, some neighborhoods deliberately induce border vacuums to maintain their turfs, but the resulting pyrrhic victory stabilizes a handful of enclaves at the expense of a city's cultural and economic interaction (116). Eventually the city stops functioning as a city and devolves into a collection of isolated enclaves surrounded by a sea of helpless decay – and why bother sticking around in those enclaves after that point?

 … and Reservoir Hill does the same. Both are mutually-suspicious turfs.
Save for the Charles Street corridor (where Mt. Vernon, Midtown-Belvedere, Station North, Old Goucher, Remington, and Charles Village are gradually stitching together) and the waterfront (where Patterson Park, Highlandtown, Brewer's Hill, Canton, Fell's Point, Harbor East, Little Italy, the Inner Harbor, and Federal Hill are gradually stitching together), there is relatively little unification in central Baltimore.

Too many border vacuums divide this area, and the notion that the city is a collection of self-contained villages only reinforces these vacuums.

Jacobs argues that any single use spread over a large area is prone to border vacuum formation. These struggling “gray areas” tend to be characterized by (1) a large and rapid increment of development, (2) a limited range of building types, and (3) a problematic “in-between” density:

“At any particular place and time, under the given circumstances of regulations, technology, and financing, some particular way of packing dwellings onto the land is apt to be most efficient. In some places and times, for example, rowhouses were the answer for maximum efficiency [as in Baltimore]. Where these crowded out all other dwelling types, they brought a pall of monotony. No one way is a good way to house a city neighborhood. Standardization is fatal, because diversity in types of buildings has a direct connection with diversity in population and enterprise (212-214).”

Unfortunately Baltimore's single-use rowhouse belt suffers from this predicament, and it did not go unnoticed by Jacobs: “The Kostritskys live in inner Baltimore, but Mrs. Kostritsky must commute via car – nothing else is practical – to get her children to school, to do grocery shopping, to use a library, to see a show, and like any mother out in the suburbs, this inner-city mother must drive to a suburban shopping center to buy children's clothing. “I have lost the advantages of living in the city,” she says, “without getting the advantages of living in the suburbs.” In-between densities – too low for cities, too high for suburbs – are as impractical for transportation as they are for other economic or social purposes. The common fate of such districts nowadays is to be abandoned by people with choice (356-357).”

Vast swaths of Baltimore offer neither suburban comforts nor urban amenities.
That last part is important: If I valued suburban living, why would I settle for a rowhouse neighborhood? Likewise, if I valued urban living with its mixed uses and street life, why would I settle for a single-use rowhouse neighborhood either? It may be uncomfortable to admit, but vast swaths of inner Baltimore, having outlived their original industrial dormitory function, are now stuck in Jacobs' “in-between” predicament.

Fortunately the situation is hardly hopeless, and demolition certainly isn't required! Zoning and taxation reforms would give entrepreneurial residents – and there are many of them! – the opportunity to convert gray-area rowhouse blocks into fine-grained districts like Mt. Vernon. This incremental transformation has happened before, and merely needs to be legalized again.

Cities will continue to host transportation corridors and institutional facilities/districts, but their accompanying border vacuums need not be inevitable. For example, although American cities have historically done a poor job integrating their waterfronts into the urban fabric, we need only look abroad to see that most cities manage to integrate waterfront recreation with commerce.

I think Baltimore actually comes closer than most other American cities in matching these cities' waterfront integration. There's legitimate debate over the financing tactics used to revitalize the Inner Harbor, but in terms of form I think the revitalization beats similar efforts in Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia.

Fell's Point offers casual openings for glimpsing the working waterfront.
For example, rather than buffering the waterfront with vacuous “green space” setbacks, the city brought the urban fabric (i.e. people!) right up to the water's edge, ensuring an extraordinarily strong counterforce to what previously had been a desolate backwater of derelict piers. At the same time, the city incorporated a continuous public promenade from Canton to Fort McHenry, ensuring cross-use.

Fell's Point is consequently a perfect example of the waterfront seam Jacobs describes in Chapter 14: “The usual rescue for a decayed waterfront vacuum is to replace it with a park, which only moves the vacuum inland. Let's grasp the problem where it originates, at the shoreline, and make the shore a seam. Waterfronts should be penetrated by casual public openings for glimpsing work and water traffic (267-268).”

We shouldn't expect cities like Baltimore to conquer their other border vacuums in one fell swoop – the process quite understandably takes time – but I do hope cities stop sacrificing long-term stability for an endless parade of vacuum-inducing, feel-good stunts, because these stunts always age poorly: “In spite of much experiment, planned and unplanned, there exists no substitute for lively streets (120).”

- Marc Szarkowski

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 9

Institutional campuses sometimes induce the same border vacuums along their perimeters as those found around parks and “green spaces.” These vacuums are perhaps surprising because institutions like hospitals and universities are vital urban amenities. So I hasten to remind readers that even though I'll be critiquing the urban form of several noteworthy Baltimore institutions in this post, this should not be taken as criticism of the value of these institutions!

As discussed in the previous post, parks can sink into dereliction if they're not activated with “cross-use.” As Jacobs argues in Chapter 14, the city side of a park perimeter needs to offer an enclosure that feeds people into the park, and the park side of the perimeter needs to offer edge programming to lure those people into the park.

If the park is poorly enclosed (i.e. it lacks sufficient mixed-use infill), if its programming is concentrated in a secluded center, or if the boundary between the park and enclosing neighborhoods is too unpleasant and/or difficult to cross, then the cross-use doesn't occur and a border vacuum emerges.

The same pattern holds true for hospital, university, and other institutional campuses: if there is no cross-use between the campus and the enclosing urban fabric, then a border vacuum emerges. I think the vast “dead zone” around Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore is one of the most depressing examples of this phenomenon. Many rowhouse neighborhoods adjacent to the country's finest medical institution languish in terrible decay: there clearly has been little cross-use between these neighborhoods and Johns Hopkins Hospital!

St. Hedwig’s Hospital in Berlin supports lively mixed-use neighborhoods.
This outcome is all the more disappointing when we contrast the Johns Hopkins Hospital border vacuum with the dynamic surroundings of great medical institutions in other cities: usually the neighborhoods around these institutions are some of the liveliest and most productive in their respective cities, filled with the students, working professionals, and ancillary businesses that support the institutions. In short, there is ample cross-use between the institutions and their surrounding neighborhoods, something that is sorely lacking around Johns Hopkins Hospital.

To its credit, Johns Hopkins has initiated several projects to overcome the massive border vacuum surrounding its East Baltimore campus. A substantial amount of infill housing for students and young professionals has been built adjacent to the campus, and the hospital has injected resources into surrounding educational and commercial anchors.

