Working on the idea that access to green space can transform city neighborhoods and improve local economies, the Obama administration is set to announce a series of measures in Baltimore aimed at increasing the number of community parks, outdoor classrooms and gardens in the city.
The initiatives, which White House officials will unveil at a meeting with city leaders today in West Baltimore, include a pilot program intended to help neighborhoods reclaim vacant lots and the installation of a monitor at the Inner Harbor that will provide real-time data about water quality conditions.
Though federal officials stressed the effort is more about developing a vision than funding, the ideas will be backed with about $750,000 in grants. The focus on Baltimore comes at a time when public money for parks has shrunk, and governments are increasingly scouting for new ideas to maintain and expand them.
It is also the latest manifestation of direct involvement by the White House in Baltimore since last year's riots following the death of Freddie Gray splashed the city — and its deep socio-economic problems — onto a national stage. The administration created a task force last year that is working to bring federal agencies together to develop exactly these kinds of programs.
The administration has announced millions in Department of Labor grants for job training programs in the city. At the same time, the Department of Justice is negotiating a consent decree with City Hall following a scathing report this summer that laid bare a history of discriminatory policing.
"The whole impetus here is to show that environmental investments at the community level can really revitalize the community," said Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
"This is not an exercise in just responding to social problems by building playgrounds," she said. "This is really about environmental justice and looking at the changes that are needed to improve quality of life."
Among the ideas is a pilot program by the Department of Agriculture that would help residents access free or low-cost tools and training needed to turn vacant city lots into gardens, augmenting local efforts on that front. Federal officials said they envision a brick-and-mortar center where residents could, for example, buy or borrow gardening tools or topsoil.
About 1,080 city-owned vacant lots were adopted by neighborhood groups and residents last year, and surveys indicate that nearly 80 percent of those are now "working green sites" or in progress, according to the Parks & People Foundation. There has been a small uptick in lot adoptions this year, the foundation said.
The group, based in the Mondawmin neighborhood where last year's unrest began, was involved with shaping many of the ideas that will be announced and will host officials from the White House, nonprofits and city today.
"The biggest impact is the scale of so many projects, and so many connections between them," said Lisa Millspaugh Schroeder, the group's president and CEO. "This series of announcements is a way to put forward what is really a complex network of things going on, and also bring federal attention to Baltimore."
Federal officials will also announce that the Fish and Wildlife Service is expanding a wildlife refuge partnership created in 2013 at Masonville Cove to include the Middle Branch watershed through South and West Baltimore. The move would not trigger new environmental regulations, officials said, but it could open a door to additional federal resources for green spaces.
Given the investment proposed for Port Covington by Sagamore Development — the private real estate firm owned by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank — many believe the Middle Branch shoreline will become a development hot spot in coming years. Parks supporters hope to ensure a balance of development and public space when that happens that will benefit nearby neighborhoods.
Sagamore's plans include about 42 acres of parks in Port Covington, including shoreline multi-use trails and playing fields.
Expanding the refuge partnership is an initial step in an effort to "start to think about the vision for the Middle Branch, and how the federal government can be a partner," said Nate Loewentheil, a senior policy adviser at the National Economic Council who leads the White House task force on Baltimore.
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"That could have real impact on those neighborhoods, not next year but five years, 10 years from now," said Loewentheil, a Baltimore native.
Loewentheil's task force has been working largely under the radar for more than a year to cut through federal bureaucracy, encourage development and identify funding for the city.
Administration officials also plan to install a water quality sensor by the trash wheel at the mouth of the Jones Falls to collect real-time data that will be published on websites maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey. The sensor, which will capture data on chemicals and other pollutants entering the harbor, is modeled after programs in other cities that monitor air quality.
The Forest Service, EPA and others will announce a plan to build "schoolyard habitats," or outdoor classrooms, at 10 city schools, including at the Green Street Academy, a charter school on Hilton Street.