NOTHING THERE: Uncovering density in Baltimore’s vacant lots through the aggregation of suppressed ecological systems

Baltimore, Maryland is one example of a city in which development has disconnected residents from their natural surroundings. Adrienne Lyon explains how new urban vacancies give Baltimore the opportunity to establish new (forgotten) interactions between city and nature.

March 8, 2012

In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx argues that there has been a tension between nature and the city and this clash is essential to the American psyche. However, Americans are starting to lose awareness of the wild edge beyond the city because urbanized “clearings” are continually expanding and pushing out the natural world. If nature (as process and sublime otherness) is reintroduced to a city where it has been suppressed by the reliance upon mechanized systems, then it offers a contrast to the political organization and fosters an essential tension between natural and human processes.

Baltimore, Maryland is one example of a city in which development has disconnected residents from their natural surroundings. Baltimore’s location at the mouth of the Patapsco River has been essential to its growth. A direct tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, the Patapsco River has offered transportation, energy, drinking water, food, and sea access since before colonial times. As Baltimore became more urbanized, runoff and deforestation contributed to the degradation of the Patapsco and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. For more than twenty years, government and nonprofit groups have been working to restore the Bay and its tributaries. One obstacle has been that much of the pollution arises upstream in tributaries like the Patapsco where urban residents feel removed from the waters themselves. As the city has expanded, Baltimoreans have started to lose awareness of the natural forces which formed the city.

Today, however, there is a new opportunity for Baltimore. Like many American cities, Baltimore is a postindustrial city looking for vacancy solutions. At the most basic level, vacancies physically offer spaces within the city as new urban resources. However, vacant lots are far from being empty containers as the term “vacant” might suggest. These spaces are filled with the unbridled energy of ecological succession, the mystery of traces from previous tenants and buildings, and the curiousness of an unexpected porosity within regularized blocks. In contrast with the strict formality of the city, the vacant lot offers a renegade nature and an uncanny otherness within Baltimore.

Cities often consider the otherworldly “erosion” of the urban fabric as a threat to their survival (terms such as “shrinking cities” and “urban voids” come to mind). However, they should consider this transformation as a restorative process—one in which the new open spaces allow for something the city has needed, but could not fit in its dense state. There can be a new type of urbanism for the “eroded city” where cities acknowledge a part of nature that it has previously kept at a distance. Typical urban infrastructure is a man-made attempt to restrain natural processes. For instance, Baltimore confines historical streams in underground culverts and eliminates vegetation when paving for new developments. As Baltimoreans have lost human connections to ecological urban systems, the fundamental tension between civilization and wilderness has weakened. New urban vacancies give cities the opportunity to introduce new (forgotten) interactions between city and nature. Vacant lots are no longer seen as unrelated, isolated instances within the city, but as a linked system that brings a new balance between nature and city.

An infiltration of nature within Baltimore’s vacant lots means the city can revisit its inaugural moments when it established an anxious relationship to the natural world. Connected vacant lots will reconstitute hidden ecosystems and processes that were buried in the making of the political grid. For instance, urban designers might examine Baltimore’s historical streams, past topography, former shorelines, and early forest locations. In Baltimore, native grasses and trees can be planted in areas where they have been inhibited by impenetrable concrete surfaces. Rivers and streams can reemerge from underground drains in the form of daylighted creeks or swales. Swales and vegetation can clean water or air, decrease erosion, and replenish aquifers. Reintroduced to the city, natural systems offer environmental benefits while maintaining frictions with the man-made city.

The new infrastructure will allow Baltimore residents to understand how humans rely on and manipulate natural processes, specifically regarding the water cycle. Through vacant lots, Baltimoreans can understand their connection to the Patapsco. Baltimore has already begun “on-the-ground” tributary cleanup strategies in order to reduce stormwater runoff pollution in the Patapsco River and eventually the Bay. For instance, Baltimore Parks and People has developed Watershed 263, a 930 acre restoration project focusing on cleaning and decreasing stormwater runoff in western Baltimore. Stormwater management has become especially important as urban runoff has become the fastest growing source of pollution in Chesapeake Bay. In Watershed 263 neighborhoods, extensive impervious surfaces, a sparse tree canopy, and unplanted clay soil allow pollution and sediment runoff to flow freely into the Patapsco River. These western waters have some of the worst water qualities within the Chesapeake Bay due to high levels of bacteria, metals, nitrates, and some phosphorus. The network of vacant lots will take on neighborhood water quality concerns as an integral part of the aggregation and reveal of the city’s suppressed systems.