A view of the massive “scorched earth” border vacuum north of Hopkins Hospital.
However, I think some of these projects have relied on unfortunate “one step forward, two steps back” redevelopment tactics. For example, the “scorched earth” tactic of acquiring block after block of rowhouses, condemning and clearing them en masse, and replacing them with equally-vast swathes of uniform infill runs the risk of swapping out one iteration of failed “gray area” for a second iteration of “gray area.”

As discussed in the parking lots post, infill needs to feature a small increment of development to be affordable, accessible, and practical for a sufficiently-broad range of residents and businesses. As Jacobs warns us in Chapter 10, rapidly-built-up districts with a limited range of building types tend to incorporate the seeds of their future decay.

Perhaps this is why Johns Hopkins felt it had to resort to such large-scale clearance in the first place: the original rowhouse districts surrounding the hospital were themselves built up too rapidly with too limited a range of building types (almost nothing other than two-bay, two-story rowhouses), and these “gray area” districts never transitioned into the diverse, mixed-use, mixed-form neighborhoods necessary for supporting a diverse medical institution. There was, for example, almost no commerce outside the Monument Street corridor. Like many other struggling, single-use, “gray area” rowhouse districts in Baltimore, this district was arguably destined for malaise from its inception in the 19th century.

An example of recent infill construction near Johns Hopkins Hospital.
But will urban-renewal-style clearance solve the problem? The replacement housing does incorporate excellent urban design (it's largely built out to the sidewalk without resorting to blank walls), but again, I worry that the increment of development is too unwieldy, and that the range of infill types/forms is too narrow.

I think a better redevelopment approach would have (1) engaged a wider range of developers to produce a wider range of infill buildings, (2) urged the city to undertake comprehensive zoning deregulation in the district to allow a richer array of bottom-up property owners and entrepreneurs to repurpose/replace the existing building stock on a finer grain, and (3) downsized/subdivided the district's blocks via laneways and alleyways (something the old rowhouse blocks actually did better than the new infill) to avoid superblock formation, with its attendant tendency to undermine cross-use.

For example, there's been an encouraging amount of rowhouse renovation along upper Broadway, but the fundamental 19th century shortcoming of this stretch of Broadway – that it was built up with a single building type for a single use – remains and should be overcome. Zoning deregulation and incremental conversion/replacement of some of the rowhouses with other building types would, I think, gradually allow the mixed-use vibrancy of lower Broadway in Fell's Point to spread northward.

Another example of the “one step forward, two steps back” redevelopment approach around Hopkins Hospital is the striking contrast between the form of the infill housing and the form of infill hospital buildings. As discussed earlier, for all the shortcomings in development scale, the infill housing does follow good urban design principles. Unfortunately this isn't the case with many of the campus' medical facilities: there is a heavy reliance on superblocks composed of parking lots, parking garages, and blank-walled buildings connected to each other via skywalks and concourses.

How Hopkins Hospital interacted with surrounding rowhouse neighborhoods.
I think this further undermines the viability of the adjacent infill housing: why bother living next to a blank-walled superblock if you don't get any benefits (such as street life, “eyes on the street” safety, convenient commerce, and ease of cross-use) from the adjacency? This is why the old rowhouse fabric decayed as badly as it did: it had no value for reuse because it had no practical connection to the campus.

This is hardly a criticism of institutional agglomeration or even parking per se: institutions like hospitals quite understandably need to concentrate their facilities to accommodate internal cross-use, and skywalks and concourses easily accomplish this. Furthermore, institutions like Hopkins Hospital, which receives a substantial number of national and international patients, need to offer some parking. I merely think amenities intended to foster internal cross-use become problematic when they begin to undermine external cross-use between the institution and its surrounding neighborhoods, and this is clearly the problem around Hopkins Hospital.

For example, despite their usefulness, I think skywalks unintentionally reinforce the border vacuums they're crossing in a destructive feedback loop: the bridges that connect the Orleans Street Garage to the Bloomberg Children's Center ultimately allow Orleans Street to devolve into an ever-nastier traffic sewer, which only makes it more difficult for the vibrancy along lower Broadway to leap across Orleans and spread northward.

Fortunately there are solutions for institutional superblocks, and Johns Hopkins Hospital seems to be increasingly receptive to them:

Firstly, if it is necessary to close a street to enlarge a block, the resulting superblock can retain some porosity by offering promenades that connect to surrounding streets. A continuous street grid is thus preserved for pedestrians and bicyclists, if not for automobiles. Of course, as Jacobs warns us in Chapter 9, promenades are pointless if there's no reason for people to use them – they need to contain the same enclosing mixed uses that ordinary streets do. Fortunately the two promenades in the western half of the Hopkins medical campus – the Jefferson and McElderry Promenades, which were once conventional streets – offer this, in addition to regular event programming such as farmers' markets.

Jefferson Square at Washington Hill places its parking in the center of the block.
Secondly, rather than placing their blank walls, parking garages, and unpleasant-but-necessary service infrastructure (loading docks, ducts and grilles, service doors, etc.) along the street, institutional facilities can employ the “perimeter block” format to conceal these activities in the centers of blocks. Jefferson Square at Washington Hill does this, though it missed an opportunity to extend Fairmount Avenue across its superblock. Parking garages can also incorporate retail liners (as at Johns Hopkins' Rutland Garage), though there needs to be a sufficient pool of residents nearby to support them.

Thirdly, rather than concentrating their semipublic programming deep in the interiors of buildings, institutional facilities can move these activities into retail liners that open directly onto surrounding streets. A quick perusal of the Johns Hopkins Hospital map reveals that the campus' internal loop offers numerous ATMs, chapels, coffee shops, flower shops, gift shops, cafes, restaurants, food courts, lounges, and pharmacies for visitors. But what if this internal loop fronted onto surrounding streets to enliven them and offer amenities for visitors and nearby residents? Perhaps this loop could even have been designed as a fully-public series of midblock commercial laneways that seamlessly flowed into surrounding neighborhoods, potentially preventing their decades-long slide into irrelevance in the first place!

It's perhaps too late to employ these tactics within the existing campus (though there are opportunities for thoughtful retrofitting), but I'd encourage the hospital to consider them as it expands into surrounding blocks.

From many conversations I've gotten the impression that we often assume the best way to experience a perfect “walkable” neighborhood is to visit a medieval town in Europe. But many of us live in similar “walkable” places – college campuses – for several impressionable years in our youth and then forget this when we move into the “real world!”

I've often wondered why this disconnect between our collective experience of a “walkable” college campus and the “real world” exists, and I think the conventional City Beautiful campus is itself to blame. For many of us they are indeed our first and only experience of “walkable” communities, but many also tend to be introverted to a degree such that we may be subconsciously concluding they are “special” places – wonderful to experience for a few years, but irrelevant to the structure and operation of the “real world” urban fabric: “Typically they pretend to be cloistered or countrified places, nostalgically denying their transplantation, or else they pretend to be office buildings (267).”

