With its dandelions, clover and discarded cigarette butts, the little "bioswale" in front of the Salvation Army community center in West Baltimore won't win any lawn-care prizes. But the shallow, weedy depression collects rainfall washing off an acre of litter-strewn pavement and filters out pollution that otherwise would foul the harbor.
City officials and nonprofit leaders took federal environmental officials on a whirlwind tour Tuesday of Franklin Square to show them how they're trying to clean the ailing harbor by greening the blighted neighborhoods that drain into it. The keys to healthier waters, they explained, lie in improving the quality of life of the people who live by those waters.
The tour was organized to brief Environmental Protection Agency officials on how such "green infrastructure" projects as the bioswale are working in challenging urban settings like Baltimore, which besides its water quality problems is beset by high levels of poverty and housing abandonment.
It came 11 months after EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and other agency leaders launched a federal partnership aimed at revitalizing urban waters and the communities that surround them. Baltimore was chosen as one of seven pilot projects where federal expertise but little money would be offered under the initiative.
"These ultra-urban environments … they're incredibly important places socially and economically, but they're also very hard to work in," said J. Morgan Grove, a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service based in Baltimore.
More than a third of the city — roughly 30 square miles, by officials' estimates — is covered with asphalt, pavement or buildings, which flush pet waste, trash and other pollution into storm drains whenever it rains.
The city has put in about 350 rain gardens, storm drain upgrades and other projects aimed at reducing polluted runoff, but needs at least 300 more to start making a dent in the problem, said Kimberly T. Burgess, head of surface water management for the city's Department of Public Works. Looking over the patchy green spot by the Salvation Army, she noted that the effectiveness of such projects depends in large part on how well maintained they are.
Boarded-up homes and vacant lots mark every block, but city officials said they're working to turn that problem into an asset by converting the abandoned land into community gardens, urban farms, parks and other spaces that would be created and cared for by neighborhood residents.
The greening spirit has caught on at Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School, where Principal Terry Patton and students on her "green team" touted their recycling drive and the conversion of more than an acre of old pavement into a grassy field with a tree-lined "reading circle" in it.
City officials hope to launch a new round of greening work in the near future, after consulting with neighborhood groups on priorities. Guy W. Hager of the Parks & People Foundation said his group plans to do 15 projects over the next two years.
Though state money and foundation grants are helping to underwrite additional greening, city officials said they are hobbled by a lack of funds to clear more land and provide residents with the tools they need to maintain new gardens and green spaces. Beth Strommen, director of the city's sustainability office, lamented permit delays that she said are slowing efforts to encourage urban gardening and farming.
Shawn M. Garvin, the EPA's Mid-Atlantic regional administrator, suggested that the solutions to urban pollution are likely to come from the communities themselves rather than from Washington.
"Everyone wants to be the greenest mayor, to be the greenest city," he said. "There is no cookie cutter to any of this.''