Baltimore’s Watershed 263 area contains approximately 1,600 vacant lots, particularly in southwest neighborhoods such as Franklin Square, Poppleton, Union Square, and Hollins Park where vacant lots account for up to 20 percent of residential properties. In southwest Baltimore, a series of constructed layers will offer a place for reemerging ecological systems in the city as well as a way of acknowledging former structures within vacant lots. At the ground level, bioswales will direct and filter water runoff through the site. The swales slow water flow and remove materials like sediment, phosphorus, and nitrogen by filtration, absorption, and gravity sedimentation. Plants and soil microbes cleanse runoff for safer release into the Chesapeake Bay. These densely vegetated filters will appear reminiscent of Baltimore’s historical forests and streams and will seem to be a sort of inaugural terrain remerging within vacant lots. In paved-over lots, concrete can be broken-up and resituated to make urban furniture or new pervious surfaces.

Above the bioswales and vegetation, some lots might include a Kee Klamp scaffolding framework focused on rain collection and microclimates for public spaces. Harvested rain water used for cooling misters give residents summer oases away from un-airconditioned rowhouses and Baltimore’s scorching heat. In addition, trees from the vegetated water filter provide cool shade in the summer and insulation in the winter. Misters, lights, walkways, stairs, porches, and gathering spaces can be attached to the scaffolding structure to create outdoor neighborhood spaces. The scaffolds will simultaneously frame the emptiness of the vacant lot and provide an armature for human activities. In addition to supporting human ecologies, the scaffolds will support the natural ecologies of the vegetation below. Collected rain water can be used for irrigation systems that attach to the Kee Klamp system. Because the nature of scaffolding is extremely flexible, each vacant lot can have a different structural organization that reflects internal guides such as remnant foundations, party wall protrusions, or lot lines. By drawing on existing lot structure, the scaffolding will call demolished rowhouses back into neighborhood consciousness while also becoming an armature where other suppressed ecological systems attach and emerge in the city.

Vegetated swales in vacant lots will offer a new water filtration infrastructure to the city. The constructed landscape would alleviate infrastructural deficiencies in southwest Baltimore such as sediment-clogged storm drains and standing water on impervious surfaces. Dispersed lots will be connected by water channels that leverage Baltimore’s underlying infrastructure systems such as streets and alleys. As a way of linking lots, streets can channel water through pervious paved waterways and alleys can direct water through vegetated swales. Initially, the ecological filtration system will begin with a city-installed swale system connecting Franklin Square Elementary School, Hollins Market, and the B & O Museum. Over time, fragmented lots link up and grow a network. The bottom-up lot sequence is unpredictable, but the collection of vacancies adds up to a new urban network. The spontaneity of the network’s development will be a sort of “wild nature” in and of itself. The full neighborhood system is not designed and will change over time according to unanticipated pressures and needs. Uphill water is polluted by urban runoff, but by the time it reaches the daylighted stream by the B & O Museum, it will be cleaned and can be used for a public fountain in a plaza adjacent to the museum. This civic space will highlight how individual lots cleaning small volumes of water across the neighborhood link up to produce a large volume of clean water before being released into the daylighted stream proposed by Baltimore Parks and People and Watershed 263.

The interconnected vacant lots will make infrastructure a major part of daily life and will enable Baltimoreans to reevaluate the role of water in their neighborhoods. The system will remind residents of the natural forces which have been transformed to suit the modern city. Vacant lots will simultaneously function as architecture, civic space, and engineered machines, and they are ultimately pieces of a larger network that extends beyond the city. This proposal introduces water as a visible urban structure that is the foundation for a new type of civic space in the scaffolds above. Baltimoreans will see the inner workings of the water system and will develop a deeper connection to the subtle topography and physical characteristics of their neighborhoods. For instance, a child might identify with his “uphill” home where the bioswales are densely vegetated and rarely wet whereas his friend enjoys his “downhill” house by the daylighted stream where he can play in the water. In addition to fostering neighborhood identity and civic space, the vacant lot network will initiate infrastructural independence to the area through sustainable design. In a world where climate changes are predicted to put environmental pressures on city stormwater systems, the proposed network offers an opportune system less reliant on urban drains. Within vacant lots, uncanny ecological processes as infrastructure will be revealed to revive tensions between nature and city as well as a new self-sufficiency for Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods.


Works Consulted

Harrison, Robert Pogue. Forests: the shadow of civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: technology and the pastoral ideal in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Morrish, William, and Catherine Brown. “Infrastructure for the New Social Covenant.”  In The Productive Park: new waterworks as neighborhood resources, edited by The Architectural League of New York, 2-22. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.

Parks and People, “Watershed 263,” Baltimore City, (accessed May 2008).

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