Baltimore's green necklace

When people think of Baltimore, things such as the aquarium, Camden Yards, the Ravens, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Chesapeake Bay, blue crabs and perhaps past crime shows immediately come to mind. But I believe we have another asset that is unappreciated and worthy of recognition.

The Boston metro area has a thin, green, linear, 1,100-acre open space area consisting of parks, waterways and parkways that, when viewed from the air, resembles an emerald necklace. This feature is difficult for most Bostonians to visualize from ground level but is, nonetheless, a symbol of the area and a source of local pride. Similarly, some Chicago-area residents take great pride in and identify with their large, 68,000-acre, somewhat contiguous Cook County Forest Preserve that forms a partial green ribbon around the metro area.

The Baltimore region not only has a number of outstanding parks and the internationally known Inner Harbor, with its outstanding public walkway, but also a system of protected open space, both public and private, that is arguably more impressive than that in Boston, Chicago and most other major metropolitan areas. Yet, it is not generally recognized, appreciated or marketed as a regional resource. The area to which I refer needs a name; I would call it the Baltimore Greenbelt. A greenbelt is defined by the Webster's dictionary as a belt of parks or farmland around an existing community.

The Baltimore Greenbelt, as I would define it, is tangent to all six jurisdictions of the Baltimore region. It begins with two stream valley or greenway state park bookends — the 18,000-acre Gunpowder State Park on the Baltimore County/Harford County border on the east; and the 16,000-acre Patapsco Valley State Park bordered by Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties on the west. These two heavily wooded parks provide outstanding scenic, environmental and recreational resources. These parks, conceived more than 60 years ago, began to expand greatly as funding become available for park acquisition under the state's Program Open Space, enacted in 1969.

The second component of the greenbelt is our beautiful, often undulating and productive piedmont farmland. Farm preservation programs in three counties in the region — Carroll, Baltimore and Harford — are noted in a Farmland Preservation Report for being among the top 12 most successful, locally operated farm preservation programs in the country. In total, these three counties have protective easements on more than 162,000 acres of mostly farmland. Preserved farmland and woodland in Howard and Anne Arundel counties total another 42,000 acres.

In total, the Baltimore-area counties, using state and local financial aid, and working with landowners, have preserved some 203,000 acres of farmland, or 15 percent of the land in the region, according to the Maryland Department Of Planning. When parkland and other public lands are added, some 24 percent of the lands of the Baltimore region is in a permanent nondevelopable status.

The largely farmland portion of the Baltimore Greenbelt is located between the two state park "bookends." According to the Baltimore County Office Of Environmental Protection And Sustainability, some 35,000 acres of permanently protected easements on mostly farmland exists in the Long Green, Gunpowder and Piney Run valleys in Baltimore County.

What led to Baltimore County's success in maintaining such a large protected resource? It can be attributed to the establishment of a growth boundary in the 1960s, along with effective agricultural zoning and public and political support for a voluntary program of acquiring development easements on farmland, working with landowners and private landowner conservancies. The result is an impressive series of largely contiguous agricultural areas north of Loch Raven Reservoir and west over to Liberty Reservoir.

The third component of the Baltimore Greenbelt is Loch Raven and Liberty reservoirs, and their adjacent public lands, constituting some 17,000 acres of watershed protection areas and available for some low-intensity public recreational uses.

If combined, the three components of park lands (34,000 acres), privately owned and largely agricultural lands with restrictive development easements (35,000 acres) and the reservoir lands (17,000 acres) constitute an impressive total of 86,000 acres of permanently preserved open space. Traveling by car north, east or west, this area is 30 minutes or less from the Inner Harbor during nonpeak travel times. It may constitute the largest, largely contiguous, close-in greenbelt in any metropolitan area in the country.

The half-moon shape of the greenbelt I describe, located largely in Baltimore County, resembles the configuration of the upper portion of the Baltimore Beltway. The greenbelt passes through all six jurisdictions of the Baltimore region.

As Maryland and its jurisdictions seek to attract new businesses and encourage existing firms to expand, attracting and retaining top talent is critical. The perception of an area as a desirable place to live, work and play becomes an important factor in location decisions by employers and those who have been educated here and may be offered a job in our area. For talented younger workers, the "cool factor" is an important determinant in making employment decisions. Noting the presence of the scenic, close-in greenbelt, including its public lands available for recreation, could be a positive recruiting tool.

This is an amazing natural asset, whether we call it the Baltimore Greenbelt or something else. It is located close to our developed metropolitan area, is part of our regional identity and contributes to our quality of life. It should be given a name, promoted as a regional asset and enjoyed by everyone.

Paul Farragut is a former executive director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and is a present and past board member of several environmental organizations. His email is

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