Systems and Cities: A Baltimore Case Study

We are proposing to set up a framework, for the discussion of the role that infrastructural, economic, and natural systems play in shaping the city. The discussion will be entered into through a series of case studies, examining the history and future of four open spaces on Baltimore's urban waterfront. In every case, efforts will be made to analyse the sites and processes from all possible angles, looking at material flows, capital benefits, the long term strategic plans of the various agencies that seek to influence the site's development, as well as the inevitable accidents and consequences arising from the interaction and complexity of so many forces, gathered in relatively small places.

- Swann Park has been a public park for over 100 years. For much of its history, its closest neighbor was a pesticide plant operated by Allied Chemical, later Honeywell International. In 2007 it was discovered that Honeywell/Allied had withheld test results from the 1970s showing that the park contained extremely high levels of arsenic and chromium. The current cleanup and upgrades at the park are connected to redevelopment efforts underway in the Middle Branch area, and in the immediate neighborhood. The major component of the cleanup effort is the removal and replacement of the top two feet of soil, for the entire 11 acre park. The restored park is scheduled to open to the public in 2009.

- Ferry Bar Park, the remnant of unused railroad right-of-way, is located next to the Port Covington development in South Baltimore. One of Baltimore's oldest sets of piers is decaying in the water here. Also derelict is a large Sam's Club store that opened in 2001, and closed in 2007. The Sam's Club is part of a large shopping center intended to occupy the site. The city laid out roads, stop signs and curb cuts, but the rest of the shopping center was never built, and now the parking lots are empty fields. The developer of the center, after receiving tax incentives from the city, and promising to improve the park, sold the property without building anything else.

- Reed Bird Island, at the mouth of the Patapsco River, was formed by the sediment flow let loose from development and farming upstream. In 1904, the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architecture and planning firm recommended that the city of Baltimore acquire this new land and create a park here, partly to deter the practice of dumping and other occupation that begun to take over the area. Baltimore bought the land, but there is evidence that the practice of dumping continued, now with the implicit approval of City Hall. Today the site is almost completely feral, although it is marked on maps as a city park, there are no signs or trails.

- Masonville Cove is a large peninsula near Brooklyn and Curtis Bay. The land here is formed from wreckage, including debris that may date from Baltimore's Great Fire of 1904. This derelict area is the site of a large engineering project overseen by the Maryland Port Administration. The Port Administration, in its struggle to keep shipping channels clear, generates millions of cubic yards of dredged material every year. A containment facility for that dredged material will be built at Masonville Cove, and so will an urban nature center, along with hiking paths and docks for kayaks.

We see these case studies, and the various projects that continue to spin off from them, as a kind of proof of concept. They illustrate that there is value in a particular approach to historical and contemporary research, an approach that puts economic real estate development into the same arena as the processes often needed to undo the damage of this development. And this is all equated with other natural forces, such as erosion and plant growth. Questions of land use, underuse, and occupation arise when the same piece of public park is occupied by big box retail and a homeless encampment.