I have an affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighborhood of man, and enjoy the sweet security of the streets. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I had an interesting conversation with @MairZDoatz today on Twitter. She mentioned something I had been thinking about, but hadn’t bothered to write about — because surely nobody else cared about this. How wrong I was.
She was saying how unpleasant it is to walk through downtown Baltimore, and I agreed. I was downtown last weekend shooting buildings and random street scenes, and it struck me how empty downtown was, especially since it was a nice day — a Saturday, too. The downtowns of other cities are full of people on a Saturday afternoon. Shopping, eating, going for walks — but Baltimore was empty, as if everyone fled the city, only to return during the week for work.
Then I was reminded of another day I walked downtown, down Pratt Street to be exact. It was around 8 AM on a weekday — I was going to take the CCC Purple Route to my then-job in Mt. Vernon. Immediately I noticed the emptiness of the sidewalks — I kept wondering where all the people were. Have you ever walked through Manhattan at 8 AM on a weekday? Downtown Boston? Chicago? There are hundreds of people, walking to work, walking to get coffee — there are people everywhere, and this scenario is played out in every city across America. Yet, Baltimore seemed desolate. As if people drive here, park in the underground garage, and don’t come out until it’s time to go home at 5:30. Why is this?
Forget about our shrinking population for a moment, and concentrate on just the streets and buildings. Have you ever noticed the sidewalks on Pratt Street are uncomfortably wide? The buildings are set far back from the curb? Have you ever looked hard at the buildings, and noticed how out of scale they are? Look at the picture on this website — see how out of scale the taller buildings are to the smaller buildings? The streetscape, one can only imagine, is unfriendly and imposing to those walking on the sidewalk below. Baltimore’s streetscape downtown has similar problems — few historic buildings (due, in part to the fire that swept through downtown at the beginning of the 20th century, and then due to poor planning in years following the fire), and towering office buildings that are so removed from the streetscape — there’s nothing to anchor the downtown, to give it a sense of place at the street level.
As I walked along the city last weekend, I was amazed at the lack of street-level retail. Most of what I saw included banks, convenience stores, office-worker lunch places (closed on Saturday), and a lot of parking lots and parking garages. Walking along Pratt from MLK, most of the buildings are owned by the University of Maryland — or they’re apartment buildings, again, with very little street-level retail except a few sports bars. Great for tourists, but why isn’t there anything along those streets for residents? Where are the grocery stores, the pharmacies, the boutiques, and restaurants that don’t serve mixed drinks out of Solo cups?
It all comes down to human scale development. Buildings placed closer to the curb, narrower streets with bike and transit lanes, and a sense of place. Baltimore’s downtown has none of this, although it could happen if our City Council would quit with the “get rich quick” mentality, and really think about what people do in cities. Convention centers are great, but we have one. And it’s fine for now — let’s concentrate on what people need right now, in order to stay here, or in order to come here and put down roots.
I was reading someone else’s blog, and came across a paragraph that really struck a chord:
To achieve long-term sustainable urban forms and neighborhoods, we ought to be developing infill and new urban projects parcel by parcel, plot by plot. Too often, an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach is taken with new projects and if the entire development cannot be financed and built at once then nothing happens at all. This can result in large blocks of prime urban land sitting vacant for years on end (see Cincinnati’s riverfront from 2000-2009 or Indianapolis’s old Market Square Arena site at present.)
You can add Baltimore’s downtown to Cincinnati’s riverfront and Indianapolis’s old Market Square, don’t you think? Cities are not “all-or-nothing” places, and developing them doesn’t work with “all-or-nothing” plans. Do we really need a Royal Farms downtown, around the corner from a 7-11 and CVS? Or do we need another grocery store, restaurants that inspire a true food culture, and housing that people can afford?
In order to make a sustainable Baltimore, we need to apply human-scale principles — because buildings don’t make cities — people make cities.