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Eyes on the street

Ways We Can Make Baltimore More Livable Right Now

Bellingham, WA. Small changes, big impact.

While we wait for the Super Block, a new arena, and a handful of other big projects which promise to change the face of Baltimore, here are a few smaller things we can do right now to make people say, “Hey, this place is alright”.

Low Cost Transit Improvements

Eric Hatch’s ideas are gold, so I don’t need to repeat them here. I especially liked his points about extending transit operating hours to 3am, adding light rail infill stations, and inter-neighborhood shuttle bugs. Having lived in Hampden for a few months now, I can say the neighborhood is a transit desert and needs better connections to Johns Hopkins and downtown. Baltimore has been car-focused for so long that we have to make transit twice as good to attract more choice riders. Small improvements which show MTA cares about quality are a first step. Also, may it’s time to rethink the entire bus network like Portland did in 1982.

20 MPH Neighborhood Zones

Drivers in this town love 2 things: Speed, and messing with their cell phones while driving. Neighborhoods and speeding/distracted drivers don’t mix. NYC has had huge success with their 20 mph zones, and for good reason. This often cited pedestrian fatality chart, Dan Burden’s case studies, Donald Appleyard’s research, and a plethora of other projects show the huge benefits which accrue when traffic is tamed to reasonable levels. Fewer and less severe auto accidents, fewer pedestrian injuries and fatalities, more opportunities for positive street life, and less traffic noise. It’s literally all upside and no downside. 20 MPH zones mean reducing posted speed limits and targeted enforcement, but also include…

Complete Streets

This includes everything from building out our bike network, adding pedestrian lighting so our streets look less post-apocalyptic at night, road diets/traffic calming, street trees, and everything else I’m forgetting to mention. Most of these things don’t even require full reconstruction – they can be done in strategic ways at minimal cost.

Small Public Plazas

Have you been to Pittsburgh? I talk about this place a lot. I guess you could say I have a crush on the town. They’ve mastered the art of small public plazas. Where vacuums between buildings used to exist, now there’s interactive art, educational kiosks, people eating their noodle salad, real children and overgrown children playing hopscotch, and lots of green space. Baltimore has to get over its fear of creating comfortable, fun public spaces. By making plazas attractive for all people, you create a critical mass of positive activity, and the “feel” of the street shifts from something abandoned and dangerous to something inviting and full of life. This all ties into an overarching goal, which is:

Positive Street Life

Everything I’ve said up to this point supports this final thing. Getting off the train from DC into downtown Baltimore is disheartening and a buzz kill.  Aside from the sorry state of Penn Station, most of this has to do with how abandoned our streets are, even during lunch and dinner hours. Streets are people’s first impression of a city, and when they’re filled solely with cars rushing by on wide one way streets at 45mph, it says something negative about our city. Go to NYC. Go to Philly. Go to DC or even parts of Pittsburgh and see how their streets are also outdoor performance theaters, playgrounds, cultural conduits, window shopping opportunities, and bicycle skyways. A quality street does more than one thing well. A street that does many things well becomes magical.

Street Art

And finally, more of this.

One City – Eight Artists – Seven Days: Baltimore from XXIST on Vimeo.

Jane Jacobs Part I

“Traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves.”
— Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities)

This is my second week of doing almost all of my traveling by bus, light rail, or bike. I thought this would be a harder lifestyle change to adapt to, but I hardly ever think about the Prius I sold. This is also the date when my car payment was usually due. It’s like a weight off my shoulders not having to pay it.

I biked from Penn Station to Swann Park today. On paper, it seems like a hike, but I think it took about 15 minutes and wasn’t difficult at all.  Bicycling in traffic makes you hyper aware of your surroundings.   Not only of cars, but buildings, people – everything around you. You’re an active participant in the trip and each mile is more deliberate. Traveling at a slower rate of speed -  a speed urban areas are designed for. Reaching the destination seems like  an accomplishment, but maybe because this is still pretty new to me.

What also struck me today was the lack of street life on what should be active neighborhood blocks. People on the street are not only good for business, they’re good for the health of neighborhoods. The first book I read when I decided to study urban planning was The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Modern Library Series) by Jane Jacobs. A lot of her ideas seem like common sense, but they are concepts which have been forgotten by planners and engineers during the past 50 years. One of Jacobs’  fundamental concepts is “eyes on the street”"

“Police are not the primary keepers of the peace on city streets and sidewalks. It would take thousands upon thousands of police officers to supplant the network of self-policing citizens.”

Active streets not only make people feel safer, but actually make them safer.  As social ills and urban decay overtook some Baltimore neighborhoods, residents felt less safe going to the park, walking to the store, or just hanging out on the steps. This wide-spread abandonment of the street (which also coincided with an increase in vacant structures) created an even worse situation where criminals acted without witness, thereby perpetuating the cycle of neighborhood decline. This  Environmental design theories which tried to follow Jacobs’ concepts left out crucial elements – a mix of land uses and a focus on public spaces.

This is to say nothing of the fundamental cultural and political changes in the U.S. between 1920 and 1970 which overwhelming favored the automobile and its related infrastructure.

But Baltimore already has the density, street network, and mix of uses  to support better street life. There needs to be a coordinated effort to bring people back outside. And not in cars.  This means complete streets, well designed public spaces and parks, outdoor seating, and aggressive programming for under-utilized or new spaces. This is especially important for Swann Park which just re-opened after a 2 year environmental remediation; there should be positive buzz about this place. Not only for the obvious reasons, but Swann Park will also be a lot of people’s introduction to the Middle Branch.

Kevin Lynch, a contemporary of Jacobs, also has some theories on street life I’ll discuss in a future post.