This sense of separation may also be responsible for the “town-gown” friction between universities and their host cities. The friction is also a result of the hypertrophic “eds and meds” bubble of recent decades, in which universities and hospitals have rapidly expanded into surrounding neighborhoods. Many large state universities, for example, have induced vast “student ghettos” on their peripheries, with all their attendant friction.

The Hopkins Homewood campus is incredibly beautiful, but it sits in a bubble.
In Baltimore, the campus fortress mentality can be observed in the so-called “JHU fear bubble” around Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus. Hopkins is attempting to overcome this insularity by expanding the range of mixed-use, mixed-form buildings in Charles Village (the rowhouse neighborhood adjacent to the Homewood campus), essentially employing Jacobs' “extraordinarily strong counterforces” vacuum-fighting tactic.

In addition to the incremental densification of Charles Village, I think Hopkins could “activate the edge” of its Homewood campus by moving more of the campus' semipublic programming closer to adjacent streets, as Jacobs suggests: “Universities could make their campuses more like seams and less like barriers if they placed their uses intended for the public at strategic points on their perimeters (267).”

For example, future student centers, theaters and performance spaces, clubhouses, galleries, and even dormitories could be placed along the Homewood campus' Charles Street and University Parkway frontages (the Lacrosse Hall of Fame is a useful precedent in this regard). Wyman Park could also be transformed from an overgrown back door “wilderness” into a vibrant front door between the Homewood campus and Hampden.

These campus perimeter tactics, useful as they are, eventually raise the question: do urban universities even need campuses? If they were part and parcel of the ordinary urban fabric, would it be easier for us to make the leap from “walkable” university neighborhoods to “real world” neighborhoods equally hospitable to “walkable” working, shopping, entertaining, and child-rearing? I think the campusless university is better poised to accommodate this mental leap – and perhaps is already doing so in younger generations.

What exactly are “campusless” universities? These are essentially universities that were established in a single building (or perhaps in a small collection of buildings organized around a modest courtyard or quad), but have since grown into prominent institutions by acquiring disparate buildings across their host cities, rather than decamping to blank slates on the fringes of those cities to establish discrete campuses. The University City district in Philadelphia is a famous example, as is the Savannah College of Art and Design, and Baltimore has the local examples of MICA, the University of Maryland, and the University of Baltimore.

The University of Wroclaw is seamlessly integrated into its host city.
Such universities are even more common abroad. Some – such as the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the University of Wroclaw – are so beautifully integrated into their host cities that there are no discernible campus edges and no consequent border vacuums. Rather than bestowing a sense of importance on their buildings via “open space” setbacks, these universities use lavish architecture to distinguish their buildings from surrounding background buildings.

Furthermore, instead of being cloistered on a single site (or even in adjacent spillover “student ghettos”), campusless students are generally distributed across various neighborhoods around a city. There are fewer “turf lines” between campus and city, and students consequently mature earlier – they learn to use their host city for daily life, rather than consciously leaving special campuses for special trips “into the city.”

How the University of Wroclaw interacts with its host city.
More specifically, campusless students quickly learn how to use the public transit, restaurants, and other amenities in their host cities, rather than having to rely on the infantilizing substitutes – shuttles and dining halls – that conventional campuses provide.

I therefore think campusless students have a better opportunity to transfer their urban educational experience to an equally-viable urban “real world” experience after graduation: “I slept, ate out, did groceries, work-studied, ran errands, explored, and commuted to classes on foot, bike, and transit across this city during my college years, and I can easily continue doing this after I graduate.”

How a generic university campus typically interacts with its host city.
A conventional campus student, on the other hand, arguably has a harder time transferring their bubble experience to a mismatched “real world.” Many cozy campus “villages” don't really teach us how to interact with their greater urban organisms, so we forget their “walkable” settings surprisingly quickly after graduation: if your experience of “walkable” living is confined to a campus, how can you transfer that special experience once you have to leave the campus?

Many campusless universities still have courtyards and quads, but these spaces often serve students and city residents, since they're so thoroughly integrated into the urban fabric. For example, it'd be difficult for a university to claim a plaza like this as its own “turf,” since so many city residents casually use it for shortcuts, meanderings, and relaxation.

I think such fine-grained cross-use helps ease “town-gown” friction, since it becomes harder to divide people into oppositional camps – there's too much sharing of public amenities, and too much mutual benefit. Many conventional City Beautiful campuses, on the other hand, often use their poorly-enclosed “open space” grounds to clearly demarcate their “turf,” with little benefit for adjacent residents and little consequent cross-use.

This isn't to say that campusless universities have impeccable “town-gown” relationships: as observable in places like Philadelphia's University City, there still is friction if the universities are undergoing hypertrophic growth. Blank-walled starchitecture can likewise undermine the connection between university buildings and the supporting background fabric. But campusless universities still seem to be better at easing “town-gown” friction than discrete campuses experiencing a sudden “bursting of the floodgates.”

I would hardly argue that universities like Johns Hopkins should dismantle their existing City Beautiful campuses – in these cases I think the previously-discussed edge activation strategy is preferable. Not all university campuses are problematic either – many college towns are enlivened by their presence, precisely because these campuses take great pains to activate their edges with cross-use. But when it comes to establishing new universities or expanding existing ones, I think the campusless approach is preferable.

Midtown-Belvedere enjoys considerable cross-use from MICA and UB.
Fortunately American universities increasingly seem to be adopting this approach – fewer and fewer are doing what Goucher College did in the 1950s when it decamped from central Baltimore to a suburban campus. Many are instead acquiring disparate buildings across their host cities, ensuring the fine-grained integration of students and city residents, thus preventing the formation of border vacuum turfs.

For all the incredible beauty of a detached Homewood campus, I'd rather have a lively Midtown/Mount Vernon enjoying thorough cross-use from MICA/UB students and city residents alike.

Next time we'll wrap up the series on border vacuums with Jacobs' thoughts on vacuum-inducing neighborhood “turfs” and the “great blight of dullness” (a blight afflicting large swathes of Baltimore!), so stay tuned!

- Marc Szarkowski

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dissolving Border Vacuums, Part 8

Having looked at the border vacuums around Garden and Radiant Cities, let's now examine the vacuums around parks and “green spaces.” This might be an uncomfortable discussion at times because some of my arguments may run counter to conventional “green” or “sustainable” thinking.

There has long been a romantic “city vs. country” tension in Anglo-American culture: the friction between Hamilton (who favored urban mercantilism) and Jefferson (who favored an agrarian society) is an emblematic example, as was William Penn's preoccupation with platting Philadelphia as a dispersed “green country town.” Kunstler's City in Mind quotes Vita Sackville-West on this curious phenomenon:

“The English are a rural-minded people, which perhaps explains why our rural architecture is so much better than our urban. Our cities, generally speaking, are deplorable. There is a lack of design which must make the French smile (225).”

