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Baltimore needs a Bryant Park. Or at least a Union Square.

Union Square in NYC. I saw a man walking an eagle here.

It’s been awhile since my last post. I haven’t died. I just returned from visiting friends and family in NYC and Boston. I’ll spare you the comparisons of their transit systems to Baltimore’s, or other gushing remarks, like, “Oh the architecture bla bla bla”. Baltimore will never be NYC or Boston, but we can have one thing that makes walking around these cities interesting; great public spaces.

Both cities have active public spaces where people can relax, get creative, get weird, or just watch other people. I saw a man try to walk what looked like a bald eagle on a leash in Union Square.  There are formal and informal spaces within the park for almost every conceivable type of activity. In Boston, there were these really bad break dancers in a plaza near the Irish Potato Famine monument.  But they drew a huge crowd and it became sort of an event.  The famine monument itself is an outdoor living room where people were mingling and having lunch.

Even the smallest parks in NYC and Boston have a sense of playfulness and spontaneity. This encourages people to explore another block, turn a corner, or stop into a local coffee shop on their walk around town. There is a little bit of this at the Inner Harbor, but its mostly people walking from one tourist spot to the other.  The Katyn Memorial in Harbor East seems to exist solely as a solemn reminder of a tragedy and nothing more. Preston Gardens, in its current form, acts as more of a highway divider than an urban park, though if the number of traffic lanes on St. Paul Street were reduced, widening the park could improve its visibility and function.

Boston Common

Central Plaza on Fayette Street has potential if it just loosened up. It’s a really serious place with signs saying “Keep off the lawn!” and people in business suits eating their serious lunches very seriously.  If more benches were added and trees planted near the internal walkways – and not just around the perimeter (sort of like Farragut Square in DC but on a smaller scale), it would encourage more use and make the park seem more active. Like William Whyte said, people attract people. Central Plaza is a bit handicapped since it exists mid-block and not at an intersection, but this could also work to its advantage. There was an outdoor performance by a folk singer at Central Plaza a few weeks ago and the acoustics were great – filling the small space which is surrounded by buildings on 3 sides.

Project for Public Spaces and Downtown Partnership held several design charettes for the Downtown Open Space Plan last month. While the economy sputters along and big ticket projects get cut back, improving the design and programming of our public spaces could be a low-cost way of making Baltimore a more vibrant, fun city.  Places like Boston Common or Union Square were carved out hundreds of years ago, so we’ll have to make do with the parks we have, though we might be able to expand a few of them.

William Whyte, the famed park designer and people watcher, said in the book “City: Rediscovering the Center“:

Cities should take a closer look at what they already have. Most of them are sitting on a huge reservoir of space yet untapped by imagination. They do not need to spend millions creating space. In their inefficiently used rights-of-way, and their vast acreage of parking lots, there is more than enough space for broad walkways, small parks and pedestrian places.

Update: The Infrastructurist has a piece on Dallas’s new Main Street Garden. I was in Dallas this past May visiting a friend and was pretty impressed by their public spaces. Even some of their corporate plazas are unique and really active. Also check out Urbanite’s Baltimore Parks Lag Behind” piece.


  • Dukiebiddle

    So you’re saying Baltimore needs a place more like Mt. Vernon Place. ;-)

  • Mark

    You mean the dog walking park? I’m kidding – but dogs seem to dominate MVP. The places I mentioned in NYC and Boston have lots of crazy things going on at once and aren’t dominated by one activity.

    I would also include the proposed park at Harbor Point (between Fells Point and Harbor East) as a contender for a great public space if designed right.

  • Jessica

    Mark, public spaces draw homeless, drug addicts and black people….Baltimore’s elite don’t like those things.

  • Dukiebiddle

    *groan*

  • Dukiebiddle

    There are 4 quadrants. The dogs are specific to only one. As for look-at-me freak zones: every city has one. LA has Venice Beach, New York has Union Square, Baltimore has the corner of Thames and Broadway. I’m not sure how a park would be improved by someone demonstratively walking a pet eagle.

  • Dukiebiddle

    Canton Square, Korean War Memorial Park, Patterson Park, like I said Mt. Vernon Place, or probably most representative of what you are calling for: Federal Hill. Frankly, I think this post is complaining of a Baltimorean shortcoming that doesn’t actually exist.

  • Mark

    You forgot your and tags.

  • jeff

    As other commenters have pointed out, Baltimore does indeed have these urban “pocket parks.” The only thing missing is people. And where are most of the people in Baltimore? Locked up in automobiles.

  • Dukiebiddle

    I don’t think Baltimore parks are even missing people. All the parks I listed above are vibrant and full of people whenever the weather allows. Druid Hill Park, which is more to scale with Central Park in size, is also vibrant and full of people. Central Plaza perhaps has failings, mostly because it’s just a glorified median strip, much like the Wyman Park thingy on Charles Street, but they’re the exceptions not the rule.

    Granted, I think someone is going to get a very different perception of public urban parks in a city when they visit briefly in the final weeks of summer when they compare it to the parks they see all year round. Perhaps our parks could use a few chess tables or something, otherwise I see no significant shortcoming. I invite you go to Patterson Park any nice day, especially on weekends. The sports facilities are full, hundreds of people from the Latino community are congregated in the Northeast corner. The boat pond and the pagoda are crammed with families and young couples. There is no part of that park that is underutilized. Federal Hill is much the same. I’ve never seen fewer than 10 toddlers playing in the playground while being watched by parents of every type, middle class, lower class, every race, moms in hijabs, etc. Residents, not just tourists, are relaxing at every single park bench. People walking dogs, people NOT walking dogs. This is a classic example of a Grass-is-Greenerism. Why would I be agog over Boston architecture when I’m surrounded by the architecture of central Baltimore, which is beautiful?

