The Challenges We Face

I’m here at work creating a list of the challenges we (our firm) face in our work. The next task: to create a list of the problems our clients face. Yet, I find it much easier to view Planet Earth as our client, and its challenges are indeed many.

While I list these threats—all very significant, all looming—I feel surprisingly less uneasy as I would have expected. In fact, I feel relieved; as if listing these massive problems will help me wrap my brain around them, and guide every action from this day forward in an effort to address, resolve, or at least pacify them somewhat.

They are, nevertheless, monumental. My list evolved:

  • Depleted resources
  • Social unrest
  • A changing climate
  • Extreme weather events
  • Global habitat destruction/loss and global species extinction
  • Pollution and contamination of all Earth’s ecosystems (including the omnipresence of trash)
  • Continued and potentially increasing violence, at many scales
  • Extreme population growth
  • Energy dependence (rather than self-reliance)
  • Loss of human interaction; society becomes a slave to technology
  • Worldwide hunger
  • Economic instability (on a national level) and poverty (on the individual level [albeit an issue tied to the entirety of society])
  • Globalization (including the spread of invasive, non-native species and the loss of culture and individuality)

Putting these worries to paper was therapeutic, but putting pen to paper is not a solution. The step, now, is to DO SOMETHING. And every person, no matter how small, has the ability to affect great change. This list will be in the back of my mind, a constant reminder of what I’m fighting for: a safer, healthier, inclusive, equitable, “greener,” cultural, and more sustainable and resilient Earth.

It’s no easy task, but I remain ever the optimist. With collaboration and a concerted effort, we can quell these noisy threats.

Urban Utopian Ideals: Why We Ought to Break the Habit

Here, I find myself in week 6 of my independent study, halfway through Unit 4: Learning from Nature. Where I am, I feel it is a good point to draw attention to a critical error which I’ve encountered in some of the readings previously reviewed, as well as a fundamental flaw in most visionary planning: utopian ideals. Whether an architect/designer/theorist/other will admit it or not, much of what constitutes the bulk of writings in the field of ecological urban design is clearly rooted in a very utopian foundation.

Utopian ideals often do more harm than good. In a little over a century, we have witnessed many visionary concepts (Garden City, for example) as they completely turn on themselves, leaving people trapped amidst the very conditions which the utopian vision intended to change, though possibly more severe than they were at the start and often compounded with newly discovered/created issues.

Luc Schuiten’s Vegetal City

Some of my most influential authors can at times suffer the idealist dilemma. Their designs are gorgeous illustrations of the perfect world where nature and city intersect harmoniously, where communities are verdant and whimsical, very much reminiscent of paradise. I am particularly in love with Luc Schuiten’s concept of the Vegetal City (above) and Richard Register’s Ecocities; but as much as I long for a world like the ones these and other visionary architects often depict, I can sometimes feel defeated when I realize the likelihood of such places ever existing is slim to none. Yet, the truth is, paradise absolutely cannot be the answer- we cannot abandon our current cities, and we don’t have the resources to start such grand experiments.

Given the frustrating conditions of our urban environments, it’s not difficult to see why so many create a utopia in the first place. In his book, Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government, Evan McKenzie noted:

“Utopian thinkers are inspired to create their ideal worlds in large part because of their dissatisfaction with the world around them, and their solutions tend to be reactive and one-dimensional.” p. 23

It’s no wonder that many of us, in a desperate attempt to “fix” the issues of current development patterns, dream up perfect worlds where everyone is happy. After all, how many of us declared as children that we would change the world by making it a better place for all to live. In our attempts to address the current ailments of our cities, we mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. So perhaps in this case, I can’t really say we’re learning from nature, but we’ve certainly learned from our many past mistakes; such valuable lessons cannot be wasted in lieu of the next best thing in urban planning.

In the same chapter, author McKenzie goes on to quote Fritzie P. Manuel, a scholar of utopian thought:

“The great utopians have all borne witness to their anger at the world, their disgust with society, their acute suffering as their sensibilities are assailed from all sides. They withdraw from this world into a far simpler form of existence which they fantasy. The escape from everyday conflicts and disappointments has a childlike quality. And their way back from utopia, their return to the real world they had abandoned, is often characterized by devotion to a fixed idea with which they become obsessed. They clutch frantically at this overvalued idea that at once explains all evil and offers the universal remedy, and they build an impregnable fortress around it.”

