Green spaces boost Baltimore's bottom line

Op-ed: Baltimore's tax code threatens community-run green spaces.

"Serene" isn't a word that comes to mind when you imagine the intersection of North and Greenmount avenues. But just off this busy junction, nestled behind Rite Aid, is Brentwood Commons, a peaceful park with trees, grass, and flowering shrubs — and remarkably little litter. This tiny park is a powerhouse: Since it was created from the ruins of an abandoned garage, all the alley houses facing the park have been rehabbed or purchased for rehab.

In West Baltimore just south of Hanlon Park is the Victorine Q. Adams Organic Garden, a vegetable garden with a large grassy area where each summer the block club hosts 200 residents and guests for an annual barbecue. Not long ago, the garden was an untended, weed-filled lot — just a right-of-way for sewer pipes. Now it is a magnet that creates community, provides fresh vegetables and teaches gardening to foster children.

Spaces like these enhance neighborhoods throughout Baltimore, but for many of them survival is precarious because the tax code treats them differently from city-run parks. The City Council should remedy that situation, strengthening and protecting these precious community resources, to the benefit of all.

As everybody knows, Baltimore has no lack of vacant lots — about 15,000 — and many of them are a drag on their neighborhoods. The good news is that throughout the city, and especially where the vacants lay heaviest, residents have created more than 200 green spaces on about 900 lots. These are unique spaces where citizens take their neighborhoods' well-being into their own hands.

How so? For starters, a study from Youngstown, Ohio, showed that community-managed open spaces reduce assaults — and not just by pushing them elsewhere. Here in Baltimore, the Memory Garden, at the corner of Carey and Mosher streets, was planted on a corner that had seen too many shootings. There have been no shootings since.

Community-managed open spaces, including the forest patches that dot the outer areas of the city, provide precious access to nature. A large body of research has established that people with access to a little bit of nature — or even a view — are healthier than people who have no access. A Johns Hopkins University study showed that the areas of Baltimore with the greatest poverty are also those with the highest incidence of cardiovascular disease and stroke. These are also the areas with the least green surroundings — and in such neighborhoods, grass-roots greening is important self-care.

Community gardens, pocket parks and forest patches are places where adults and children can get their hands dirty caring for plants. Consider Springfield Woods, a 2.5-acre forest patch bordering Wilson Park. Now that much of it has been reclaimed from ivy and other invasive plants, and paths have been created, children once again explore the woods.

Baltimore's community-managed open spaces deserve the same kind of land security as our parks. The city's land trusts provide that security for a few community gardens and other green spaces. Most Baltimoreans would probably be surprised if they knew that once a community-managed open space is preserved, the land trust must typically pay property taxes. A bill currently before the City Council would correct this by providing a property tax exemption. This will allow our land trusts to offer protection to a greater number of community spaces.

How would that affect the bottom line in our cash-strapped city? Just fine. A study of community gardens in New York showed a substantial increase in property taxes near community gardens. In Philadelphia they've found that even one or two vacant lots on a block depresses housing values. In other words, when residents and would-be residents see community gardens and pocket parks instead of vacant lots, they intuitively understand that they are in a livelier, healthier, safer neighborhood.

We can see this on the ground in Baltimore. For example, a contractor decided to take a chance on rehabbing houses near Hollins Market after he saw chickens in the Mount Clare Street Community Garden. The manager of the apartment building across from Whitelock Community Farm in Reservoir Hill finds the green space a draw for tenants. And then, of course, there are the rehabbed houses across from Brentwood Commons.

Baltimore City should take the opportunity to help ensure that community-managed open spaces aren't edged out, and can continue to make our neighborhoods better places to live.

Miriam Avins is founder and executive director of Baltimore Green Space; her email is miriam@baltimoregreenspace.org.

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