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Catonsville resident sees the whole picture to save open space

Catonsville resident Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore City architect, is shown in front of Catonsville Elementary School. Philipsen is president of NeighborSpace of Baltimore County, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve open space in Baltimore County.
Catonsville resident Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore City architect, is shown in front of Catonsville Elementary School. Philipsen is president of NeighborSpace of Baltimore County, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve open space in Baltimore County. (Photo by Nicole Munchel)

Catonsville resident Klaus Philipsen has a vision to improve the quality of life for those who live in the Baltimore region, by way of smart growth development.

The Baltimore City architect sees his profession and work in the community as connected.

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Since moving to the United States from Germany in 1986, he has worked with community leaders, developers, public officials and residents to design spaces that make communities more livable.

"He's looking out for the whole of the community in Baltimore County and we need people like him around," said Catonsville resident John "Jack" Murphy, a former president of NeighborSpace of Baltimore County.

Philipsen currently serves as president of NeighborSpace, a nonprofit land trust which aims to preserve open space in Baltimore County within the urban rural demarcation line, a line that divides rural areas from urban areas where services such as water and sewer, are located.

The organization manages properties throughout the county, which it protects from development and preserve as open space.

NeighborSpace, which began in 2003, will soon take over an 11-acre wooded property tucked between the Hilltop Road, Maple Avenue and Patapsco Reserve neighborhoods known as "Saw Mill Branch."

The property is one of many Philipsen has worked to preserve with other members of NeighborSpace, residents and public officials.

Philipsen, president of ArchPlan Inc., an architecture firm in downtown Baltimore, said his civic engagement began as an architecture student in Stuttgart, Germany, where he turned an overgrown vacant lot into an "adventure playground" for his community to enjoy.

The project was done in close collaboration with community members, similar to the way NeighborSpace operates.

"I didn't want to wait for the government to do it so I did the American thing, which is to take matters into your own hands," Philipsen said, "and that is also something that NeighborSpace is doing."

Philipsen said the organization supports the government by doing what it is they are unable to do.

"Government today has to do more with less," said Philipsen, the current president of the Westerlee Community Association, where he has lived since 1991 with his wife, Nayna Philipsen. The couple has six adult children.

Living in Germany influenced his desire to improve the design of communities, he said.

The United States needs to move away from suburban sprawl and plan communities in a better way, which makes more economic sense, he said.

That belief has driven his work promoting smart growth development as a member of the State Planning Commission and as a member of the board of directors of 1000 Friends of Maryland.

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"Essentially, these suburbs need to be reinvented," said Philipsen, who served on the commission's subcommittee on planning techniques for 10 years.

In order to reinvent suburban communities like Catonsville, Philipsen said transportation and services need to be improved, a variety of housing needs to exist and residents need access to open space.

Those things attract young home buyers into a community and make others want to stay, Philipsen said.

They will also allow Baltimore County to compete with Howard and Montgomery counties, he said.

Although Baltimore County is one of the more progressive counties when it comes to preserving open space, it needs to do a lot more to make quality of life better, Philipsen said.

"We share a similar vision — Klaus, [Baltimore County] Councilman Tom Quirk and I — for making Catonsville a bikeable and walkable community," said Scott Graham, who served on the Catonsville 2000 committee with Philipsen. "He's just a wealth of information and has a great vision for what Catonsville should be."

Quirk has been an advocate for creating walkable and bikeable communities and supportive of NeighborSpace. "Klaus is definitely a visionary, a big thinker and an intellectual...I view him as a go-to person for many issues," Quirk said.

Philipsen is no stranger to the way governments operate.

He once served as a member of the borough council in Bad Cannstatt, a historic area in Stuttgart, the sixth-largest city in Germany. That experience has helped him understand how to forge private-public partnerships to benefit the community.

Although NeighborSpace was met with opposition at a recent community meeting in Catonsville about the future of the property, Philipsen said he is optimistic that residents will realize the importance of making a plan to preserve the land as open space that can be enjoyed by future generations.

"People will come around to seeing that it is worth protecting this space in a more organized manner than just letting everything go the way it was," Philipsen said.

Many who live near the Saw Mill Branch property would like to see the land left the way it is, but Philipsen said the community needs a plan to protect the property.

"It was clearly an asset to the surrounding communities for 75 years. But people who believe that it would be possible to just do nothing and have 75 more years guaranteed are blind to the fact that freezing time is not possible," Philipsen said.

Although Philipsen considers himself an environmentalist "in the broadest sense of the word," he doesn't believe being pro-development and an environmentalist are mutually exclusive, he said.

"I'm always opposed to this bifurcation of environmentalist vs. pro-development because in the strategic plane, this is intertwined," he said.

NeighborSpace wants to work with developers and make themselves more development-friendly, he said.

The organization is not anti-development, Philipsen said. Instead, the goal is for they want to see development in state designated High Priority Funding (HPF) areas, where the state aims to promote development and revitalization of urbanized areas, he said.

"We want this done in a manner that provides residents a high quality of life," Philipsen said. "And the high quality of life includes allowing every citizen access to open space within a reasonable distance."

Barbara Hopkins, executive director of NeighborSpace who has worked with Philipsen since 2009, said he has been responsible for providing leadership that has made the organization proactive rather than reactive. she said.

The group is working with the National Park Service to create a geographic information systems map that determines areas within the urban rural demarcation line that should be preserved as open space, which will allow the group to prioritize conservation areas, Hopkins said.

"There are not many people who have done this in an urban area," Hopkins said.

"People are going to see his vision more clearly once the launch of this mapping process is complete," she said.

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