I tend to get that way, too- in all realms of my life. I convince myself that the cure to the clutter in my life will be more baskets, bins, and boxes. While compartmentalizing things helps (well- in planning, this is an entirely different issue for another time), it’s not a panacea. I have to change my habits and behaviors, and address the items that cause the clutter in the first place. Thinking about what both McKenzie and Manuel are saying here, I think it’s quite important to note that there are useful elements of the current conditions as well as some worthwhile features of the idealist visions, but they must be viewed together.

I believe I had mentioned earlier in this series my discontent with the greenfield alternative. After all, the greenest building is the one already standing. Wouldn’t that also mean the greenest city is the one we’re already inhabiting? Why start over? I have been disappointed with the lack of adaptive solutions until I came across an article from 2010 which describes Denver, Colorado’s planned Living City Block development. Neil Takemoto wrote in his Cooltown Studios review of the project:

“If a cell is defined as the smallest structural and functional unit of an organism, if a building were an organism, its rooms would probably be its cells (‘cellula’ is Latin for a small room). For a city though, it may be more helpful to associate cells with its blocks, fitting perhaps since a cell is often described as the building blocks of life. From the air, a city’s blocks resemble cell structure more than its buildings.” [emphasis in original]

This beautiful introduction made the article an ideal fit for my biomimicry study, but the article also happened to perfectly compliment the topic of this post. Quoting the mission of the Living City Block project, Takemoto notes goal is to regenerate existing cities! It’s such a relief. Now still, the project is very sustainably oriented, and not excessively ecologically focused, but the renderings (see below) depict a pleasing amount of green infrastructure.

Living City Block Project

It’s very important to me, and will hopefully be clear throughout this study, that existing cities are the focus of my attention. While I’m encouraged by projects like Masdar, the Abu Dhabi planned city which intends to be a sustainable, zero-waste, zero-carbon, carbon-free city, such places do not address the urban areas which are currently a main reason we’ve developed concepts like “zero-waste” and “zero-carbon” in the first place. Building efficiently tomorrow will do us no good if we allow the negative elements from today’s cities to remain.

Articles Linked in Text:

Deep Ecological Urbanism in Baltimore

As I was reading through Beatley’s book, Biophilic Cities, I was eager to start applying what I was learning and reading to an area in Baltimore. Chapter 3 of his book had provided me with a list of indicators (Box 3.1, pages 47-49) for measuring biophilia in cities, and it really set me on the ground running with this mission of mine.

What I want is a small, manageable area of Baltimore that can, in many ways, represent the many diversities of Baltimore City as a whole. It should have a mix of development types- both historical and modern; rowhomes, apartments, and perhaps even single family- it should be a part of the Inner Harbor to provide a view of tourism and recreation, it should feature some other hydrology, should also have more development in the near future, and I would like it to be near one of Baltimore’s larger parks. I hadn’t thought too much about demographics since I really don’t know if I have the time to spend on that detail but, ideally, it would mirror Baltimore’s general population. After choosing an area, I think it would be an interesting exercise to use Beatley’s indicators.

I went about studying some of Baltimore’s conditions and setting priorities to determine an area which I think would yield interesting results. I considered the following:

  • Areas with current Urban Renewal Plans
  • Historical districts
  • Rate of calls for dirty streets
  • Rate of calls for clogged storm drains
  • Food Deserts
  • Concentrations of minority populations
  • Areas showing high levels of diversity
  • Medium- to High-density areas
  • Mix of zoning classifications
  • Areas with the fewest trees
  • Areas around unhealthy waterways (all Baltimore waterways are…)
  • Areas with low voting activity
  • Diverse housing typology

Using a very broad brush, I loosely outlined areas which met the above conditions and produced the map below.

Choosing a study area in Baltimore

Choosing a study area in Baltimore; base map is the Baltimore Floodplain Map

Some other elements which I hadn’t considered in this exercise, but am now thinking about, include access to city parks (any size), income level, and transit accessibility. But I think this exercise produced sufficient results even without mapping those characteristics.

