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Red burlap, 'green' effort

The Baltimore Sun

When a local art student erected a golden chain-link fence around Mount Vernon Place earlier this spring, downtown residents who normally enjoy free access to their favorite neighborhood park reacted with outrage.

Southeast Baltimoreans will encounter another example of "environmental installation art" this weekend -- albeit to very different effect. Nearly 9,000 feet of red burlap will festoon the western edge of Patterson Park, swaths laid out along the ground like a network of fabric paths.

Neighbors, in this case, seem to be welcoming this project, whose organizers hope to entice people to the park.

"This is entirely different than the 'gold fence,'" says Marisa Vilardo, president of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association. "We use the park every day. We'd never support anything that excludes people. This invites everyone in."

At Patterson Park, the 3-foot-wide sashes periodically encase a trunk of an unsuspecting elm or maple as a decorative ribbon might a Christmas gift.

"Our idea is pretty simple," says Rachael Baird, a local designer who helped organize the sprawling exhibit, Park Life/City Movement. "We want people to get out amongst the trees."

Baird and her business partner, Jessica Pegorsch, have long been interested in spotlighting and supporting environmental causes. Since 2003, a nonprofit arm of the Baltimore design firm they co-own, the Tilt Studio Foundation, has developed projects that raise awareness about the environment and suggest ways ordinary people can contribute to its health.

Park Life/City Movement is a bit smaller scale as "environmental installation art" than the works concocted by Christo, the Hungarian-born artist who erected more than 7,500 saffron-colored gates along the paths of Central Park in New York three years ago. But the Patterson Park exhibit is part of a larger enterprise called Baltimore: The Urban Forest Project, also a Tilt brainchild. For the past month, the company has brought together the work of more than 400 local artisans, designers and students, the efforts of city officials, and the planning of architects to spread the message of sustainability.

Baltimore: The Urban Forest Project has created environmentally themed public art, including hanging more than 350 banners along several city streets. The banners, made from recycled plastic materials, suggest the importance of trees.

"It's a symbolic urban forest within the city," says Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the project.

At Patterson Park, the ribbons -- burlap stained red by natural dyes -- will form just one element of the installation. Snaking more than 5,000 feet northward from the southwest corner of South Patterson Park and Eastern avenues, they delineate an easily traveled path in the direction of the park's famed pagoda.

Yesterday, 80 volunteers were also driving more than 600 wooden stakes in the ground to create another path, one that intersects the ribbon roadway and travels along a northwest-southeast axis. Designers are attaching to many of those stakes laminated cards that share such information as the number of tree species in Patterson Park (59) and the number of street trees in Baltimore (about 300,000).

"Those are places where visitors can pause and reflect" on the importance of trees to the environment rather than racing past them as we often do, Roberts says.

Baird and Pegorsch have piggybacked Baltimore: The Urban Forest Project onto another "green" initiative called TreeBaltimore. Through the office of Mayor Sheila Dixon, it aims to double Baltimore's "urban canopy" -- that is, the amount of terrain covered by trees as seen from a bird's-eye view -- from 20 percent to 40 percent by the year 2030.

"This exhibition ... is part of the effort to raise awareness for the TreeBaltimore program as well as reinforce the value of our tree canopy, city parks and green spaces," said Anne Draddy of the city Department of Recreation and Parks.

From noon to 4 p.m. tomorrow at Patterson Park, Park Life/City Movement will feature live music by local bands; kids' activities including bubble machines, face painting and a station at which participants can design their own leaf; and talks by experts on the environment and Baltimore's urban canopy. The exhibition continues Sunday and will be taken down Monday.

None of the effort -- and none of the materials -- will be wasted. For instance, the burlap will be distributed to area nurseries.


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