Designers see Baltimore greenway as national model


Within a few years, people will be able to walk or bike all the way from Leakin Park in northwest Baltimore to Camden Yards -- without crossing a street -- by following a linear park called the Gwynns Falls Greenway.

Derelict stretches of the stream valley that now are strewn with tires and discarded furniture will be transformed into a landscaped pathway for nature lovers and urban commuters.

A series of pedestrian bridges across the stream will double as neighborhood gathering spots, with coffee shops, snowball stands and community tool sheds built into the sides of the wooden spans.

Midway along the route will be the "growing center," a nursery and educational facility that would provide plants for the greenway and jobs for those who tend them.

It's all part of a vision developed by Diana Balmori, a prominent landscape architect from New Haven, Conn., and Meg Webster, an environmental sculptor from New York.

They head a multi-disciplinary team that won a competition this month to design "high quality, interactive amenities" for the greenway.

The linear park and recreational trail has been proposed to follow the Gwynns Falls stream valley for six miles from Leakin Park in Northwest Baltimore through the city to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

As conceived by the Schmoke administration, it will ultimately linkthe B&O; Railroad Museum, Mount Clare Mansion and Camden Yards with Owings Mills to the north and the Patapsco Valley to the south and west. It will also connect 20 Baltimore neighborhoods to the waterway and to each other.

Sponsors have raised $1.9 million to complete the first phase of construction. The estimated cost is $4.5 million, with funding from public and private sources. Work is due to begin in mid-1995.

Ms. Balmori has been the landscape architect for some of the country's best-known public spaces, including the Winter Garden of the World Financial Center in New York and the plaza of the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles.

She said she put together a team to enter Baltimore's competition because she believes the Gwynns Falls Greenway is a nationally significant project for the 21st century.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, she said, linear parks have become as valuable an amenity for today's cash-strapped cities as land-intensive central parks were for cities in the 19th century.

"Linear parks are a new model of public space in urban America, and whoever does one extremely well will set the standard," she said.

"I see it as the modest beginning of a different kind of society, a society in which people can move on foot and have the experience of being out in nature and free of the automobile and the noise of the city," she continued. "In many ways, it will be a social experiment."

Ms. Balmori also sees the Gwynns Falls Greenway as the start of a network of linear parks in Baltimore that could eventually radiate from the center of the city like spokes from the hub of a wheel.

Such a network could be as important to Baltimoreans in the future as the Inner Harbor shoreline improvements were in the 1970s and 1980s, she said. "It'll be a new way of looking at and moving through the city."

The idea of creating a public greenway along the Gwynns Falls was first proposed by the Olmsted Brothers, noted landscape architects, in 1904. They recommended that the city acquire the stream valley to provide a natural wilderness setting for city dwellers.

In recent years, parks advocates resurrected the Olmsteds' idea and have begun to obtain the rights of way and easements needed to ensure continuous public access along the stream bed.

The design competition for the greenway, which drew 19 entrants and three finalists, was sponsored by the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore and administered by the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture.

Others involved in creating the trail include the Trust for Public Land, the Parks and People Foundation, and representatives of the city and state governments.

Ms. Balmori, a native of Spain who is married to architect Cesar Pelli, heads Balmori Associates, a landscape and urban design firm that concentrates on the design of public spaces. She also teaches forestry students at Yale University and recently co-wrote a book about greenways for the National Rails-to-Trails organization.

Nationally, she has become a leading advocate of the linear park or multi-use greenway as "the most dramatic development" in American park design today.

As thousands of miles of railroad corridors, former canals and other transportation routes are abandoned, she said, converting them to multi-use trails makes sense because it preserves the corridor system, the landscape and significant portions of the area's heritage.

"Existing parks are under siege and need great infusions of money, which the public sector no longer has available," she said.

Despite changing demographics and the need to address concerns about public safety, she said, linear parks "can become lively, overlaid places" that "reach out to urban dwellers and offer a welcoming environment."

Ms. Webster, a San Francisco native trained at Yale and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., is a sculptor with a strong interest in landscape architecture.

Her works "use nature like bait to lure us back to Eden," wrote art critic Ann Lloyd.

During a public presentation of the group's proposal earlier this month, Ms. Webster painted a picture of the greenway as a series of spaces where people would be encouraged to "hang out and look at the water," including treehouses, coffee shops, snowball stands and community message centers.

"We're trying to connect the people to the resource and to make the resource fully serve the people's needs," Ms. Webster said.

Other members of the winning team are architect Jonathan Fishman, engineer Brian Stephenson and urban historian W. Edward Orser, all from Baltimore, and ecologist William Burch of New Haven. Besides receiving $3,000, the winning team will get to negotiate a contract to carry out their design.

Ms. Balmori said the Gwynns Falls Greenway is well suited as a national model because it traverses many different topographies and land uses, from residential to industrial.

But what really sets it apart, she said, is that its path leads from the outskirts of the city to the center. Many greenways connect one suburban area to another but never link up with downtown because real estate there is too expensive, she said.

Because the Gwynns Falls flows near the state's already-assembled Camden Yards sports complex, she explained, it will have a built-in link to the Inner Harbor.

The Trust for Public Land has been working to acquire several parcels that will take people from the greenway to Camden Yards -- and vice versa.

Ms. Balmori predicted that people will one day use the trail for commuting on bicycles as well as for recreation and tourism.

For those seeking to demonstrate how greenways can enhance urban life, she said, the Gwynns Falls offers "an ideal set of conditions."

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