You can already see a concentration of overlapping conditions in the area just northeast of Patterson Park, as well as the area west/southwest of the Inner Harbor. Actually, before I did the mapping exercise, I had considered Federal Hill for this study- it has both historic and recent architecture, has a range of building types, is expecting new development in the coming years, and has access to a larger urban park and the Inner Harbor. As I did the layering study, I noticed that Federal Hill was not as diverse as I would like the study area to be. Still, I think it presents the right physical conditions for my future study and I plan to pursue this area in more depth. At the same time, I can’t really ignore Patterson Park. Although it is farther from the Harbor than I wanted (still only a few blocks away), it seems to present all the different characteristics in which I was originally interested. I think I’ll include this area in my study as well; perhaps it will yield different results.

As I read more and progress in the semester, I hope to use these areas as a base upon which I can visualize and analyze the concepts I review. In the end, I intend to propose ecological design recommendations.

Biophilic Cities

This review will be of the first three chapters of Timothy Beatley’s book, Biophilic Cities.

Biophilic Cities | Beatley, Timothy. (2011). Biophilic Cities: Integrating nature into urban design and planning. Washington, DC: Island Press.

The cover of Beatley’s book, Biophilic Cities

 

[Chapter 1 | The Importance of Nature and Wildness in Our Urban Lives]

After just one chapter, I could already tell that this would be an influential book. Author Timothy Beatley introduces the reader to the idea of a Biophilic City in this first chapter by initially drawing attention to the depressing disconnect which separates younger generations from the natural world. He emphasizes the importance of nature in cities, citing economic, physical, psychological, social, and aesthetic benefits while noting measurable statistics. And, much to my liking, he concluded the first chapter by criticizing what he calls the “green urban agenda” for its failure to really address the literal green elements. As I’ve mentioned before, this has been a very big focus of my own concern, and I’m glad to have seen it addressed up-front. This chapter focused on the measurables and quantifiable reasons explaining why we need nature in our cities; yet it only provides a brief glimpse on how we can bring this nature back in. It left me in great anticipation of what was ahead. (This chapter also encouraged me to look back on my own experiences with nature, which I have written about in the post Memories of My Wild Youth)

[Chapter 2 | The Nature of (in) Cities]

The enthusiasm and optimism with which Beatley writes is incredibly inspiring without doubt, it has rubbed off! Reading about the fascinating collections of nature currently thriving in our cities, but that all too often goes unnoticed, ignites a sense of wonder and curiosity.  I must say that Beatley’s optimism is even more encouraging, for not only does he have hope for the future, but he doesn’t ignore the current overlooked presence of many wild elements! It gives me an urge to explore, and I would actually like to go about in Baltimore and document the hidden wildness of the City! It’s possible to bring nature into the city, he explains, and it’s happening! After this chapter, I am thoroughly enjoying this book!

[Chapter 3 | Biophilic Cities: What Are They?]

This book really has some exciting conversations. Although I think this chapter was a bit longer than necessary-I found the text to be somewhat repetitive – it was a good piece to read to understand the key principles and some possible metrics of biophilic urban design. At the start of it, Beatley was listing examples of good biophilic design; yet most of these precedents were greenfield development (entirely new construction on previously undeveloped land). This has been most frustrating to me, knowing that new development, despite whatever green initiatives it may boast, is a waste of resources. Meanwhile, infill development and rehabilitative design would be a much better alternative. Although the intention is good, I can’t help but disagree with the process. I recognize that some new green developments have been able to accomplish much more than would have been possible had there not been a clean slate; but, for me, it is more important to address our existing cities. As I read on, however, I found Beatley was referencing more and more redevelopment and retrofit projects, and was more than pleased with their inclusion.

I think this chapter emphasized the significance of language and knowledge. This reminded me of a Paul Gruchow quote mentioned in the first chapter:

“Can you imagine a satisfactory love relationship with someone whose name you do not know?”

That is such a powerful question, how can we expect people to respect nature if we do not even ensure they know what there is to be protected? The chapter also talked about spirit and sensibility. The understanding and connection we can build between humans and the environment is like a glue which holds everything in this world together.

Beatley also shares a similar criticism of mine: that green urbanism is seriously lacking in the green department! Although the elements of green design (efficiency, conservation, transit, etc.) are very necessary pieces of the sustainability puzzle, they fail to address ecology and biodiversity.

