Beatley: Biophilic Cities

On page 9 (PDF page 5) of Biophilic Cities, Beatley discusses some efforts to “heal urban ills” in cities including Detroit and Los Angeles. It got me thinking more about the blocks and blocks of vacant buildings in Baltimore. As much as I am on board with everything Beatley discusses, and as much as I would love to live in and be an active citizen in a biophilic city, what do we do with the depth and scope of issues that a city such as Baltimore needs to address before it can become more biophilic?

The number of vacant homes and buildings in Baltimore blows me away, and it astounds me on many levels. I thought more and more about vacant blocks as I read this book. I think what Beatley might propose would be a policy shift, such that the city and state get on board with a mega-biophilic attitude and make some dramatic moves to pave the way for change.

I’ll share two resources here-- a map of vacant areas in Baltimore:

And an article from the Baltimore Sun about why there are so many vacant homes:

In my opinion-- If Baltimore is to become a biophilic city, many debts and liens need to be forgiven. The only entities capable of buying such expensive property are those who have the resources to raze entire city blocks and redevelop. The costs of those endeavors will likely lead to the development of high-priced real estate to offset development costs. I doubt new developments would be priced to be affordable to those who were displaced in the first place. Even if new developments are biophilic, they need to be accessible to all.

It’s clear Baltimore needs a serious turn around on its policies that lead to vacancies and long-vacant buildings. Poor neighborhoods are only getting poorer, and it does not bode well for becoming more biophilic. On September 26th another article was published in the Baltimore Brew about a Save A Lot grocery store closing in Oliver, expanding the food desert in the area:

I want to be part of the biophilic city Beatley describes, but I have a hard time reconciling the current urban ills of Baltimore with this vision for the future. I would love to hear from someone with policy or legal expertise to share-- can there be a policy-driven overhaul that can really catalyze the first step towards biophilic Baltimore, for all of Baltimore? I will be there to push for the vote!


P.S. It looks like the link to the Sun article may not work! Try googling this title if you have trouble! " For Sale: Boarded-up, crumbling former corner store assessed at $5,000. Price: $1.76 million" Ian Duncan and Yvonne Wenger, 8/12/17

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Veronica you made some awesome points and observations. I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is only about 40 minutes away from Detroit so I have been many times throughout my life. And you are extremely correct. There are a TON of abandoned apartments and houses. However, a cool thing has started to happen on the outskirts and just within the city of Detroit. The abandon houses are being demolished and redone, as well as being offered at a really low cost. This is inviting more young adults to work in Detroit, since they can live close by but not spend a lot of money on housing. This in turn helps liven up Detroit and brings in more money for the city to try and cover the cost of tearing down the abandon homes.

That being, I feel a situation like this would be the perfect example of where a “biophilic city” approach could thrive. When I first started reading “Biophilic Cities,” the first picture that popped into my head was those house designs where a creek runs through the living room. Obviously that is not what Tim Beatley is advocating for. But, I feel if an approach of roof top gardens and community spaces for planting and relaxing starts on the outside of a city or just within the city limits, such as Detroit, it may have enough momentum to “grow” into the framework of the city (no pun intended).

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Hey Veronica, you raise a lot of serious concerns here. I’ve only lived in Baltimore for 3ish now, but I’m already aware of a lot of struggles the city faces. These include vacant housing, homelessness, food security, unemployment, etc. I agree that these are struggles that the city needs to address urgently. However, I don’t think there has to be a tradeoff of what we do first and what we prioritize. We can face these struggles and create a biophilic city at the same time. What would it look like to address vacant housing through a biophilic lens? What if for every house we demolish we rebuild a new one that fills the qualities that Beatley describes? We have a city that needs to grow (as Emmett puts it). What better way to grow the city than with nature in mind as we rebuild? I would argue that the only way to create a healthy, safe, and sustainable city is to incorporate these principals into every step we take. We can’t put it off any longer.

Maybe this wasn’t the point you were trying to make. But I think Baltimore is a city with a lot of potential. In my short time here I have met so many inspiring visionaries that have beautiful imaginings of Baltimore’s future. These imaginings are daring. They disrupt the reputation and stigma that so many people hold of Baltimore. I think Beatley would say that we should start our design process with these bold imaginings.


Veronica, the issue you raise I think sheds light on that Beatley’s text really is “more exploratory than thorough, more provocative than comprehensive” (p. xiii). We could think of a myriad of societal woes that need to be addressed in tandem with fostering a biophilic city. Beatley at least acknowledges the complexity beyond his idea of the biophilic city in claiming, for example, the disproportionate threat that women face visiting parks and green spaces must be addressed (p. 142). There are issues that cannot be eliminated by installing a green wall in an affluent part of town. You’re doing well to address an issue (definitely not specific to, but) pervasive in Baltimore.

I agree that financial leniency from the top-down would be helpful, but I fear putting too much stock into looking for politics to lay the foundation following a vote. A through-line between Beatley’s text and Manzini’s Politics of the Everyday is local engagement. With respect to biophilic cities, Beatley posits that you could have all the “green” infrastructure you want in a city, but the community needs to be engaged and invested in their environment for the system (human-human and human-extra-human relations) to flourish. What better way to get people invested than for the people to be those who A) champion the change and B) play an integral part in its manifestation beyond casting a vote?

