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Abell Salutes: Community Greens, because when alleys become walkways, neighbors become friends

The scene, in the late afternoon of a summer’s day, is of a patio party: neighbors in convivial conversation, children playing about, barbecue grill in full production. The setting could be taken as suburban, but it is not. It is deep in the city, one of many neighborhood gatherings held often these days in the rear of the row houses on both sides of what was once an alley running between the unit blocks of North Glover St., and Luzerne Avenue, a stone’s throw from Patterson Park in East Baltimore. 

But that alley is an alley no more. It is gated and locked at both ends and converted into a pleasantly accommodating extension of the block’s back yards and patios. Along it are benches and potted plants that together have turned the once harsh concrete alley into an inviting and winding and picturesque walkway. It is an urban planner’s fantasy, the amenities of suburbia flourishing in the city: where backyards and patios are meeting the former alley, the neighbors are meeting each other. Meet the Heslin’s who live on Glover St. 

Middle class and in their early forties, college educated, married, with three young daughters; they are living out a dream in this inner city row home. When they made the decision to leave Manhattan in 2003, they knew that they were not ready to give up the excitement of city living. They used the internet to research numerous east coast cities, ultimately deciding on Baltimore because of its central location, job opportunities and proximity to water. Months of house hunting later, a small classified ad in the newspaper led them to the Patterson Park Community Development Corporation (PPCDC), and finally to their new home on North Glover Street. In fact, it was this series of choices that eventually led them to become active in Baltimore City’s first successful alley gating and greening project, now a city-wide program brought into being in April 2007 by city ordinance. 

The pioneering program, the origins of which go back to Copenhagen in Denmark and Melbourne in Australia, encourages residents to gate their alleys and turn the once-gritty and even dangerous space into user-friendly, parklike settings. 

Known as “Community Greens,” the converted alleyways become shared parks, tucked away inside residential blocks. They are collectively owned and managed by neighbors whose homes and backyards, decks, patios, and balconies enclose the green. In Baltimore, Streuver Bros. Eccles & Rouse created Grindall’s Yard in Federal Hill in the early 1980’s; and in Patterson Park, the Luzerne/Glover neighbors (including the Heslins’) have transformed their alley into a community green. 

Community Greens, an initiative of Ashoka, a national organization which bills itself as working to improve quality of life (“Innovators for the Public”), has been working for the past four years in Baltimore to launch the initiative. In 2007, a $47,000 grant from The Abell Foundation supported Community Green’s efforts to complete the city’s ordinance regulations, raise the visibility of the program city wide, work with groups of residents interested in creating their own community green, and evaluating the program’s effectiveness. 

Many of Baltimore’s neighborhood alleys are blighted spaces, where crime and garbage dumping keep whole neighborhoods in decline and discourage potential residents from living in the city. The passage of the resident-led Alley Gating and Greening Ordinance gives Baltimoreans an unprecedented opportunity to reclaim their alleyways, engage in civic life, and improve their communities. Residents are able to convene together without fear; children can play safely and get the exercise they need; and residents can create a serene, environmentally sustainable area. 

Residents interested in greening have a number of steps to implement. The complexities of the ordinance requirements mean that residents will need assistance navigating the process. The challenges range from block organizing to working with the city’s Department of Public Works. 

They must first decide whether to gate their alleys and leave the concrete intact, or gate and green the alleys, and whether they want traffic obstructed; secondly, they must assemble 80 percent of landowners to support a petition for gating and/or greening, including absentee landowners who must be located and their approval secured. Once an 80 percent majority approval is received, residents submit an application to the Department of Public Works that includes “green design” specifics; obtain approvals from police, fire, sanitation, and private utility companies; and provide stipulated public notifications of public hearings and alley closures. They are expected to raise funds to pay for gates, application fees, public notices in newspapers, locks and access methods for emergency personnel and utility companies, planters, soil, and shrubs. 

Community Greens is working in 24 neighborhoods throughout the city. Nine projects have been completed to date and 74 are in the approval process with the Dep’t. of Public Works. 

Researchers from University of Maryland and College of William and Mary are evaluating each initiative and attempting to determine the impact of green spaces on residents and communities. In the proof: crime statistics, calls to 311, property values, and environmental-impact measures, perception of quality of life. 

Abell Salutes the Community Greens initiative, and Baltimore’s resident leadership for reclaiming formerly ignored and sometimes unsightly alleyways, and so improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods. 

But back to our patio party in the walkway in the rear of the houses between Glover Street and Luzerne Avenue: Guests are not thinking about the data being gathered to assess the Community Greens program. They don’t need any proof. The newly-found and invigorated neighborly camaraderie made possible by the gating of the alley that runs behind their houses is proof enough.