This “city vs. country” tension grew stronger in the nineteenth century after England and the US unintentionally fouled many of their cities in the Industrial Revolution, but Jacobs goes even further in discussing its origins:

“Humans are a part of nature and the cities of humans are as natural as the colonies of prairie dogs or the beds of oysters. But a curious thing happened in the eighteenth century. By then the cities of Europe had mediated many harsh aspects of nature, so that something became popularly possible which previously had been rare: sentimentalization of nature. Marie Antoinette playing milkmaid was one expression of this sentimentality, as was Jefferson's intellectual rejection of cities of free artisans and his dream of a republic of self-reliant rural yeomen. Owing to the mediation of cities, it became possible to regard “nature” as benign, ennobling, and pure. Opposed to all this fictionalized purity, cities, not being fictions, could then be considered seats of malignancy and enemies of nature. Consequently what could be more natural than the desire to bring “nature” into the city so it might get some purity by association? But there are dangers in sentimentalizing nature. Most sentimentality implies a deep if unacknowledged disrespect. It is no accident that we Americans, probably the world's champion sentimentalizers of nature, are at the same time probably the world's most disrespectful destroyers of the countryside (443-445).”

I think this sentimental view of nature may have led to a deeply-ingrained Anglo-American notion that the human imprint on the landscape is inherently destructive, and therefore the best way to mitigate it is to mask or dilute the “necessary evil” of urbanism with penitential reconstructions of “nature.”

In this post I'll argue that this notion reverberates through many of our parkmaking and urban design efforts from the nineteenth century to the present (from Olmsted to Howard to McHarg to today's crop of “Landscape Urbanists”), and that the ruralize-the-city tactic has only grown stronger with today's focus on “greening” and “sustainability.”

I'll also argue that the ruralize-the-city tactic has sometimes resulted in our neglecting the design of the human habitat in favor of constantly creating artifices of nature to escape from its neglect. That is, I think we're stuck in a feedback loop: if our cities have historically been “deplorable” (to use Sackville-West's term), especially since the onset of industrialization, we only make them more deplorable by retreating into “nature” rather than undertaking the hard work of making the built fabric and streetscapes desirable such that the impetus to escape wouldn't be there in the first place.

Finally, and most importantly, I'll argue that certain reconstructions of “nature,” if inappropriately applied to the urban setting, can unintentionally create border vacuums. We'll look at Jacobs' suggestions for fixing the border vacuums around parks and see if they could apply to Baltimore.

Baltimore on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.
Before the nineteenth century there were few parks in cities because, save for a few exceptions like ancient Rome, most cities were quite small: you could walk for fifteen minutes and be outside of town (see right).

The Industrial Revolution induced a kind of hypertrophic megalopolis that had never been seen before, and since England and the US industrialized earliest and fastest, our cities were the first to experience hypertrophic growth. (In many cases, like Chicago's, they mushroomed from handfuls of cabins into megalopolises almost overnight.) Because our cities grew so rapidly, they often resorted to the monotonous replication of utilitarian building types (rowhouses in Baltimore's case) unrelieved by any of the felicitous infrastructure that had graced Old World cities, like intimate arcades, lanes, and squares.

Baltimore after only a few decades of industrialization.
Since these rapidly-expanding cities were despoiled by industry (see left) and filled with uprooted rural migrants, a romantic yearning for rapidly-disappearing rural lifeways quickly emerged: “Baltimore's growth fed a wave of nostalgia for rural life. Unlike Savannah or Philadelphia, Baltimore had no public squares. It had instead block after block of houses, factories, and warehouses relentlessly gobbling up undeveloped land. Baltimoreans were not alone in their sense of loss: all across America people expressed concern over the loss of open land in cities (The Baltimore Rowhouse, 57).”

The reaction was an understandable desire to preserve large tracts of the disappearing countryside in the form of parks so that city dwellers could retain access to a landscape that was becoming increasingly remote. Olmsted's Central Park in New York is a famous example, and Baltimore has the examples of Carroll, Clifton, Druid Hill, Leakin, and Patterson Parks, among others. (Many of these parks were created out of formerly-rural estates that had been surrounded by the expanding city.)

Unfortunately, as discussed in the City in Mind, most Anglo-American cities created these large “rural” preserves at the expense of smaller, formal, well-defined squares and allees distributed among the urban fabric on a finer grain. Baltimore eventually became somewhat of an exception: it created numerous “rural” preserves, but it also acquired several neighborhood squares – Mt. Vernon Place and Collington, Franklin, Harlem, Johnston, Lafayette, Madison, O'Donnell, and Union Squares – that are still valued today. The city was also graced with a few boulevard-promenades partly inspired by Haussmann's renovation of Paris, like Eutaw Place.

Olmstedian parks are incredibly beautiful retreats, but the City in Mind argues that the tactic of creating large “rural” preserves unintentionally reinforced the “city vs. country” tension in the Anglo-American imagination:

“The Olmsted park became the dominant model for parkmaking in America. But Olmsted's methods – the methods and traditions of the rural English landscape park – cannot be used for other urban park typologies, especially at small scale. A neighborhood square cannot be composed of rambling vales and rocky defiles. Olmsted's methods omit the one device that can avail on the small scale, and that is rigorous formality of the kind the French use so well to make trees, shrubs, flowerbeds, fountains, paths, pavements, and statuary integral with the surrounding urban hardscape of buildings. Having left us with no tradition for creating small squares, most American cities compare unfavorably with American “nature.” We therefore have a tradition since Olmsted of venerating the places of “nature” and holding in contempt the abode of human beings (246-247).”

After Olmsted it became increasingly difficult to conceive of formally integrating greenery into the city in a manner other than the “rural” preserve. I think we came to believe that the city could never be reconciled with the “natural” landscape: the best one could do was retreat into a “rural” oasis for a few hours, then grimly return to the “necessary evil” of the city until the next opportunity to escape. How unlike the contemporaneous tactics of Haussmann and Napoleon III in Paris, who managed to formally integrate “nature” into the city on a fine grain!

As discussed in the previous post, our efforts to ruralize cities only grew more abstract in the twentieth century: we experimented with Garden Cities and Radiant Cities, but the former proved unrealistic and the latter was a complete fiasco.

I should reiterate that I think Olmstedian parks are wonderful, and that Olmsted's romantic greenswards, walkways, and bridges are intensely people-centric and spiritually gratifying. My point is merely that Olmstedian romanticism can't be the only tactic for urban parkmaking, especially at the smaller scale of the neighborhood square.

In recent decades even Olmstedian romanticism has taken a back seat to an even more abstract effort to create as much “green space” and “open space” as possible. To me the mere fact that we're even using these vacuous terms reveals that we're thinking too abstractly: if you ask for vacuity you'll get vacuities that will be of little use to anyone, and consequently will be shunned.