While reading this chapter, every idea just clicked with me and made perfect sense- my views are very much in line with Beatley’s. Incorporating concepts of organic architecture and biomimicry (see some links I’ve shared at the end of this post) in his description, he paints a beautiful picture of the ideal city that never sounds excessively utopian or farfetched. Everything he describes can be accomplished within our current means and capabilities, and have already been proven successful elsewhere. It’s just a matter of combining all of the individual success stories in one place. I didn’t really intend for this to be a review of Beatley’s book more than his ideas, but I really do think that’s what has happened. I completely recommend this reading, especially for planners. So far, it is terrific!

_____

There are some great topics in this book that I wish I had more time to review. Until I do, I recommend checking out the follow sources:

Biomimicry Strategies for Cities (as described by Janine Benyus, on p. 53 of Biophilic Cities)
1.Use waste as a resource.
2.Diversify and cooperate to fully use the habitat.
3.Gather and use energy efficiently.
4.Optimize rather than maximize.
5.Use materials sparingly.
6.Don’t foul their nests.
7.Don’t draw down resources.
8.Remain in balance with the biosphere.
9.Run on information.
10. Shop locally.

Floating Wetland, Annapolis Meeting

I was recently given the pleasure of an invitation to a meeting regarding the Floating Wetlands project (see: An Intriguing New Concept in Water Quality Remediation: Floating Wetlands)  in the Baltimore Harbor. Held in the  Environmental Matters Committee room of the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis, those in attendance included Delegate Hammen; Delegate McIntosh, Chair of the Environmental Matters Committee; Phil Lee, presenter and project manager from Moffatt & Nichol; Dan Naor, owner of the Baltimore Marine Centers (BMC) site; Baltimore City Planning Department Planning Director, Tom Stosur, and planner, Jill Lemke; Jay Sakai, MDE Water Management Director; Scott Raymond of Living Classrooms; a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers; as well as representatives from Moffatt & Nichol, the Baltimore Aquarium, and Baltimore Marine Centers, among many others.

It was a terrific experience for me, and the first time I’ve attended any truly official legislative meeting regarding a proposal of this scale. The meeting was intended to present the project at its current stage, and discuss the next steps. The Harborview Floating Wetland proposal has been held up for some time now. Conceiving the idea in 2010, after a few local organizations launched small scale floating wetlands, Dan Naor has been working with Phil Lee and a team of individuals pushing for the approval of a 1.6 acre floating wetland to be constructed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It’s been caught up in the bureaucracy of development- issues mostly concerned with the proposed piers and platforms. To learn more about the struggles, you can see a portion of my 15 page report on Baltimore water quality describing the BMC Wetlands in my December 31st post.

The conversations I overheard this afternoon reflect that the platforms continue to be the primary concern, but that a few additional steps will ensure the project moves forward shortly. The officials, who make decisions based on existing regulations, have determined the platforms, in this case, to be non water-dependent (for their educational and recreational potential, I personally find them to serve purely water-dependent uses!).  In his presentation, Lee brought up a great and very interesting point: across the Harbor, between piers 3 and 4 (one of the most tourist-y spots in the Inner Harbor), you’ll find a total of 3 floating platforms. Their use? Restaurant seating. Now how is restaurant seating water dependent? Those tables could very well be located on land; it’s not like the water is needed below in order for the food to be served or consumed. Using Google Earth to estimate the size of each, I would guess the three are covering approximately 8,700 square feet of water. Yet, the piers and platforms proposed in the BMC Wetland, which is without a doubt more water-dependent than restaurant seating, is getting so much grief! To an outside individual, it seems absurd that something so trivial would be debated; and even more frustrating is the matter when you learn that the site owner could just as easily abandon the wetland project and get approval to put in an additional 50 slips.

To be fair, some good arguments were made by those who originally questioned the platform elements. Representatives who spoke on behalf of the Baltimore City Department of Planning, MDE, and the Army Corps of Engineers had all expressed their support for this project. Some went so far as to say that, although their job is to remain neutral- neither an opponent mor proponent- they were actually quite “excited” about this proposal. The issue, alas, is the bureaucracy of it all. Every project has to go through the hoops, meeting all the requirements, with absolutely everything checking out.  The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, have to recognize that the site is within navigable waters, and the project must thus undergo a number of analyses before it can be approved. I thought it was a smart statement (although still just an excuse for all the red tape) that the representative made when he justified all the minor annoying details of the process by saying the end result would be a plan or permit that was “bulletproof.” It takes a while, but when all’s said and done, the proposal cannot be knocked down.

