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.
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.
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.
“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.