Asphalt arteries cut off communities from Druid Hill Park

Baltimore's Druid Hill Park ranks with distinction among a very short list of large historic urban parks in America. With a pastoral landscape, picturesque reservoir and even the Maryland Zoo, it is a popular destination for not only Baltimore residents but also for visitors from the surrounding region. Yet somehow, its bordering neighborhoods have not benefited from being next to such a landmark amenity. They have not thrived as sought-after communities and are instead deserts to recreation, greenery and quality of life.

Certainly, there are many complex factors that shape the health of communities and that make their success so elusive. But there is one very obvious reason why Druid Hill Park does not contribute to its surrounding neighborhoods: It is bordered by very wide, fast streets that act as physical barriers, separating the park from its surrounding communities as a green island among a sea of asphalt arteries.

Clearly, these streets were not designed for pedestrian access and neighborhood connectivity. So, what were they designed for? As with many of the worst urban conditions in Baltimore, Druid Park Lake Drive, Auchentoroly Terrace and Reisterstown Road are the products of flawed 20th century transportation planning principles that prioritized traffic in the design of streets above all else. It used to be that streets were places for people, businesses and neighborhoods. They were social spaces with a sense of place and identity with multiple uses in additional to mobility. But in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, they became nothing more than plumbing for cars. Their overriding design criteria was to increase flow and relieve congestion. These streets, quite literally, hastened the flight from American cities. Facilitating travel away from the city center reduced urban populations and promoted suburban sprawl. The results are barren border territories that are unfriendly to people and draining to neighborhoods. The damage done from that era of city planning was so severe that American cities like Baltimore have yet to fully recover.

We have the opportunity today to restore the city streets to be what they should be. As Mayor Pugh will soon fill the long vacant position for the director of the Department of Transportation, she can appoint a visionary champion of "complete streets" to powerfully impact the economic and social fabric of the city. Complete streets is a planning approach that posits that streets are for everyone: for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, transit riders, for people of all ages to use and enjoy. Officially, the Baltimore Department of Transportation has had a complete streets policy for some time now. But meaningful application of the policy has not yet materialized. Real innovation will require boldness in leadership that stands up to NIMBY dissenters. It will require dedication to reform how streets are planned and projects are implemented, abandoning outdated principles and regulations that have no place in the urban environment.

At Druid Hill Park, the city has a chance to really demonstrate that it is serious about complete streets. For the next five years, the Department of Public Works (DPW) will be burying next to Druid Lake two gigantic underground finished water storage tanks to comply with the U.S. EPA rule for surface water treatment. This project will have significant implications to Druid Park as it will transform the landscape and change the nature of Druid Lake, divorcing it from its function as a reservoir. Moreover, this major infrastructure project will have an impact on Druid Park Lake Drive with inevitable lane closures throughout the duration of construction for the replacement of subsurface water lines. As these closures occur, this is a chance for the city to reimagine the character of Druid Park Lake Drive — to redesign it as a neighborhood-scaled complete street that complements the character of the park and improves its relationship to surrounding communities.

As Druid Park Lake Drive is torn up for construction, there is no reason why the same flawed conditions should be replaced once the work is done. It can instead become a tree-lined boulevard with street parking and a bicycle side path. And crosswalks can be improved and added to provide multiple points of pedestrian access to the park. Meanwhile, the impact of the infrastructure changes affords an incredible opportunity to reimagine Druid Lake to be a recreational lake that has active uses such as boating, fishing and ecological education. And as the area around the lake is disturbed, new programmed public spaces can be made for outdoor concerts, festivals and events.

Because of the level of disturbance of the DPW project, we have the opportunity to reimagine the entire south end of Druid Park and how it engages adjacent communities. It can become a popular destination with cultural events and also be an amenity to the surrounding neighborhoods. But this is only possible if the city leads with a clear vision with unprecedented departmental collaboration and meaningful community participation. Druid Hill Park can then not only be a destination for outsiders, but it could finally feel like a neighborhood park to the surrounding communities. And this will improve the quality of life and the desirability of those areas, catapulting them to their full potential as communities fronting a great urban park.

Davin Hong (dhong@livingdesignlab.com) is an architect, planner and advocate for Baltimore neighborhoods; he is also the founder Living Design Lab, a design firm committed to design excellence, innovation and social impact.

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