The fact, right now, is that neither the Corps nor MDE have seen the numbers and figures which justify the proposed size and square footage of the platforms and piers. Should they receive these numbers soon, the representative of the Corps suggested this proposal could be nearing the end of its process in the next 1 to 2 weeks. The end is in sight!?

Now, as it turns out, the definition of “water-dependent” is also set by regulatory standards, or so I understand. I’m guessing (rather cynically, I suppose) that these standards must define “water-dependent” uses as those which generate some form of measurable revenue- including touristy restaurants? If only we could prove how revenue will increase as a result of this project. Well, actually, the team was awaiting assistance from Tom Noonan of Baltimore’s Office of Tourism to help produce foot traffic numbers. Perhaps Noonan might also help to project the future economic impact…

Everyone promised the project team that the three restaurant platforms, which popped up of the course of a few years, went through the same processes. I’m curious to know, however, if it took them as long?  Again, I’m being cynical. To sum it all up, though, I think great arguments were made by both sides. For whatever reason, the figures used to determine the platform sizes never made it into the Corps hands- in addition to a few other documents, actually. Until this missing information is shared, the project can’t progress. On the other hand, I think Phil Lee used brilliant analogies and comparisons to make his point. You wouldn’t put a wall up around a park, and you shouldn’t restrict the educational element of this wetland to the shore (where a pedestrian promenade would actually not allow that from happening in the first place). For every issue, Lee and the team had an appropriate response. It appears all the necessary studies have been conducted, and the missing results are all that’s preventing this proposal from finally getting through.

I learned a few other interesting things during the meeting. First, I found out about a large floating wetland in Singapore which opened in 2010, the Senkang Floating Wetland. To be honest, I haven’t done much floating wetland research outside of Baltimore. Actually, I’ve done none! But this project is a great comparison, and as you can see from the image below, it shows what a great educational resource a floating wetland can be! You can click on the photo to be directed to a short description of the wetland. And lastly, I learned of a Maryland company- Maryland Aquatic Nurseries- working on a floating wetland product! A representative was present, and I predict they’ll be involved in the BMC Wetland project down the road.

But what was the most important thing I took away from this afternoon’s meeting? The future of floating wetlands in Baltimore looks quite promising, and not too far away on the horizon!

Senkang Floating Wetland

An Intriguing New Concept in Water Quality Remediation: Floating Wetlands

[This is an excerpt from a final research paper created for my waterfront development course. The following paragraphs go into detail about a proposed wetland development for Baltimore City’s Inner Harbor.  The 15 page paper discusses the history of water quality, particularly in Baltimore, and how poor water quality might have adverse implications for future waterfront development. For a copy of the entire paper, or for the complete bibliography, please contact the author at sustainable.meg@gmail.com]

IMG_3200

Figure 2 Photo looking southwest towards Pier 4, showing discolored harbor waters the day after rainstorms and the Aquarium’s new floating wetland in the bottom left [Source: Author, Apr. 23, 2012]

While legislation and a hardy regulatory framework are necessary to improve water conditions, the most provocative concepts for improving water quality have manifested themselves as physical solutions. In August of 2010, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, as part of the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbors Initiative, and in an effort to meet the federally mandated regulations addressing the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) for nutrient and sediment in our waters of the Chesapeake Bay, installed its first floating wetland (Figure 2 & Figure 3, bottom) between piers 3 and 4. While the Waterfront Partnership was working with the Aquarium to install this floating wetland, they were also working with Living Classrooms Foundation and Biohabitats to install a series of wetlands in front of the World Trade Tower (Figure 3, top).

floating wetlands

Figure 3 (Top) Floating wetlands in front of the World Trade Tower, (bottom) Aquarium floating wetlands two months after photo in Figure 2 [Source: Author, June 17, 2012]

Floating wetlands mimic the behavior of natural wetlands. Their submerged root systems becomes home to healthy bacteria and microbes which help to filter the contaminants currently circulating in the Harbor’s water. Additionally, mussels, a species known to filter water, and other creatures take residence on the island, establishing a microcosm of beneficial organisms. Made using roughly 3,000 recycled plastic bottles for every 250 square feet of wetland, the floats are anchored to the Harbor floor in order to limit their movement into the channel. In their blog post titled, “Wetlands are Wonderful!,” the Aquarium explained the purpose of the floating wetlands, as well as their origin. Initially, wetlands like these were used in wastewater retention ponds, or lagoons, to deal with excess nutrients. Only recently have such technologies been used in brackish, open waters like those of the Chesapeake Bay. The post also suggested the wetlands, despite their small size (each just 10 feet by 20 feet), would be a huge first step towards cleaning the Inner Harbor [The National Aquarium].