  • jeff

    I feel inclined to continue this conversation because I was raised in the suburbs of Baltimore, then moved into the city with my family, and two years later moved to NYC, where I have been for the past two years. That, and I think we suffer from a sense of civic pride so strong that it blinds us from appreciating what other cities have to offer.

    You as a Baltimorean should appreciate the architecture and public spaces of Boston and NYC for the same reason that I as a New Yorker should appreciate the waterfront urban neighborhoods and charming rowhouse streetscapes of Baltimore. New York City would give its collective left nut for an urban waterfront that has repurposed itself for a post-industrial city as graciously and organically as Fells Point (Tell Barbara Mikuski I said “thanks”). Yes, I can think of a handful of urban waterfronts in NYC that are tarnished by neither expressways nor urban renewal, and look at Fells Point and say to myself, “What’s the big deal? What about that little triangle between the BQE and the Brooklyn Bridge with the cobblestone street and a few historic buildings that seem to have the same relationship to the street grid and the waterfront as the day they were built?” No, I’m sorry. It can’t compare to the urban waterfronts of Baltimore.

    And you say, “Who needs Central Park when we have Druid Hill Park? Who needs Fort Greene Park when we have Federal Hill Park?” I’m sorry, but the vitality of those parks in Baltimore does not come close to the public spaces in NYC, the same way that the urban waterfronts in NYC can’t compare to those in Baltimore.

    Civic pride, while in many ways a prerequisite for progressive urban policy, can be destructive thereto in excessive quantities. Does New York sit back and say, “Man, we’re awesome! We’ve got these sweet parks, a vibrant street life, and the highest rate of transit ridership in the country!” No. We look over at our peer cities, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and say, “What do they have that we don’t?” Long story short, we closed down several blocks of Broadway to auto traffic, and substantially reduced traffic capacity in favor of protected bike lanes and pedestrian spaces where it is not entirely closed to auto traffic.

    Baltimore, NYC, and Boston are all great cities. In order for them to become even greater, they can and should look to their peer cities for inspiration.

    And P. S. – Speaking of the architecture of Central Baltimore, if you have any extra of those Mount Vernon brownstones with Victorian and Beaux Arts influences, could you please send them up to NYC? Thanks!

  • Dukiebiddle

    Ha, I never said Druid Hill Park was up to par with Central Park, I only said it was similar in size scale (Druid Hill Park is 745 acres, Central Park is 843 acres), and is a vibrant and utilized park. I would never be so foolish to try to claim that Druid Hill Park is Central Park’s equal. I think people have a tendency to look at Federal Hill and see the green hillsides and neglect to notice what is going on on the plateau, which is usually packed with people. Anymore than what is already on top of there on any given day would be representative of overcrowding. It is a very vibrant and congested urban public space. One really does have to consider the population density of Manhattan and Brooklyn when comparing their urban park space use to Baltimore’s. The question really becomes ‘Is Baltimore’s urban park space properly serving it citizenry?’ It is indicated by this blog post that it is not, and a median strip is held up as an example and compared to New York’s and Boston’s greatest public park spaces, while Baltimore’s great urban park spaces aren’t even mentioned. Federal Hill is a great public urban park space. Patterson park has made great strides in the past decade and for its size has become a great urban public park space. Mt. Vernon Place is one of the most beautiful urban parks spaces in the country.

    I’m sure you can remember from your time growing up here that Baltimore has no equal in self-depreciation, and we actually take pride in our reputable rough edge. I understand how easy it is when you live somewhere to look right through what is truly beautiful and not even see it and dwell on the negatives, we all do that from time to time; but seriously, this one particular post is just an exercise of that tendency.

    And I should acknowledge that I do get agog over New York architecture, I’m only pointing out that Baltimore has no need to have a sense of insecurity over our architecture when comparing it to Philadelphia or Boston. We’re no slouch in that department, not by a long shot.

  • Anonymous

    Why are you the way that you are.

  • Mark

    Well put – and my point exactly. Baltimore doesn’t have a vibrant, multi-use, outdoor living room-like sounding board for democracy public space which draws tourists and residents just for the sake of the experience.

    The parks DukieBiddle mentioned are great for recreation (Druid Hill Park is in fact underutilized and will continue to be until surrounding neighborhoods improve), but they can’t really be compared to NYC and Boston public spaces I mentioned.

  • Dukiebiddle

    Underutilized by whom?

    Otherwise, what are you talking about in regards to Patterson and Federal Hill? What do you think is missing? Eagle walkers and break dancers?

  • Dukiebiddle

    It’s a demographic and/or class issue, isn’t it? Because I’m failing to see how parks full of people doing parkey things are failing as parks.

  • Mark

    No, dukiebiddle, it’s not a “class thing” or a “demographic thing”. It’s a perception of safety issue. The blight surrounding Druid Hill Park is a deterrent to its use by law abiding citizens. Druid Hill is not full of people, though it is being used more now than in the past. Our frame of reference for a well used park is obviously different. Let’s leave it at that.

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  • Anonymous

    You do realize that Baltimore does have a Union Square, right? It’s not like San Francisco’s Union Square nor NYC’s Union Square, but for those of us who live here, we think it’s pretty special. Thanks for this interesting post!

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