112 Years Later: Baltimore’s Trail Network Vision Is Coming of Age

Posted 05/10/16 by Katie Harris, Amy Kapp in Building Trails

On the Jones Falls Trail in Druid Hill Park in Baltimore, Maryland | Photo by Side A Photography

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. of the Olmsted Brothers Firm painted a visionary picture for Baltimore in his comprehensive 1904 Report Upon the Development of Public Grounds for Greater Baltimore. His blueprints for Baltimore’s park system, which focus attention on the three stream valleys (Gwynns Falls, Jones Falls and Herring Run), are a shining example of effective urban planning.

Druid Hill Park along the Jones Falls Trail in Baltimore | Photo by Jeff La Noue

More than a century later, these stream valleys, including trails that parallel the waterways, are cherished by Baltimore residents and remain among the city’s greatest assets. And now, they are also pieces of a new vision for a connected and more equitable Baltimore.

In 2015, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) took a lead role in forming the Baltimore Greenway Trails Network Coalition, bringing public agencies, nonprofit organizations, private firms and the health care community together to help connect Baltimore’s existing trails and create new safe avenues for nonmotorized travel around the city. When complete, the network—currently in the early planning phases—is expected to encompass approximately 30 miles of bike and pedestrian-friendly routes that weave through the stream valleys and along Baltimore’s popular waterfront, the Inner Harbor.

Laying the Groundwork

According to Jim Brown, RTC’s trail development manager and lead organizer for the coalition, the project could have a huge impact on opening up neighborhoods that have been economically and socially segregated from each other since the 1950s and 1960s by roadway development and discriminatory housing policies. In fact, Brown, a resident of Baltimore, believes the very same infrastructure that helped disconnect neighborhoods—in tandem with Baltimore’s unique natural environment—might also hold the keys to reconnecting them.

Gwynns Falls Trail along the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Maryland | Photo courtesy TrailLink.com/Quebra

It is this idea that is driving the coalition’s ultimate vision.

“If you look at the pieces of infrastructure that exist today—both built and natural—you’ll see a series of corridors and potential connecting corridors that, if developed properly, could create a regional active-transportation system, even with the roads,” says Brown. “By incorporating the roadway network with trails and other active-transportation infrastructure, you can create active-living spaces that safely cross neighborhood boundaries and connect people to amenities.”

The coalition is currently studying the infrastructure of Baltimore as well as the feasibility of specific projects to determine how best to move ahead and make the project a reality. Additionally, they are working to build consensus and support among local leaders, residents and public officials.

Brown hopes the greenway project will do much to help reverse the urban fragmentation found in older portions of the city. “Our intent is to look at Baltimore in new ways and turn challenges and barriers into solutions.”

He also emphasizes the project’s focus on equity, stating, “Access to trails and open space are not easily reachable by everyone—a phenomenon stemming from a combination of poor transportation design choices historically and challenging socioeconomic conditions. This has led to a built environment where certain neighborhoods are physically or culturally cut off from parks, trails and transportation hubs. Our goal is to bring these communities into the planning process and create a trail network more inclusive and equitable than the current transportation infrastructure.”

Realizing the Vision

Map courtesy RTC
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Southwest – Gwynns Falls Stream Valley
Gwynns Falls Trail in Baltimore, Maryland | Photo by Katie Harris

The southwestern side of the trail network is composed of the Gwynns Falls Trail, which extends from Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park south to Middle Branch Park. Near the park, however, in Westport, the trail veers away from the waterfront and instead goes toward and along a roadway. Brown says plans are in the works by Sagamore Development to extend the Gwynns Falls Trail to the waterfront area, which will be developed into a public space for people to gather and access the water.

“Its significance is huge, because it’s one of the last undeveloped pieces of waterfront—most of which are privately owned,” says Brown. “The project will give people public access to the water in what will be a more natural and ecologically minded space than some of the city’s other access points."

Northern Connections

From Leakin Park in the west to Druid Hill Park (east of the Greater Mondawmin neighborhoods) in the east, the autocentric Gwynns Falls Parkway will be the main connector. Traffic-separated facilities are being envisioned so that walkers and bikers can navigate the east-west connection without having to rely on cars.

In 2015, the coalition was awarded a Plan4Health Grant from the American Planning Association to support capacity-building efforts, and to implement outreach events for the project in the Greater Mondawmin neighborhoods.

“Connecting the Greater Mondawmin neighborhoods between Leakin and Druid Hill parks so that residents have better access means a lot to me personally, because these are neighborhoods that have historically been underinvested in,” says Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore, Baltimore’s bicycle advocacy organization. “They are some of our oldest neighborhoods, with beautiful historic homes, but they also have some real challenges in terms of things like public health indicators.”

Jones Falls Trail in Baltimore | Photo by Jeff La Noue

The Olmsted Brothers’ 1904 report called for connecting Baltimore’s early parks and stream valleys through a series of parkways—or carriage paths and bicycle routes designed to meander what was then the northern end of the city. Today remnants of this early design can be seen in the tree-lined, wide medians of Gwynns Falls Parkway and 33rd Street (in the east). The advent of the automobile resulted in the transformation of these esplanades to busy car thoroughfares, but there is currently a new collective vision to reclaim these connecting parkways—and turn them into lively public activity spaces. In 2016, the France-Merrick Foundation awarded the coalition a grant to do feasibility studies to determine how to make this project a reality.

From Druid Hill Park, the network will extend perpendicular through the Jones Falls Stream Valley (linking to the Jones Falls Trail) to the Herring Run Trail—the northeast anchor for the trail system—past Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Then the network will head south on the completed Herring Run Trail toward the Highlandtown neighborhood, a former industrial and residential area experiencing a resurgence in technology, art, investment and development through building retrofits.

Southeast and the Inner Harbor

A trail connection extending all the way to Highlandtown and on to the Canton waterfront has yet to be made. But a north-south utility corridor kissing the southern end of the Herring Run Trail, in conjunction with an unused rail line segment, presents great potential for making this connection which will support the economic renaissance and growing population in the area.

Concept rendering for Highlandtown Highline | Courtesy RTC

Coalition plans are in the works to turn the corridor into the southeastern-most segment of the greenway network. Called the Highlandtown Highline, this pathway—elevated in a few sections like its namesake—extends south past Highlandtown and then swings west toward the Inner Harbor.

“A lot of the neighborhoods in Southeast are really diverse and really thriving,” says Chris Ryer, executive director of Baltimore’s Southeast Community Development Corporation. “The trail will be a vital part of this vibrant neighborhood.”

The pathway’s name pays homage to the southeast Baltimore neighborhood through which it runs, and hints at the well-loved High Line linear park in New York City. “When you think about what’s going on in that neighborhood now, there is so much untapped potential that could be brought to life if there was better connectivity,” says Cornish.

Baltimore’s revitalization story is just beginning to unfold. As the city redefines itself through the creation of a world-class trail system, the possibilities for improved health, economic development and a better-connected citizenry are endless. For more information, visit RTC’s Baltimore web page.

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