Katie Lautar of Baltimore Green Space: Nature is “Part of the Narrative of Our City”

The benefits of green space are well documented. It’s good for our health, including mental health. It reduces crime and violence. It can cut down on illegal trash dumping. It provides a cooling effect during heat waves. And it promotes social cohesion and community engagement.

What might be less well documented is how rich Baltimore City is with green space – and well-maintained green space, at that.

Baltimore Green Space currently has a database of 311 green spaces in the city that neighbors are caring for, according to Executive Director Katie Lautar. And she said there are more spaces that exist but haven’t made it into the database.

This abundance of nature, along with the residents who tend to it, is “part of the narrative of our city,” she said. “It’s more valuable than anybody ever recognizes.”

Baltimore Green Space is a land trust dedicated to preserving the city’s community-managed open spaces. It currently owns 15 spaces around the city, totaling more than five acres, including gardens, parks, and forest patches.

The Remington Village Green, for example, is a small garden growing food, flowers and native plants. Tucked away in an alleyway near what is now a thriving retail district, the garden was established by locals in 2008, transforming a previously “discarded” space into a center of community engagement.

Remington Village Green

Remington Village Green (pictured in early March)

In another alley in East Baltimore, elderly residents tend to the 500 North Duncan Street Community Garden. This space, which stands out with its colorful artwork and bird houses, breaks up a sea of concrete with green grass and a variety of plants and flowers, and also provides food for the locals.

500 N Duncan Garden

The 500 North Duncan Street Community Garden (pictured in early March)

And in Northeast Baltimore, there’s the more expansive Fairwood Forest. Baltimore Green Space was able to purchase the four-acre forest in the Glenham-Belair neighborhood in 2018 thanks in part to a tax exemption passed by the city council two years earlier. Without that, Katie said, the organization wouldn’t have been able to afford the taxes on the land.

Fairwood Forest

“When it comes to forests,” Katie said, “we play a much larger role.” That’s because forests have a different ecology than other green spaces, and she said there was no other organization in the city teaching residents how to care for them before Baltimore Green Space took that role.

In 2013, Baltimore Green Space estimated that 20 percent of Baltimore’s tree canopy exists in forest patches outside parks. Ownership records of these areas can be complicated, and many people don’t realize that the land provides value to the community.

Preserving these forest patches has been a major part of Baltimore Green Space’s advocacy work. And Katie said she wishes the city would place a higher priority on planting new forest. Even small patches, she said, can improve stormwater management and increase climate resilience.

These benefits are not abstract. We see the effects of polluted stormwater in the Inner Harbor, which at one time was supposed to be swimmable and fishable by 2020. And as a 2019 Capital News Service series reported, lack of greenery can lead to excessive temperatures during heat waves, which come with a number of potential health problems for residents.

The benefits of community-managed gardens and parks might be even more immediate. I asked Katie if residents who are focused on their most basic needs – such as putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads – can be expected to make green space a priority. She replied that they already make it a priority.

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A “Culture of Openness”: Adam Bouhmad of Project Waves on Expanding Internet Access in Baltimore

Access to the internet is a human right. So says the United Nations, which in 2016 passed a resolution condemning governments’ disruption of internet access as a human rights violation.

But in Baltimore, many people lack affordable, reliable options to connect to the internet.  The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 28% of Baltimore households did not have a broadband internet subscription between 2014 and 2018. That’s 66,000 homes. And trends suggest that African-American and Latinx households are among the most impacted.

Adam Bouhmad created Project Waves to empower Baltimore residents to erase that disparity.

“That’s why I have bags under my eyes,” he told me. He used to spend night after night at The Bun Shop in Mt. Vernon researching efforts to bridge the digital divide around the world. He’d stay until the shop closed at 3 a.m. and still go to his full-time tech job in the morning.

Last year he got a chance to put his plan into action, beginning in Sharp-Leadenhall.