Baltimore doesn't need more open space; it needs to use existing space better.
For example, in many cases the response to the endless clamor for “green space” and “open space” has been to infuse useless berms, setbacks, and other dreary scraps of ambiguous residual space into the urban fabric. Like any other American city, Baltimore's arterials, megastructures, and superblocks have plenty of residual “open space” around them, but has this “open space” done anything to improve the street-level experience in the city?

Even after the infusion of numerous “open spaces” into downtown Baltimore (see above), there's still a clamor for more. To me this suggests that the existing “open spaces” are, for the most part, unsatisfactory and unappealing. But infusing even more “open space” would only make the situation worse: the downtown would feel even more like a desolate Radiant City than it does now.

I think the solution to this predicament is fairly straightforward: as discussed in the post on superblocks, we should discard the vague “green space” and “open space” terms and begin asking for specific amenities with proven practical uses, like shady allees of trees, public squares intimately enclosed with porous liner buildings, sports facilities and playgrounds, and so on.

The task of repairing downtown Baltimore's ambiguous “open spaces” might therefore necessitate removing (infilling) many such spaces and concentrating public life in a handful of nodes that had the potential to evolve into lively “outdoor public rooms,” like the Inner Harbor Promenade, Center Plaza, War Memorial Plaza, University Square, and Preston Gardens. This is precisely what Old World cities like Florence do so well, and why they don't need to resort to scattering object-buildings among residual scraps of perpetually-unsatisfying “open space.”

Our acquiescence to “open space” and “green space” abstractions may also be a product of the contemporary preoccupation with statistical analysis; that is, of the postwar equation of quantity with quality. One manifestation of this preoccupation has been the rise of quantitative “open space” mandates in development regulations. Under a quantitative analysis, the more “open space” a city has, the better off it supposedly is, regardless of the quality of all that open space. As revealed in Suburban Nation: “Current requirements for open space have been reduced to regulations that are primarily statistical. These requirements say little about the configuration and quality of open space; usually the main specification is [to leave open] a percentage of the site area (32).”

To me an emblematic example of this mindset was Boston's decision to replace the Central Artery with “open space” after it was buried underground in the Big Dig. An arbitrary 75% of the reclaimed land had to be left as “open space,” but what did Boston get for this quantification? It got a boring, sun-baked median strip, interrupted in many places by gloomy tunnel portals, and cut off from the surrounding urban fabric by two moats of traffic. This is what happens when a focus on providing quantities of abstraction (“open space”) comes at the expense of traditional civic art, of the qualitative design of places that are first and foremost understood to be places for people.

In the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte proved that, contrary to popular belief, there was no correlation between the sheer amount of “open space” and public enjoyment of said space: “Sheer space does not draw people. In some circumstances it can have the opposite effect (27).” Jacobs harshly criticized such quantification as well:

“Open spaces are venerated in amazingly uncritical fashion. Ask a planner how his Radiant City improves on the old city and he will cite, as a self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask him about changes in zoning codes and he will cite again More Open Space. Walk with him through a dispirited neighborhood, and though it already is scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with litter, he will envision a future of More Open Space. More Open Space for what? For bleak vacuums between buildings? Or for ordinary people to use and enjoy? But people don't use open space just because it's there and because planners wish they would. People can hardly enliven the plethora of malls, parks, and other indeterminate land oozes in typical Radiant City schemes and in the stringent accompanying requirements for leaving high percentages of urban land open. But American cities, under the illusion that open land is an automatic good and that quantity is equivalent to quality, are frittering away money on land oozes too large, too frequent, too perfunctory, too ill-located, too dull, and too inconvenient to be useful (90-111).”

It's distressing to discover that little has changed in the last half-century!

Another driver of urban ruralization has been the realization that the hardscape of the city (the asphalt, concrete, and roofs of buildings) induces an “urban heat island” effect and is impervious to rainwater, thus forcing it into overloaded sewer systems and resulting in “combined sewage overflows.” But one popular solution to this problem – leave as much city land open as possible – only induces a bigger problem: if it's impossible to infill those places already developed, then where will the development go instead? It'll go to the fringe, putting much more pressure on the landscape since fringe development is more likely to come in a dispersed (i.e. land-covering) format with acres of parking. There are practical solutions for making the urban hardscape permeable – such as discouraging megastructures and using porous paving on downsized streets – that don't require detours into “nature.”

The environmental conservation movement brought innumerable benefits to society by placing rivers, wetlands, forests, and other vital ecosystems under extensive protection. One unintentional side effect of environmentalism, unfortunately, was the revival of that old Anglo-American notion of the city as an enemy of nature. This mentality was particularly conspicuous in the writings of Ian McHarg, who considered humanity a “planetary disease.” As the City in Mind argues, there consequently arose a belief that urbanization should be prevented anywhere and everywhere possible, even in places already urbanized:

“In the context of contemporary confusion, “green space” or “open space” means “build nothing.” It is a rhetorical device for putting city land in cold storage in the only currently-acceptable form, “nature.” A large fraction of the public has decided categorically that urbanism is a menace to the human spirit and therefore that the only acceptable use of vacant city land is for the installation of the putative antidote to the city, “nature” (213-214).”

So, despite being thoroughly disillusioned with the previous iteration of urban ruralization – the Radiant City urban renewal projects of the 50s and 60s – we still seem determined to ruralize our cities. Boston's inability to conceive of infilling the land reclaimed from the Central Artery was a typical example of this determination, but a particularly distressing example is our inability to conceive of infilling the Pruitt-Igoe site in St. Louis with anything other than “nature”: the competition entries for fixing the scar left behind by the long-demolished Radiant City project abound with suggestions for ambiguous “green spaces,” for unrealistic heavy-duty agriculture, for starchitectural sculptures set in “open spaces,” for “urban forests,” and so on. The idea that this scar could be healed with the traditional urban fabric of St. Louis, meanwhile, is relegated to the fringes.

One disturbing consequence of the “green” movement is the widespread belief that literally looking “green” is the same as actually being “green.” That is, we've come to believe that anything covered with plants is automatically “green.” If this notion were true, then paved-over cities like Florence, Munich, and Prague would be environmental catastrophes, and all our exquisitely-bermed big-boxes and office parks would be environmental saints. The reality is quite the opposite: urban foliage is certainly a wonderful amenity, but it's not a prerequisite for actually being “green.”

Unfortunately design professionals are besotted with the “slather it with plants to make it green” notion too: many design schools are awash in fashionable “biophilia” chatter, and starchitectural proposals are laden with fanciful greenwashing stunts.

But even more disturbingly, the long-dithering design academy is now attempting to revive the Radiant City. This strategy, known as “Landscape Urbanism,” is once again preoccupied with setting isolated megastructures in ambiguous “green spaces.” As discussed in Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents: “Rather than having an urban fabric based on spatial definition by buildings, landscape would be the 'structuring medium.' The 'look and shape of the city' was to be a matter of 'open space within which buildings are set' (4).” In other words, the strategy is just a continuation of the conventional starchitectural predilection for treating the city as an inert sculpture garden.