As the Aquarium concluded their blog post, they optimistically anticipated and hoped that the two recent wetland installations would be just the first of many for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and it would appear they were correct with their prediction. In August of 2011, a year after Baltimore’s first wetland installations, a similar project was proposed by a private entrepreneur and landowner.

The experimental floating wetlands that were first launched in 2010 by Waterfront Partnership had inspired Baltimore Marine Centers’ Chief Operating Officer, Dan Naor, to propose the construction of a similar, but intensely more elaborate, wetland of his own. It may come as a surprise to many that a private marina owner would propose a project that is entirelyfor public benefit[1], but Naor has expressed, “it’s his way of joining the fight to clean up the city’s major tourist attraction, which is blighted by trash, unfit to swim in and beset with algal blooms and fish kills” [Naor, as quoted in Wheeler 2012b].

HarborviewPerspectiveRendering.jpg Figure 4 Rendering of the proposed Harborview Floating Wetland [Source: Baltimore Marine Centers]

In a process which will continue for years into the future, with 100% completion by 2025, Naor is proposing to install 1.6 acres of wetland in an unused section of the Harborview Marina’s open water, the largest wetland project of its type yet to be proposed nationwide. The Marina, located just off Key Highway, currently controls 640 slips, and could easily acquire permits to add more. However, Naor has no interest in adding more slips to since his business has had difficulty recovering after the recession. The Harbor’s condition, as Naor explains, is partly to blame. Repeatedly, Baltimore Marine Centers patrons complain to Naor about the Harbor’s litter, appearance, and odor. To Naor, the Harborview Wetland isn’t seen as an income source. However, “the true effect,” he reveals, “if we can clean the water, we’ll get more business” [Wheeler, 2012b].

A floating wetland of the proposed scale, in addition to reducing the TMDL for nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment, would serve to improve the Inner Harbor in many ways. The local creation and manufacturing of floating wetlands, which are currently produced out of Utah, presents business and job opportunism, in addition to educational opportunities [Lee, et al.]. Furthermore, their presence invites visits from tourists and wildlife alike.

A visit to the Blue Water Baltimore Bacteria Monitoring Website indicates that two areas near the  proposed Harborview Wetland site were recently reported as having moderate contact risk, suggesting that a wetland in this location would easily have a positive impact [Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper]. The Harborview Marina wetland project, however, has been tied up (no pun intended) in bureaucracy since it was first proposed in 2011. A year later and the project has still not been approved. In an article describing the project, journalist Wheeler innocently poses the question, “if a little green might help restore Baltimore’s ailing harbor, how can a lot be bad?” He’s referring, of course, to the success of the other floating wetland projects and investigates how Naor’s proposal is any different.

The issue with Naor’s proposal has been with the piers and platforms as seen illustrated in the rendering (Figure 4). Initially, the argument was that the piers and platforms would either have negative environmental impacts from being built over the water, or interfere with the continued development of the Inner Harbor waterfront- or both. Officials expressed they would consider a pledge from the owner, promising to remove the piers should the adjacent shore be developed, but then also decided that the Inner Harbor’s waterfront promenade must first be developed in the area before the wetland could be approved [Wheeler, 2012b]. Paradoxically, the incomplete promenade does not at all inhibit marina actives from continuing to occur at the site. The argument has now evolved to rationalize that, unlike boat slips and fishing piers, facilities which are considered to serve water-dependent uses, the piers, platforms, and docks proposed in the Harborview Wetland are, according to the officials and decision makers, decidedly non-water-dependent. Yet to myself, representatives of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, members of the Living Classrooms foundation, and the team working on the Harborview Wetland, the piers are absolutely water-dependent.