It started with community outreach. He spent several months building a relationship with the neighborhood association. “I think it’s important to be a continued face that folks recognize,” he said. When the time was right, he distributed 300 flyers for his project around the community. From that he got 15 households that signed up to be considered for a low-cost, high-speed internet setup

The connection itself comes from an anchor institution: a place in the community that people trust and that agrees to share its internet access. In Sharp-Leadenhall’s case, that’s the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center, where Adam used to work, in nearby Federal Hill.

Waves antennae relay

From the roof of the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center, an antenna (left) sends a signal to Key Tech’s roof deck, where another antenna (right) sends it to homes in nearby Sharp-Leadenhall.

It’s easy enough to climb up onto the roof of the anchor institution and set up an antenna, which costs less than $150 and sends a signal up to 15 miles. But it gets tricky if there isn’t a clear line of sight to the homes being served. That was the case here. To get the signal where it needed to go, Adam needed a relay on top of some other building. So he went to Key Tech a half-block away and asked the bosses if he could set up a pair of antennas on their roof deck. They said yes.

The last step is setting up a receiver on the exterior of the end user’s home and wiring it to a router inside. In exchange for this setup, Waves asks for a suggested monthly donation of $10 from each subscriber.

That’s how two homes in Sharp-Leadenhall are now getting affordable internet access from the Digital Harbor Foundation anchor site. Adam said the speed for each connection is between 40 and 50 Mbps, about twice as fast as necessary to stream ultra-high-definition video.

As I said, there were 15 signups for high-speed access in the neighborhood. So this project isn’t finished.

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Jeff Thompson of HEBCAC: “There Just Is an Amazing Amount of Resilience” in East Baltimore

Read the follow-up to this story here.

I was trying to nail down the scope of what the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition (HEBCAC) does when I asked Deputy Directory Jeff Thompson if he saw the organization primarily as filling people’s needs or acting as an agent of change.

He didn’t think much of my distinction.

“We are agents of change,” he told me, “because we help people transform their lives.”

That is to say, helping East Baltimore residents beat addiction, secure housing and find work does fill needs. But it does much more that. It enables people to unlock their potential and become assets in their community.

HEBCAC was originally conceived in the 1990s as an umbrella group, encompassing 11 East Baltimore neighborhoods (and their neighborhood associations) stretching from the Hopkins East Baltimore campus to the borders of Baltimore Cemetery.

HEBCAC

As funding sources and the city’s development priorities have changed over the years, HEBCAC’s role in the community has evolved. Relationships with local associations have become less formal, and the organization now focuses on providing social services and community development within its service area.

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Legalizing Drugs: Follow-Up with Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition

Last week I got a chance to speak with Tricia Christensen, the Legislative Advocacy Coordinator at Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition (BHRC), regarding my series on drug enforcement.

Some background: BHRC was formed by Baltimore-area students beginning in 2011 to educate the public about harm reduction, primarily through seminars and film screenings. So, for example, while we celebrate Billie Holiday with murals all over Baltimore,  BHRC tells people the story of how she was targeted and terrorized by Henry Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (which I didn’t get into in the series but have written about elsewhere), and what people can do to limit the harm that comes to stigmatized populations.

Today the organization has about 30 volunteers to supplement its small staff, and has expanded into areas beyond education. BHRC’s advocacy played a major role in the passage of Maryland’s “Good Samaritan” laws, which allow people to assist in emergency overdose situations without fearing prosecution for possession of drugs or paraphernalia, or for providing alcohol to minors.

BHRC was also the first non-governmental organization in Maryland to provide training to bystanders in overdose education and naloxone distribution (OEND). As Tricia says, users and the people close to them are the real first responders. And they are sometimes the difference between life and death before a professional arrives on the scene.

(Disclosure: Hearing Tricia say “naloxone” on the phone made me realize 1) I’m not sure if I had ever heard it said out loud before, and 2) I had spelled it wrong multiple times in my series. I’ve corrected it now.)

Regarding the connection between drug prohibition and violence, Tricia agrees that when dealers have no access to law enforcement, violence is their only (or easiest) recourse to resolve disputes. She pointed to a quote by then-Mayor Pugh I referenced in Part 2:

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