The last thing we should be doing is reviving the Radiant City.
My opinion of Landscape Urbanism is thus rather harsh (see left), because I see little value in reviving urban design tactics that never worked the first time around. As Jacobs warned us, this dogged pursuit of failure is the urban design equivalent of medical schools bringing back bloodletting: “The pseudoscience of planning seems neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success (183).”

As Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents reveals, the strategy is also preoccupied with inserting a kind of “look but don't touch” scenery into cities: “The landscapes could be gazed upon, but that was all. An enormous amount of urban space was thereby removed from its primary recreational purpose where it was needed most. A well-known failure came out of Portland with the juxtaposition of Jamison Square and Tanner Springs Park. Jamison is usually packed with people, while Tanner is virtually devoid of humans, whose feet and posteriors would only crush the “native grasses” (19).”

In other words, whereas traditional civic art is concerned with creating places for people, today's scenery-building often results in ersatz hands-off “wildernesses.” The difference between the two approaches is not trivial: this should be obvious, but city dwellers need to use parks, not just look at them!

The traditional ingredients of parkmaking – greenswards, plazas and terraces, formal gardens, pavilions and bandshells, riverside embankments and esplanades, tree-lined allees, fountains and statues, boat and duck ponds, playgrounds and sports fields, seating and refreshment areas, and so on – have all evolved to meet specific recreational needs, especially the need to “be entertained by the sight of other people.” You can sunbathe and play soccer on a formally-maintained greensward, but you can't do this in a Landscape Urbanist “urban wetland” filled with waist-high “native grasses” and mosquitoes. You can get some ice cream and people-watch in a shady allee of trees, but you can't do this in a Landscape Urbanist “urban forest” filled with thick undergrowth.

That last example alludes to a border vacuum problem common in ruralized neighborhood squares: just as there need to be “eyes on the street,” so too do there need to be “eyes on the park,” but this isn't possible in squares composed of pretend wildernesses. As Duany argues, their thick undergrowth inevitably attracts drug dealers, muggers, rapists, and sexual adventurers: “The environmental assessment of the city these days is 'greening' the city by ruralizing it. One of my friends lives in Portland, where they woodlanded one of the squares. He says 'I can't go into the square in the morning because my dog is always running across condoms' (18:00-20:00).”

Even now, decades after Newman published Creating Defensible Space, some designers still seem not to have internalized the lesson that impenetrable blank walls of greenery create hideaways for unsavory people: “For reasons of safety, comfort, and orientation squares must be transparent – that is, you must be able to see through the square to the buildings on the other side. The square is not the wilderness and should not pretend to be (Kunstler, 33-34).”

Whyte essentially argued the same when he evaluated New York's Bryant Park, which had devolved into a cesspool by the 1970s: “Bryant Park has become the territory of dope dealers and muggers. It's cut off from the streets by walls, fences, and shrubbery. You can't see in and you can't see out. There are only a few entry points. This park will be used by people when it is opened up to them (58).” This is exactly what New York did in the 1980s, and consequently Bryant Park is now safe and well-used.

Bioswale or abandoned lot? In West Baltimore it's hard to tell the difference.
Kunstler's point that “the square is not the wilderness and should not pretend to be” is  particularly important. Much contemporary landscape architecture is characterized by a “scruffy” aesthetic in which trees, bushes, and grasses are delivered in the manner they exist in the wilderness – informal, rough, and unkempt. This aesthetic may work in large romantic parks like Druid Hill, but I'd argue it can cause “Broken Windows” problems if applied to the urban setting of the neighborhood square. In real countryside, the “wild” aesthetic signifies a pristine and undisturbed landscape. But in cities the aesthetic can signify decay, disorder, and blight (see above). Unkempt landscaping is the first sign of “deferred maintenance” in city parks, so if they're made to look rustically neglected, they might be neglected.

In Chapter 5 Jacobs distinguishes neighborhood parks from larger city parks by pointing out that most neighborhood parks are “generalized.” That is, while city parks contain attractions that draw people from far and wide (like zoos, conservatories, lakes, sports fields, and swimming pools in Druid Hill's case), neighborhood parks generally don't offer specialized amenities and thus have to work harder to attract people via other means: “Parks intensely used in generalized public yard fashion tend to have four elements in their design: sun, enclosure, centering, and intricacy (103).”

•    SUN: As is perhaps self-evident, a neighborhood park needs to provide a balance between sun and shade to maintain year-round use (i.e. sun in the winter and shade in the summer). Jacobs also warns against excessive highrise construction near parks since they can plunge parks into shadow and generate unpleasant “wind tunnels.”

•    ENCLOSURE: Although parks shouldn't be hemmed-in by highrises, Jacobs stresses that they still need to be enclosed with buildings so they feel like outdoor rooms: “Far from being attracted by indefinite oozes of land, people are repelled by them (106).” The enclosing street walls should, of course, be composed of mixed-use buildings so as many different people as possible use the park for as many different reasons as possible.

•    CENTERING: Parks need focal points just like neighborhoods do. Romantic glades and meandering paths have their uses, but prominent centers (like fountains, statues, or pavilions) and geometric crossroads do a lot more to enliven neighborhood parks: this is where itinerant musicians put on performances, this is where snack vendors set up their carts, this is where children splash around in the fountain while their mothers chat. As Jacobs argued, people tend to gravitate to prominent centers, turning them into lively “public stages” in the process.

•    INTRICACY: Jacobs says “Intricacy is related to the variety of reasons for which people come to parks. Even the same person comes for different reasons at different times (103).” Intricacy is the product of physical features designed to stimulate that range of reasons. For example, a subtle change in elevation – a shallow dais or bowl – could accommodate public performances. Jacobs is quick to remind us that “intricacy counts at eye level” and that doodad-dependent site plans aren't necessarily successful.

Jacobs makes several other important points that fall outside these four criteria. Firstly, she emphasizes that successful parks have “rarity value.” The more parks a neighborhood has, the harder it is to enliven them all with people. Jacobs' advice thus runs counter to the contemporary clamor for as much “open” or “green” space as possible.

Secondly, in the chapter on border vacuums, Jacobs argues that the perimeters of large parks need to be activated to generate cross-use. That is, the city side of the border should incorporate commercial activities that feed into the park, and the park side of the border should incorporate recreational activities that feed into the city: “An example would be a skating rink brought immediately up to a park border, and across the street on the city side, a cafe where skaters could get refreshments and observe other skaters across the way (166).”

I think this “activating the edge” strategy could significantly improve Baltimore's larger parks if (1) restrictions on vending were eased, (2) park attractions were moved closer to park edges, and (3) mixed-use infill and rowhouse-to-shopfront conversions were encouraged along park edges. This was, after all, the strategy used to revive the Inner Harbor.

