Over the past several years, the Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition has been working to create a 35-mile trail network connecting existing trails in the city’s three stream valleys, and creating vital green infrastructure with links to the waterfront, green space and the downtown core.
In a new study released this fall by Ernst & Young, in conjunction with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) and the Greater Washington Partnership, it was found that the project—which seeks to connect existing trails in the city’s three stream valleys—could create new transportation alternatives for 75 diverse neighborhoods while generating millions in economic, health and social benefits, ultimately serving as a critical strategy in the city’s bid to create a more sustainable and equitable future for the city and its residents.
“The trail network would enhance the sense of community within southeast Baltimore and beyond by taking a walkable neighborhood and extending its accessibility on foot and by bike to a broader geographic area."
—Nick Kirley, President of the Highlandtown Community Association
New Investment Means New Opportunity
Only 10 miles of additional trails need to be built to bridge the gaps between the existing 25 miles and link a wide range of the city’s neighborhoods to parks, schools, employment centers, historical landmarks and local business areas. The Greenway will run throughout the city, providing critical connections to many neighborhoods without current safe walking and bicycling access to these vital destinations. The completed trail will bring potential economic and social benefits to a wide cross section of Baltimore’s population, including many Black communities that have been historically segregated for decades. Citywide, Black residents make up 63% of the city’s entire population and have a homeownership rate of 42%; neighborhoods within a half mile of the Greenway are composed of 58% Black residents and have a home ownership rate of 48%.
The economic impact report projects that the $28 million investment in the trail network can generate $48 million in job growth in the construction sector and an increase of up to $314 million in aggregate residential property valuation. Additionally, it is estimated that completing the trail network will save residents, and the city, at least $2.4 million in health-care costs every year, while leading to more accessibility for residents to be physically active in the outdoors.
The economic impact report is a critical first phase of guiding community focused equitable development planning in the near term to help ensure the greenway’s benefits are felt by all of Baltimore’s residents.
"We're really excited to, theoretically, have the opportunity to see some neglected, ignored industrial property turned into a vibrant, thriving part of the community. I think there's a lot of value there," said Nick Kirley, President of the Highlandtown Community Association, regarding the plans to revitalize sections along his neighborhood for the east side of the Baltimore Greenway Trails Network. "I think the trail network would enhance the sense of community within southeast Baltimore and beyond by taking a walkable neighborhood and extending its accessibility on foot and by bike to a broader geographic area. Functionally, it would shrink southeast Baltimore and make it more accessible to everyone, which I think would be great.”
A Modern Take on a Century-old Vision
The vision of a trail network that connects Baltimore’s city of neighborhoods is partly inspired by the 1904 Olmsted Plan for Baltimore that aimed to build an interconnected city. The idea was to capitalize on its abundant park spaces by expanding them through a linear parkway system that would bring green space throughout the area.
"Our vision for the Greenway builds upon the Olmsted Plan, by not only connecting local neighborhoods to the city’s abundance of parks and other natural resources, but by also ensuring that it is equitably accessible and distributed," said Ethan Abbott, RTC's trail development manager and lead organizer for the Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition. "There is this beautiful vision that will blend the urban environment with the natural environment. You walk outside, and you see this nice, wide trail that is multimodal. You see people walking, skating and riding bikes, with a nice tree canopy over the trail, and residential houses line the streets. There are about 4,000 acres of green space within Baltimore—so it's not a stretch by any means to try to want to expand that to the rest of the city."
A Baltimore resident and avid trail user, Abbott has spent his career working closely with local communities to build and promote green spaces for both Baltimore County and City through the departments of Public Works, and Recreation and Parks. “I think the true beauty of the trail network is that it provides this alternative mode of transportation and recreation that can really transform a community and bring about the best of what the community has to offer. Having experienced the beauty of the Herring Run Trail, the Jones Falls Trail and the Gwynns Falls Trail—the three main trails comprising the network—and seeing how residents and visitors interact with them, it’s clear to me that the trail network can truly be a boon to the whole city.”
The trail network has the potential to break down barriers and build gateways to new destinations and opportunities, reversing decades of urban fragmentation caused by housing policies in place since the 1950s and 60s. Socioeconomically segregated communities will gain access to trails built on reconfigured former rail lines, industrial coastlines and roadways that will serve as community-based resources for active transportation.
The 28 acres of parkland and 2,000 trees the Greenway is predicted to add to the city landscape will also help improve air quality and reduce urban heat islands.
State Delegate Regina T. Boyce, representing the 43rd Legislative District of the state of Maryland, located in northeast Baltimore City, shared her enthusiasm for the timeliness of the trail network project's mission to connect communities and provide access to green spaces for all. "I think COVID has highlighted that [trails and green spaces] exist and they don't exist for some—a certain type of individual, or race of individual, or class of individual—they belong to us all. Parks and trails are global; they are international,” said Del. Boyce. “The earth belongs to us all. And so that means biking belongs to everyone. That means parks belong to everyone. That means trails belong to everyone. Therefore, it is our responsibility to ensure that everyone, no matter their race, their class, their educational level, has access to that."
Moving Forward and Building Momentum
Although COVID-19 initially disrupted community outreach and partner communications earlier this year, the Baltimore Greenway Trails Coalition, composed of 60 partners—including major city civic, philanthropic and planning organizations such as the France-Merrick Foundation, South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, Bikemore, Johns Hopkins University, and Baltimore City Planning and Transportation departments—has continued to raise citywide support for the project.
As America endures the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and trail use continues to rise—with more people than ever seeking outdoor spaces to safely exercise, connect, reflect and find solace—the Greenway has put the city in a unique position to meet this critical need while transforming the public landscape.
“The vast momentum surrounding the Greenway is partly fueled by the boom in outdoor recreation and safe transportation practices we've seen across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. Baltimore is no different, and the past eight months have taught us that the city is ready for change that can capitalize on active transportation infrastructure and the multitude of benefits it can have for local communities,” said Abbott. “The incoming mayoral administration of Brandon Scott has indicated that the Greenway will continue to be a priority as a unique way to address equity and transportation in Baltimore.”
Over the last two years, RTC helped Baltimore City secure over $500,000 in funds to transform the public space and provide equitable, healthy low-stress access to open space and reliable transportation.
The $350,000 Maryland State Bikeways grant will help the city design the “Northern Segments” of the network connecting Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, Hanlon Park, Druid Hill Park all the way to Lake Montebello, and Herring Run Park. The City is also preparing to embark on the federal 2018 Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) Grant, which RTC helped secure, to connect the Inner Harbor to Middle Branch Park and the Gwynns Falls Trail. The trail section connecting Canton Waterfront Park to Brewers Hill along Boston Street will also be developed in partnership with the Collective at Canton, a great example of a public-private partnership.
Construction is expected to take about four years to complete, making the Greenway an investment that Baltimore residents will quickly be able to enjoy and benefit from. Developer Mark Sapperstein has already started trail construction at the Collective at Canton at no cost to the public, building a trail segment that will help connect the Canton Waterfront to neighborhoods further north, including Brewers Hill, Greektown and Highlandtown. Design and planning on the publicly owned sections of the trail network will start in 2021.