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Renewing an
Urban Watershed


Hager walks into the center of the "reading circle" at Franklin Square Elementary Middle School. His baseball cap shields his eyes from the noon sunshine, a distinctive white beard on his otherwise youthful face. He sees dogwood trees just beginning to flower around the ring, shrubs growing full and thick and grass in the center that needs trimming - all signs that the rich organic soil is doing its job, all signs that community buy-in can work in unexpected ways.

A reading circle in the middle of an asphalt schoolyard didn't seem to make sense from a landscaping standpoint, says Hager, but the students asked for it. And it made a visual statement — an island of green in a sea of black asphalt.

Then the island grew. The city pitched in the funds to remove the rest of the asphalt in the courtyard. Volunteers from the community and the school went to work with Parks & People to fix up the schoolyard. Their tally: 24 trees planted along with 200 perennials and shrubs, 3 benches built, 100 square feet of garden habitat installed, all designed by the students at Franklin Square. Green now covers the 1.1-acre schoolyard, except for one small parking area near the school entrance.

There were no "reading circles" when schools were built in West Baltimore. In the 1970s, during a period of attempted urban renewal, the city quickly tore down residential houses, and schools were literally "dropped in place," says Hager. The planners and builders failed to remove existing basements, simply laying asphalt over existing property, thinking it would be easier to maintain, he explains. Paving over existing foundations instead generated the so-called "heat island" effect, Hager says, a dome of elevated temperatures that baked the asphalt schoolyard, discouraging recess and outside play.

So far Watershed 263's efforts have removed more than 4 acres of asphalt in schoolyards and 14 acres citywide. Schoolyard asphalt removal has been one of the "runaway successes" of the project, says Hager. Bill Stack made the case to the city that removing these impervious surfaces would improve water quality, according to Hager. So the city of Baltimore has made money for asphalt removal available. It's not cheap, roughly $70,000 per acre in each schoolyard. But it is money well spent, says Hager.

School children at the four different West Baltimore schools have helped green their schoolyards, planting trees and wetland plants to create bioretention areas by the schoolyard storm drains. Harlem Park Elementary School now hosts an Urban Watershed Ecology Center, which teaches students and trains teachers in environmental education. Franklin Square Elementary Middle School hosts the KidsGrow Environmental Education Program, developed by the Baltimore Ecosystem Study. Since 1994, the after-school curriculum has helped elementary and middle school youth in Baltimore appreciate their natural environment and become better stewards of their community.

These efforts to green the watershed, beginning with the schoolyards, have built momentum and capacity, according to Hager. The original Schoolyard Greening Task Force has now evolved into a Green School Task Force, which is working to implement a green school certification process. An active and committed Community Stakeholder Council, with representatives from each of the neighborhoods, now helps to monitor the overall efforts of Watershed 263 and set priorities.

One of the most ambitious elements of Watershed 263's so-called "Framework for Greening" is a proposed "greenway," six miles of trail that would link parks, schools, trails, and business districts, explains Hager. The trails would be more than an intervention to reduce impervious surface area, although it will do that too. The network could have a key impact on the quality of life in the watershed, Hager says. The proposed greenway, which will see its first progress with money from the DOT earmark, would connect with the existing 15 miles of the Gwynn Falls Trail in the adjacent watershed. The hope is that it will help foster a pedestrian and bicycle culture in Watershed 263, help build community, and provide safe outdoor spaces for neighborhood youth.

Like a stone tossed in a pond, the "reading circle" spread outward, the island of green grew wider. Hager now points to the success of asphalt removal in the schools with a sense of pride. In his 10 years with Parks & People, and his 40 years as a public official and city planner before that, Hager sees his work with greening efforts in Watershed 263 as a highpoint in his career of service to the community.

Noontime traffic roars down Russell Street, a continuous stream of cars heading for I-95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Guy Hager parks at the BP gas station adjacent to Watershed 263's outfall pipe and starts down the "riverwalk," part of the 15-mile Gwynns Falls Trail. He's walked this chainlink fence-lined path dozens of times, but the water looks pretty bad — even to him.

The Watershed 263 demonstration project can point to many significant accomplishments — more than 800 trees planted, 4 schoolyards and 200 vacant lots restored, 14 acres of asphalt removed, school children engaged, and stakeholder involvement growing everyday.

The "kicker," says Hager, would be "if we've changed the quality of stormwater... if we've had environmental outcomes that we can detect and monitor," he says. But the water quality data does not show signs of improvement yet. "We're not quite there."

Where the garbage strewn, murky green water flows from the outfall of Watershed 263 marks the site of the proposed "Celebration Park," according to the project's Framework for Greening. But the watershed has a long way to go before it will be celebrating improved water quality.

To make a difference in water quality in Watershed 263 will take a full frontal assault: removal of impervious surfaces combined with focused greening, construction of a pedestrian and bicycle "greenway" throughout the watershed, and full implementation of urban Best Management Practices.

It won't come cheap. Roughly $7.5 million will buy treatment of only 25 percent of the watershed's impervious surfaces, according to the Watershed Management Plan developed to meet the requirements of the City's stormwater permit (see Urban Stormwater and the Bay). And that price tag does not include the greenway or the treatment of stormwater in the remaining 75 percent of the watershed's impervious surfaces.

Watershed 263 will need more than public funds. The health of the water flowing beneath Baltimore's streets depends on the people above. The watershed needs the professional commitment of people like Bill Stack and Guy Hager, the personal investment of community residents like Inez Robb and Ed Chapman, and ultimately the stewardship of the next generation, the school children that are learning to cherish green space in their lives.

Improving water quality remains a tall-order task for a watershed with an already overflowing plate. The fix will not be quick or easy. But people are hard at work.

For More Information

Parks & People
Baltimore Ecosystem Study
Tales from Urban Forests (Watershed 263 radio program)
Center for Watershed Protection
A Stormwater Primer
Baltimore Department of Public Works - Bureau of Water & Wastewater
Urban Stream Research
Sujay Kaushal
Margaret Palmer
Andrew Elmore
Chris Swan

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