Steven Dale does a great job elaborating on Jacobs' third point – the need for parks to have frequent entrances – by arguing that “we should encourage people to pass through a park” before we encourage them to use it: “Since there is no initial attraction to a generalized park, it must first provide useful shortcuts for people. These shortcuts create the initial user base, thereby generating “eyes on the street,” which generates further usage. Shortcuts are created by maximizing the park's permeability, portals, and paths, which should be logically and strategically arranged to coincide with the entrances and exits of surrounding streets and buildings.”

Many of Baltimore's parks lack one or more of these features. Some, like Druid Hill, are cut off by moats of traffic. Some parks were crippled by depopulation and consequent disintegration of enclosing buildings. In other cases decades of undergrowth have accumulated under deferred maintenance. In still other cases, like Hopkins Plaza, they're surrounded by monotonous uses, resulting in uneven use of the parks themselves.

Fortunately Baltimore still has several successful parks that offer repair lessons, like Mt. Vernon Place: Its intimate greenswards and tree-lined perimeter offer a good balance between sun and shade. It's well-enclosed by buildings accommodating a rich mix of uses, which activate it with a rich mix of people. It's exquisitely centered with the most prominent focal point in all of Baltimore. It contains an intricate array of fountains, statues, and gardens, all carefully arranged to accommodate complex pedestrian movement and visual delight. It's also very rare: it doesn't compete for attention with any adjacent “green spaces.” Finally, Mt. Vernon Place contains numerous entrances.

So to repair Baltimore's less-successful parks, I think we should identify which of Jacobs' criteria are weakened or missing, then work to improve or introduce them. In some cases, like St. Mary's Park in Seton Hill, it may be necessary to add entrances, paths, and centers. In other cases, like downtown plazas and residential squares, it may be necessary to improve the sense of enclosure and add mixed uses. (The proposed addition of an apartment building to the office-dominated Hopkins Plaza, for example, is a good start.) In short, the city should improve what it already has rather than dragging in any more “green” or “open” space distractions.

Again, I'm worried that today's “Landscape Urbanism” is preoccupied with scenery-building at the expense of these criteria, save for a few exceptions like the High Line. It doesn't matter how many people are photoshopped into a rendering of a prairie: if it isn't people-centric, it'll probably sink into dereliction after the initial novelty wears off, upon which it'll be just another burden for some cash-strapped Parks and Rec department.

Jacobs concludes by reminding us: “Parks are not automatically good. Far from automatically uplifting their neighborhoods, they are drastically affected by the way the neighborhood acts upon them (92-95).” The recent history of Patterson Park reflects this: the park grew increasingly seedier in the 90s, but it was revived the following decade after renewed interest spilled over from surrounding neighborhoods.

Finally, I'd humbly reiterate that rather than constructing artifices of “nature” to apologize for our presence on the landscape, perhaps we could begin leaving imprints capable of garnering affection such that we wouldn't be embarrassed into covering them up with “nature” in the first place. In recent years, for example, we've poured huge sums of money into ruralizing unpleasant arterials, but we still don't have a single boulevard that comes close to offering the intense comfort that Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia offers. Unlike the Floridian highway, the Passeig de Gracia is truly green because it celebrates humanity.

Next time we'll examine solutions for the border vacuums around hospital and university campuses, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Freeway Revolts: A Brief History of an Important Baltimore Grassroots Movement

by guest blogger Greg Freidman

There once was a plan to build a major east-west expressway through the middle of Baltimore City. The idea for such an expressway had been around since at least 1917, but things really got going when Robert Moses came up with a plan in the 40's. With the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s  and the overwhelming support of the business and political establishment the highway became a near certainty. Had the expressway been built as planned , thousands of people would have been displaced, Leakin Park would have an expressway running through it, and neighborhoods such as Fells Point, Highlandtown, Canton, and Federal Hill would have been permanently disfigured.

But as part of a nationwide movement that came to be known as the freeway revolts regular people got together and fought back. In Baltimore the main organization driving the effort against the expressway was known as MAD or the Movement Against Destruction. The organization, essentially a coalition of neighborhood groups and individuals, was most active in the late 60s and early 70s. and transcended barriers of geography, race, and class. It was also for the most part (but not completely) successful. Among those active in the freeway revolts was a certain social worker turned City Councilwoman by the name of Barbara Mikulski.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with Art Cohen one of the movers and shakers behind MAD to hear about how this amazing grassroots movement got started and achieved its goals. For more information about MAD you can visit its online archive which is hosted by the University of Baltimore Langsdale Libary right here.

For a detailed explanation of the route the East-West Expressway was to traverse you can check out Scott Kozel's Roads to the Future website. And while I strongly disagree with some of its conclusions another excellent article on the Expressway can be found here (note that this is a PDF).

On  how the idea of the East-West Expressway came about:
... Robert Moses came to town in the early 1940s. There had actually been talk about having an expressway in Baltimore since 1917. But it didn’t really get steam going until Moses came and he suggested an east west highway straight through the middle of town. Of course it would have been totally unacceptable on the east side of town because it would have gone straight through Hopkins Hospital!... It sort of lay dormant for a number of years and then in the 50's it came in again because under President Eisenhower, the interstate system came into being...

On the founding and naming of MAD:
I came to Baltimore as a legal aid lawyer in September 1967. I came from Washington DC. I was assigned to East Baltimore where I lived as well as worked....So I was assigned to legal Aid East and that's where I worked for [the next 16 months up through early 1969].In August of 1968 I was approached by two people. One was Stu Wexler who had worked with CORE locally and had been involved in a lot of local things and Jimmy Rouse (who's the son of James Rouse). They said there was a new coalition being formed to oppose the plans for the East-West Expressway and because I had come here as lawyer, they said they need a lawyer who would be willing to serve as their attorney. It was volunteer. Everything in the group was volunteer. And I was interested in the issue and I said sure. The fact that they'd asked meant something too. I had respect for both of them...

The group as I remember it did not have a name for the first couple of months...This one person came from West Baltimore he happened to be a psychiatrist living and working there. He came for two meetings that's all, but what he did was he gave us a great gift. He said “I've got a name for you. You need a name. Here's what I'm suggesting, the Movement Against Destruction (M.A.D).”... It was a great name it described how people felt about the expressway coming through their neighborhoods.

On the uniqueness of MAD and what contributed to its success:

The unique thing about M.A.D. It was the first time in Baltimore that there was a coalition made up of neighborhood groups from across the city of diverse income groupings, of diverse race (African -American and White)... But just the fact that you could reach across between the white and black communities was just sensational. It was very effective and people worked together very well. And you could be a member of this group as a neighborhood association or as a mini coalition of neighborhood associations. There was one called S.C.A.R. (also see here) (the Southeast Council Against the Road). And there were some other ones across the city that were organized sub-regionally. You could also be a member as an individual if you wanted to.

