In the heart of Druid Hill Park, the wild things roam.
Right behind the basketball courts, one of the most popular hangouts in Baltimore's favorite park, swallows swoop over blooming thistle. Rabbits, hawks and foxes stalk the knee-high weeds.
The meadow across the street from the Department of Recreation and Parks headquarters used to be a manicured lawn. Three years ago, the city let it grow. And wildlife returned.
Baltimore is one of several jurisdictions allowing sections of cultivated parkland to return to their natural state. It's not only for environmental reasons. The new philosophy also helps departments that have been hard hit by budget cuts.
In Maryland, it led to the state parks' "Grow Not Mow" program, which has a goal of reducing the amount of land that is mowed by 25 percent. Wildflowers now bloom along the roads winding through Patapsco Valley State Park in Carroll, Baltimore and Howard counties.
The National Parks Service, New York state, Seattle, Toronto and Louisville, Ky., have begun similar programs, along with "community forestry" to get the public more involved in tree conservation. While there are scattered efforts, the Arlington, Va.-based National Recreation and Parks Association found no nationwide pattern.
"I think we're seeing some change -- that there is value to naturalness," says Thomas Lyons, director of environmental management for New York state's park system.
Lisa Hite, a Baltimore parks planner, believes the city's effort was one of the first. The city stopped mowing sections of its 2,000 acres of parkland used for recreation and nature trails, although ball fields, tennis courts and picnic areas still are neatly groomed.
"We're beginning to see bits and pieces of it across the country," she says.
Wild grasses and trees prevent dirty city storm water from washing into the streams that feed the Chesapeake Bay. They also control flooding and filter out pollutants.
"When it rains, all the water that washes off the street takes with it trash, oil and asbestos and all," Ms. Hite says. "Short grass is not a very good filtering agent. If you let it grow, you greatly improve the quality of water that goes into the stream."
Graduate students from the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies have spent the past five summers planting wildflower meadows and developing conservation plans for Baltimore's parks. They're strong advocates of leaving some land untouched.
The interns also have taught 30 Baltimore neighborhoods to care for trees. They try to identify a "tree steward," who will check for uprooted trees and broken limbs after a storm. The program saves parks crews from making dozens of separate trips.
Calvin P. Buikema, the city's superintendent of parks, says the back-to-nature trend has helped him cope with a decade of budget cuts that thinned his work force by 60 percent. Mr. Buikema now has just 318 employees to cover five park districts, several golf courses, Memorial Stadium and an ice rink.
"Parks and recreation departments around the country are some of the first units to suffer when we have a fiscal crisis," he says. "We can complain, but it's better to take a positive approach. These are really sound practices to help the environment and the Chesapeake Bay."
Not everyone is enthusiastic right away, admits Shawn Dalton, 29, the project coordinator for the Urban Resources Initiative, the joint conservation effort by the city and Yale. The university, city and community groups share the $100,000 cost.
City dwellers sometimes call to complain about the weed patches.
"We try to explain to them that it's not because we don't like short grass. It's because we like clean water," Ms. Dalton says.
Gary Burnett, Patapsco's assistant park manager, says surprisingly few people have complained about the unmowed fields. "We've found aesthetically it doesn't bother people at all."
Baltimore's effort is strongly supported by environmental activists, who plan to lobby the City Council this fall to approve comprehensive parks legislation. Anneke Davis of the Baltimore Environmental Center says residents want to be better informed before public green space is sold to developers, or leased for a skating rink or television tower.
"Basically, the citizens find out about it when it goes to the planning commission for approval," Ms. Davis says. "Sometimes it's too late to stop. We want a mechanism so the citizens have a better say about what happens to the parks."