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The Paris of Baltimore County

Op-ed: Is the Owings Mills Metro Centre turning into the Paris of Baltimore County?

Port Covington and the redevelopment of the Owings Mills dead mall have the potential be terrific — walkable, beautiful, pedestrian-friendly, with vibrant green spaces. It's starting to happen at the Owings Mills Metro Centre. On a recent weekday afternoon, the plaza in front of CCBC and the library was full of people; they were having lunch outside. I was like, "pinch me, am I in Paris? Could I be in Cambridge, Mass. my old home town?" I could imagine outdoor cafes lining Owings Mills Metro Centre's grand central avenue — aspirationally and conceitedly named "Grand Central Avenue" — and it becoming a place you'd want to be. Magnifique! Let it live up to its name. Let's keep doing more grand central urban planning, Baltimore.

But developers in Baltimore city and county need to keep reading their Jane Jacob's "Death and Life of Great American Cities" because much of our development is based on an old model, one that privileges the car.

The cities that thrive now are interconnected and built for people. They are safe and interesting to multiple senses; they have effective public transportation and nutritive green space, parks and playgrounds. They are places people go to see beauty and other people, to sit and be seen. Not asphalt. Not the vast parking lot in front of the Foundry Row Wegmans. That parking lot would make Jane Jacobs weep. How timely that a new documentary about her has just been released: "Citizen Jane: Battle for the City." I would argue that there should also be a battle for the 'burbs.

Seven years ago, I moved to Owings Mills in Baltimore County, from Cambridge, Mass. Cambridge is a city of public squares. So, naturally, the first thing I did to get my bearings in my new town was to try to locate the town square, the center of town, where the people were.

Owings Mills did not have a town square.

It was, in effect, not an effective place. It was dispersed, disconnected strip malls. There was no there, there. And though there was plenty of vehicular traffic, there was no foot traffic — pedestrians. Zero bikers. Around here it's dangerous to be a pedestrian or a biker. There are few sidewalks and no bike lanes, and that's sad because there need to be diverse ways of getting around town. And on the street and in city squares is where the life of a place happens: the chance meeting, the "hey how are yas." The square is neighborly and pro-social. And don't just take my word for it, take theirs: "City Squares: Eighteen Writers on the Spirit and Significance of Squares Around the World," a new anthology of essays out this year.

Owings Mills has been the urban planning equivalent of a sad trombone. It is not a stretch to say that the town got me down. Environmental psychologists' research shows that the built environment — architecture, urban design — has a profound effect on people. Pioneering American urbanist William Whyte studied human behavior in urban settings. In his 1980 book "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces," he wrote, "a street that is open to the sky and filled with people and life is a splendid place to be." That is still true today. But, sadly, in modern urban design sometimes the basics (sky, people) are hard to come by. "It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished," wrote Mr. Whyte.

Effective placemaking is, according to The Project for Public Spaces, "with community-based participation at its center, a process that capitalized on a local community's assets, inspiration, and potential and results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people's health, happiness and well being."

Owings Mills was master planned in 1984 with a recommendation for "strong office and industrial development," according to Baltimore County Department of Planning. It was an economic development zone, and it showed.

But with the new Metro Centre anchored by CCBC and the Baltimore County Public Library there is a freshness. A there-ness. There is beginning to be bustle. There's beginning to be a square there. And I'll be there on the plaza, people-watching, eating my lunch, helping to make it the Paris of Baltimore County.

Elizabeth Bastos is a writer based in Baltimore County. Her email is elizabeth.bastos@gmail.com.

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