Weekend Reading: Baltimore’s “Border Vacuums”

This week on the site Better! Cities & Towns, Marc Szarkowski wrote an article about “border vacuums.” These were described by Jane Jacobs as large, single-use areas that lack pedestrian intensity. They range from business parks and campuses, to stadiums and wide roads. For pedestrians, such areas become unnavigable “borders” between two destinations; while serving as “vacuums” that suck away from the vitality of nearby uses, starting a process that can spread through whole neighborhoods. (Just think how overpasses diminish the value of retail spaces below, creating a domino effect that can extend several blocks).

The article focuses on several around downtown Baltimore, where I’ve been exploring. They include the city’s dangerous public housing complexes, which remain in use despite similar ones being demolished in other cities. They also include MLK Jr. Boulevard, which has segregated the west side from downtown; and North Avenue, a formerly vibrant mixed-use thoroughfare that was widened decades ago to better accommodate cars. The avenue, he writes, has since become a “literal wall” between Baltimore’s north neighborhoods. Meanwhile areas that were left untouched, like Canton, Fell’s Point, and Federal Hill, maintain their old-school charm—and hence their economic productivity. More importantly has been the city’s effective renovation of the Inner Harbor, which “had devolved into a border vacuum by the early 1970s…

“By ‘activating the edge’ with recreational attractions, the city turned the waterfront into a vibrant area.” But if a highway had been built along it, “as was the case in so many other cities now trying to revive their isolated waterfront scraps–the waterfront border vacuum would likely have become worse.”

The way to prevent these vacuums, he notes, is not to avoid building major infrastructure altogether, but to build it in ways that mitigate the damage to surrounding uses. Szarkowki’s next goal, as he writes on the blog Envision Baltimore, is to figure out how this can be done in specific areas of Baltimore…

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