Look inward, Baltimore, for open space


BALTIMORE, as seen from the sky: A sprawling city with a lot of holes in it, a ribbon of asphalt around it and, beyond the Beltway, a vast greenery becoming more and more gray, cluttered with houses, shopping malls and office buildings. At certain hours of the day, the roads are choked with cars. Life here looks like one big exit ramp.

Some day in the next century, historians will note how, for the last half of the 20th century - particularly its last two decades - people and businesses steadily left the city, abandoning whole blocks, while the great green spaces around us dwindled. It will appear on the historical charts as an epoch of exodus, created by racial antagonism, postwar economic opportunity and federal highway funds. Only the most objective historian will refrain from noting it as a period of loss.

Twenty years ago, a newcomer to the Queen City of the Patapsco Drainage Basin noted with pleasure how simple it was to escape Baltimore's urban center, scale its industrial ramparts and be gone. A few minutes in a car up the Jones Falls Expressway and everything was green and lush. A moonlit drive to Sagamore Farm from a restored rowhouse in Butchers Hill took 30 minutes, tops.

How many other cities could offer such easy and breezy access to a rural area? It was a genuine amenity: We don't live in The Valley, hon, but we can go gawk at it. (The first time I saw Valley People dressed in red riding jackets and breeches they were gathered on horseback in a pasture off Falls Road, near Shawan Road. Such a thing I had only seen on a place mat.)

But we all know this, don't we? Things have changed.

Last year, Michael Conte, director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, looked at post office change-of-address forms to get an idea of residential flight from Baltimore.

"What we see from the data," he said, "is that the primary trend clearly does continue to reflect movement from the city and out of the city, not to the suburbs, but to the 'exurbs,' to those areas outside the traditional suburban areas." The only part of the city that showed strong inward migration was Canton.

By contrast, there's Harford County. And White Marsh. Gone for a ride in the country, perhaps Carroll County, near Hampstead and Manchester? Tried to drive up Route 30? Can anyone do Baltimore-to-Westminster in less than an hour? Been up York Road, north of Hunt Valley? Seen the grotesque development there? Tried to get through traffic at Greenspring Valley Road and Falls Road?

Meanwhile, have you noticed all the holes in Baltimore? We're talking about 40,000 vacant houses, and numerous vacant lots where vacant rowhouses once stood. Downtown, just a few blocks from the Inner Harbor, you still can find plenty of available office and retail space. There are some impressive plans for the second downtown renaissance, but redevelopment in Baltimore never seems to keep up with new development in the suburbs and exurbs, so the imbalance remains. Gray spreads. Green dwindles.

The best part of Smart Growth is how it rewards local governments and businesses that make commitments to reviving older areas and sparing open space. In Carroll County, after years of loosely controlled growth and a building boom, officials whine that the state won't provide funds for bypasses to relieve traffic congestion. But why should the state reward bad planning and the unfettered taking of open space?

In Baltimore County, residents banded together and lobbied the County Council to restrict commercial development at the already-congested Greenspring-Falls-Joppa crossroads. Good for them. Maybe the people who want to build tall office buildings will look elsewhere for investment - like downtown Baltimore.

More and more people have embraced Smart Growth because it constitutes big-picture thinking for a metropolitan area - an entire state, really - in for a population explosion. (Maryland will add about a million people to its present 5 million by 2020, according to the state Office of Planning.) Unless we look inward - toward the center of town, to downtown Baltimore, to the older suburbs - we won't be able to accommodate the boom without losing more of the green.

Pardon me, while I finish with an organic flourish.

Attention, baby boomers, children of the '60s and '70s! Listen up, Gen X! It's time for a holistic approach to everything, including the brick and mortar of development. We need to:

Fix the city. Save the public schools. Build new housing - maybe detached suburban-style housing - inside the city. (We're not married to the rowhouse, are we?) Grow grass. Train poor men and women to rehabilitate old houses and put them to work doing that. Encourage businesses to stay put. If they must expand, help them find a way to do it without moving to Delaware, for cryin' out loud. Encourage people to buy in the city and the older suburbs. Redevelop old commercial strips in Baltimore and the surrounding counties. Give loans with easy terms to low-income homeowners to fix up their aging suburban houses. Build more mass transit, and use it. Elect people who think this way and support the ones who already do. Give to St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. Volunteer somewhere. Support small local businesses. Eat more vegetables. Exercise regularly. Feed the birds. Say hello to your neighbor.

I feel better already. You?

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