The piers allow access to the water for educational purposes, and the Aquarium and Living Classrooms have already considered region-wide youth educational programs for the site. In a letter committing their support and future involvement in the Harborview wetland project, Living Classrooms’ Vice President, Scott Raymond noted the potential of offering 110 students the opportunity to visit the wetland on any given day [Raymond 2012]. Furthermore, allowing residents to be engaged with the Harbor, to experience it up-close, raises public awareness about water quality issues and encourages a better understanding of the Harbor’s health and the importance of restoration projects. Then again, Naor could easily acquire the permits to build as many as 50 more boat slips and the accompanying floating docks in the same location and with roughly the same coverage as the proposed walkways, even though they would surely have a more adverse impact on the Harbor [Floating Wetlands for Baltimore Harbor?, Landscape Online 2012]. Considering that, are the piers which shall serve educational and social needs really as awful as the argument would suggest? Be honest.

It’s difficult not to be cynical and consider that officials and regulators might just be waiting for Naor and his team to give in; the regulators have already approved the wetland aspect of Naor’s proposal, but abandoning the piers is out of the question. Phil Lee, an associate at Moffatt & Nichol, an infrastructure firm specializing in the planning and design of water-related facilities and which is also involved in the Harborview Wetland project, explains that removing the piers from the wetland is akin to “putting up a park with a fence around it” [Lee 2012]. And so the team tolerantly waits for their next attempt to have the project approved. Until the permits are approved, however, the project will have no credibility and Naor and his team will have no basis upon which to secure funding. Baltimore should be grateful that Naor is not one to give up so easily, and that he and his team continue to fight for public access to water.

The Public Trust Doctrine protects the water’s edge, among other common resources, for “the benefit of all.” Yet our most precious waterfronts, those which are squeezed within densely populated cities, have largely been reserved for private commercial use. Traditionally functioning as ports for sending and receiving large cargo shipments, urban waterfronts have more recently been exploited for their ability to attract tourists. Waterfront real estate is therefore prized more for its high property value and the commercial potential it offers than for any purpose serving as a recreational amenity. Private business uses now invade the waterfront- snatching valuable land and blocking public access and waterfront views. In Baltimore now, the spaces directly above the water are being fought over. The waterfront is reserved for tourists, visitors, and anyone willing to spend money (although, as has already been confirmed, the water itself is beginning to detract from that market); what room does that leave for Baltimore’s residents? In this case, public access to the water would be encouraged and accommodated, yet decision-makers have spent over a year debating its approval. The project would improve the waterfront, but frivolous arguments have resulted in a lengthy delay of this wonderful revitalization opportunity. If the Baltimore Harbor is to be preserved for the benefit of all, as the Public Trust Doctrine would urge, then the Naor project is the ideal response and, when you think about it, the piers really aren’t the crisis they’ve been made out to be.

Naor and his partners contend that the Harbor is in such poor shape that it shouldn’t matter whether or not there are piers, that the officials should be more willing to experiment. And as researchers question if wetlands in open waters would even have much impact, a large experiment such as Naor’s project is needed to settle this uncertainty. Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, William Dennison, rationalizes the Baltimore Harbor is so degraded that anything which could improve the quality ought to be attempted. Dennison stated, simply, “We don’t have a lot to lose here”  [Wheeler 2012b].

As maddening as the political delay caused by nonissues has been, a light that’s beginning to shine on the horizon is a beacon of hope. On December 5, 2012, a meeting of delegates, congressmen and women, and interested parties ensued at the Moffat & Nichol office in Baltimore to discuss the future of the Naor proposal. In attendance was Delegate Maggie McIntosh, Chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee, as well as Delegate Peter A. Hammen, a former member of the Environmental Matters Committee. The presence of officials who are often involved in such similar affairs, on top of the understanding that individuals from the offices of Senator Barbara Mikulski, Congressman John Sarbanes, and the Governor will soon be involved in the Harborview Wetland proposal, offers relief to Naor and his team as they face the coming legislative session. With support from these officials, it’s promising to think the proposal will finally move forward [Lee 2012].

Nonetheless, despite the delay, multiple organizations and businesses have expressed interest in the project and, even without the permits, there have already been conversations with potential donors. In addition to the National Aquarium and Living Classrooms, which have declared their support for the Harborview Wetland, other large Baltimore-based firms have also recognized that the floating wetlands will impact more than just environmental health and see them as an economic opportunity. As Naor had recognized, visitors are being deterred by the unattractive state of the Harbor’s waters, making it difficult for businesses to recover from the 2008 recession. If one man can see the potential of the wetlands, perhaps it’s worth investigating more. ‘”It’s a really gorgeous harbor and it’s a huge asset,” says Naor. “Us, as the keepers, we need to keep it safe. We need to work as hard as we can to clean the water.” If the Harborview Wetlands are approved, Naor sees potential to create as much as 10 acres of floating beds of rosemallow, sea lavender, and salt grass throughout all five marina’s he oversees. Naor explains, “Our goal is to clean the water and drop 10 acres of parks in the middle of the Inner Harbor” [Killar 2012].