The thing that made MAD unique was that it met every single week. [The archdiocese] gave us the use of the Catholic Center downtown at the southwest corner of Mulberry and Cathedral. And that was a great place. We'd meet there at 7 o'clock on every Monday. We also were blessed by having people in our group who had special skills. We had one person, Barbra King, who did research  andworked with the League of Women Voters... Whenever we had an issue that needed some digging she could do it for us and would. We had another person who was from the Church of the Brethren who was assigned to Baltimore as a sort of missionary placement. His name was Lin Butler and he had an incredible skill. He was our secretary for most of the time that I was there, he would be at every meeting. And within a day of the meeting a piece of paper would go to everybody that was on our list. On one side of the piece of paper were the minutes for the previous day's meeting and on the other side  would be the agenda for the next meeting. And it provided a high level of continuity from meeting to meeting. That really helped us....

Our way of operating at MAD was  by consensus. We didn't really need to vote. And the people there were seen representatives of their neighborhood groups. So if they were doing their jobs they did not arrogate to themselves any special power. They would take issues back to their group,  clear them with whomever they needed to clear it, and then come back to us. So there was an accountability that was very helpful.

On the damage that had been done from the condemnation lines:

By the time I got into this in August 1968 the condemnation lines had already been laid down. And in some ways a lot of the damage from the expressway planning had been done... These were people who lived their whole lives in Canton, Highlandtown, Fells Point, West Baltimore, South Baltimore too. This was very, very disturbing for a lot of people and there were stories of elderly people who  died of broken hearts from the idea of having to move from the neighborhoods that they had lived in all their lives and to which they were deeply committed. What I'm saying is there was some damage that was already done that could not be reversed even by MAD. What MAD was able to do with the help of others was prevent the building of the expressway.

 On a very interesting map:

One of our members, Jack Bond, who just died two years ago, worked for a local car rental agency and he came to every meeting. I think he lived in Roland Park. He came up with a wonderful suggestion once... Why don't we design an expressway ourselves that only took six houses? The mayor's (Thomas D'Alessandro III, the president of the City Council (William Donald Schaefer) and, Joe Axelrod  the highway engineer, who lived in Annapolis (the other three homes taken by the map were those of Greater Baltimore Committee head,William Boucher, Bernard Werner a consultant to the State Roads Commision, and Dr. F. Pierce Linaweaver the city public works director). So basically to make a long story short, we developed a sketch of this expressway, and it got picked up by a Sun reporter (scroll down to the fourth article). She went around and interviewed everybody. Mayor Schaefer and all these other people. It got a lot of attention. It was using ridicule to make a point, that these people didn't have to get out of their houses. They were planning for everybody else.

On flying a banner on a plane at the City Fair:

One time I worked on a banner...that was 220 ft wide. It was about as wide as the expressway would have been with all 12 lanes. It said “Stop The Mayor's Road”. We carried it into the city fair. This was the pride and joy of the city officials... to have this downtown fair. And we walked on there with this thing. And it took them 20 minutes to see what was going on and they threw us out. The next year what we did was we rented an airplane. We each kicked in  $25 and we had it fly over the city fair. And there was nothing they could do about that.

On the V.O.L.P.E. V. Volpe Lawsuit:

Richard Volpe was the head of the US Department of Transportation. He was the defendant. The plaintiffs in that case were the Volunteers Opposed to the Leakin Park Expressway (V.O.LP.E.) They came up with that name on purpose. And in fact their lawyer I believe was pro bono from Piper and Marbury at the time. He's now the city solicitor, George Nilson.

On an inspirational meeting at Edmondson High School and MAD's turning point:

One of the big turning points for us I believe was in 1969.  A public hearing was scheduled for early in the summer. It was one of the first public hearings on on the 3A plan and we got them to postpone it. This was because they were not following their own federal regulations, which required that public hearings be preceded by public informational meetings.   We insisted that they follow their own rules.  As a result, they first held this informational meeting  at which they described what the issues were.  It was held in Edmondson High School in  June of 1969.

People from the community were invited to come and learn about what the highway engineers planned to do. And Rosemont was a very controversial area. [The highway] was coming down from Leakin Park. It would have come down from Rosemont to join up with Franklin Mulberry. Rosemont was a stable middle-class African-American neighborhood.  Joe Wyles (a prominent African-American activist) was from there and a number of other MAD people were too. They just felt it was going to destroy their community and there were some alternative routes for Rosemont, several different ones. And one of them involved going through a cemetery south of Edmondson Highway which had generally white people [buried in it].

Anyway Rosemont, was a middle class area. People had come to this  explanatory meeting and the engineers were in the front [with] the planners... And you had these two groups and they're sitting on opposite sides of the Edmondson High School auditorium. One is white, generally younger and the other's black of all ages but somewhat older. They were sitting on opposite ends of the auditorium and this young white guy who was  the spokesman for the white  group gets up and says “we do not want this highway to go through the cemetery and even though there are rules about disenterring people and reenterring them we don't want these graves disturbed. They mean a lot to us our kinfolk are there” and so and so. When he was through, this elderly African-American man from Rosemont, he says “I've moved 3 times in the last thirteen years because of changes in these condemnation lines. "Hey, sait a minute," he says, I'm alive now, you're talking about dead people. I'm alive right now and I'm threatened by this road. And our neighborhood is threatened by this road.” It was very eloquent. Anyway they each made their point and then all of a sudden the young white guy gets up. He didn't want to be played off against the African-American. He says “we're against the road because it's going to mess up our cemetery with our dead loved ones. You're against the road because you're living in this area. Let's get together and fight it together. and you saw this group of people move together in that auditorium. I imagine there were whites who had never sat in an auditorium with blacks before and that was emblematic of the kinds of things that happened, people pulling together.

Anyways 2 months later in August. they had the public hearing, and it was big.   It went on for three days. 600 people attended. Most people testified against the road plans. Everybody except for two groups: the Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Baltimore Committee. And they did not speak in favor of the road.  Instead, they just put in written testimony.  The hearing got well covered in the press.


From my interview with Art Cohen and my own research about MAD, several things stand out to me. The first is that MAD was an organization made up of regular people and not just elites. It was also a truly multiracial coalition where blacks from West Baltimore worked together with whites from south and east sides. A remarkable feat given the large scale white flight that was taking place at the time. Another characteristic of MAD is that it was not dominated by any one person. Of course it had leaders but it was clearly a group effort with no one person taking all the credit for the work that was done. The third and final observation I’d like to note, is that for all its successes MAD failed to stop construction of the “Highway to Nowhere”. (Those interested in learning more about the “Highway to Nowhere” and MAD’s fight to stop it should read Andrew Giguere’s Masters Thesis on the subject). As painful as it may be it is always important to learn from them so that they will not happen again.

I’m a big believer that one cannot plan for the future unless they understand the past. Through understanding both the successes and the challenges faced by MAD it is my hope that those who wish to speak truth to power on transportation or any other issue will be able to draw inspiration and guidance.


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