[1] To be fair, the intended outcome will without-doubt produce economic benefits for the business owner, though his own benefits will be trivial compared to the those which Baltimore City as a whole shall reap.

Final project for a Waterfront Development Course

For my waterfront development course this past semester (3rd semester of graduate school and I still have a 4.0 GPA by the way- sorry, I just have to brag!), our final assignment was to study a topic relating to waterfront development and how it might have implications for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. While most of my classmates analyzed current waterfront proposals, I actually focused my research on how those developments may be adversely impacted by (poor) water quality. The poster assignment was to be displayed during our Super Jury event, our final critique. My poster was heavily graphics-oriented, while my paper was more informative (I’ll be sharing that soon, be sure to check back!). The poster also highlights a current Baltimore waterfront proposal hoping to soon be approved. Unlike the developments that my classmates considered, this project intends to clean the water and improve Baltimore’s Harbor. I am so excited about the project proposed by Dan Naor and Baltimore Marine Centers, I hope it’s approved shortly!

Megan Griffith, Morgan State University Waterfront Development Course, ENST 738

Megan Griffith, Morgan State University Waterfront Development Course, ENST 738

What is an EcoCity?

I was trying to have as few candid posts on this blog as possible in order to make it a reliable resource and reference for folks who wish to live an environmentally-friendly lifestyle in the city. My theory was that writing well planned posts for which I’d put in a good deal of research and effort would be the best way to do that. However, I am eager to post and rather than just move all my previous posts (from my old blog host) over at once, I’d like to get some fresh material here. So, here I go….What is an ecocity?

First off, I’m not entirely sure there is one accepted definition. Head over to Google and ask it to “define ecocity” and the results emphasize a Wikipedia submission:

A sustainable city, or eco-city is a city designed with consideration of environmental place inhabited by people dedicated to minimization of required inputs of energy, water and food, and waste output of heat, air pollution – CO2, methane, and water pollution.

This definition is built from the original ideas of theorist and author Richard Register, who first coined the term ecocity in 1987 in his book Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future. On the website of Register’s non-profit, Ecocity Buildings, that definition is much more basic:

Simply put, an ecocity is an ecologically healthy city.

I like both of the definitions, but I think I rather prefer the simplicity of Register’s definition. Being the primary influence on my dedication to creating ecologically healthy cities, Richard Register has influenced me to take my passion to the heart of my design. Specifically, I want ever so much to help transform my hometown of Baltimore into an ecocity.

Adding to the definitions above, I believe ecological balance (which, of course, contributes to ecological health) is just important. Harmony with nature and dedicating space to non-human ecological activities will play a large part in my designs. I’m still trying to conjure up a clever new term- something that I can use as the name of my future design and consultation firm- but in the meantime, I’ll continue to refer to such cities as “ecocities.” The concept had been in my head since long ago, but I hadn’t really given it much depth until I first read one of Richard Register’s books- Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Harmony with Nature. It’s a terrific book and I recommend it to any creative-type, nature lover or urbanite- Well, I recommend it to everyone actually. But this book really helped me to define what my life goal was going to be. In the years since reading this book, I’ve tried to imagine what I have to do to make every city an ecocity.

Well I have the hardest time imagining the form of the ideal ecocity- I still can’t say I’ve done it. But over the years, I’ve tried. And oftentimes, I use drawing as a tool for developing my ideas. Below, you’ll see a few renderings I’ve created to illustrate an ecocity. I’m not entirely pleased as both drawings really just look like normal cities with just a bit more green, but my concept is a work in progress.

Megan Griffith working on her "Future Doodle" at the Doo Consulting Park(ing) Day space in Towson, MD. Photo courtesy of Doo Consulting.

Megan Griffith working on her “Future Doodle” at the Doo Consulting Park(ing) Day space in Towson, MD. Photo courtesy of Doo Consulting.

Megan Griffith's rendering of the urban shift- from industrial and dirty to clean and ecological.

Megan Griffith’s rendering of the urban shift- from industrial and dirty to clean and ecological.