I recognize that seeking community engagement in economically downtrodden areas of the city may at first seem an uphill battle; there are a lot of barriers to entry, the likes of which Beatley does not address. How do you get individuals to care about installing a community garden if they’re just trying to make ends meet and dealing with the numerous external and familial stresses that accompany economic insecurity? That’s not to say the community wouldn’t want a more enjoyable environment, but that there are surely more immediate issues on peoples’ minds.

I’m not throwing out any solutions here. I just want to cast light on the fact that communities should exercise (some degree of) control over the process of making their home biophilic. Surely the municipality plays a role, but if we expect to leave policymakers all the responsibility, I’m pessimistic about the return. The ultimate goal of the biophilic city as described by Beatley is a more ecologically sensitive and engaged populace; it would be worthwhile for the community to lead the way.


I appreciate Veronica’s and Vince’s points about accessibility and a community-driven approach regarding biophilic cities. As with any change in a community environment, I think it’s really important that everyone be able to benefit and that changes are driven by the people living there.

I feel like it’s not possible to talk about the concept of designing biophilic cities without acknowledging the current green space situation in Baltimore and the history behind it. In Baltimore, you will find that trees, parks, and other greenery are primarily located in high-income, mostly white neighborhoods. This has to do with Baltimore’s history of redlining (a racist practice where minority communities (especially black folks) were denied access to housing loans and other community development resources because they were deemed “high risk” investments). Although redlining was outlawed in the 60s, its effects can still be seen today (think about Roland Park (mostly white, high-income, “good investment” on redlining maps) vs. Pigtown (mostly black, low-income, “bad investment” on redlining maps).

As a result of having less trees, low-income neighborhoods have significantly higher temperatures than higher-income neighborhoods with trees and greenery (this is especially evident in the summer and can contribute to community unrest when people don’t have access to A/C). The gentrification of neighborhoods in Baltimore has become associated with the planting of more trees and greenery, which can decrease temperatures and increase property value.

How do we make trees and greenery a community investment that is not only for the rich? Logistically, plants require a large upfront investment of resources and ongoing maintenance, so they are generally more appealing to people who have free time (or enough money to pay others to do the planting/maintenance for them).


Like Vince, I found myself thinking about how to go about building a biophilic city from the ground up while reading this week’s text. Building off Veronica’s point about existing urban ills and what Ally is saying about integrating vacancy solutions and urban biophilia, there exist robust community organizations in Baltimore that are invested in addressing vacancies through redevelopment. The state is even turning money over to these groups so that they can begin their projects while the plan to tear down vacancies crawls through bureaucratic approval processes. These groups are focused on economic revitalization, and I think Vince is correct in that it won’t be easy for them to shift to embracing nature-forward design and planning. However, if they did, these government-funded, community-based groups would be well-positioned to start raising biophilic pockets of the city. As Beatly explains, incorporating nature in cities not only improves the well-being of its citizens and the land they inhabit, but also increases the overall resilience of the urban system by offering essential ecosystem functions. These are benefits that would surely be of interest to a community organization. If the dollar value of these positive impacts could be calculated by an environmental economist, I wonder if that figure would be persuasive enough to get these groups to buy into biophilic planning and design. Existing community development organizations could be key players in the bottom-up development of biophilic cities.

Having trouble with inactive links, but I will list the titles of two Baltimore Sun articles that may be of interest:
" Baltimore is furiously knocking down vacant houses — but barely keeps up as new ones go empty"
^ mentions state funding community org development projects

" After years of failing to get Baltimore’s vacants below 17,000, city launches a new push to reverse the trend"
^ highlights some community org leaders, their thoughts on the city’s plan


This is an excellent point, Audrey. I would add that when there are parks in or close to low-income neighborhoods, these are often dirty and polluted (for instance Herring Run) and experienced as unsafe (Leakin Park– websites like these don’t exactly help with this reputation). While perceived unsafety is, in my experience, often a bit exaggerated (would highly recommend a stroll or a bikeride through all of these parks), I could imagine people being reluctant to have their children play unsupervised there. Parks in or near high income areas (Lake Roland, Patterson Park, Cold Spring Park etc.) don’t really have these kinds of issues.


While biophilic cities hold a lot of potential problems, I think another interesting perspective to take is to look at all the amazing work Baltimore City is already taking towards biophilia! For example, to Audrey’s point on tree cover – the UHI is a large issue in Baltimore that the office of sustainability is already starting to address. There are initiatives to hit 40% tree cover in Baltimore (as this is thought to be the threshold where diminishing returns on green cover start) which the office of sustainability is heavily focusing in historically redlined areas as a long-term plan, and cool rooms and air conditioned areas for people without access to AC in the summer. To Vince’s point on community engagement, programs like Civic Works through Americorps and other training program exists to train young professionals in land management, urban farming, and construction so that they can become directly involved with and are given the capacity to build more biophilic infrastructure for themselves.

None of this is to say that these programs are perfect – but I just wanted to inject some positivity into an otherwise pessimistic conversation

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The question of vacant houses is really complicated. It’s obviously an issue that needs to be addressed to make the city safer and more attractive for further economic investment and repopulation. I think demolition can be part of a solution, as long as questions about 1) historic preservation and 2) the fate of remaining local population are thoroughly considered. Many rowhomes in Baltimore’s disenfranchised neighborhoods, including many vacant ones, are very historic and aesthetically pleasing, and once something has been razed, it’s gone forever. America has a long, traumatic history of failed urban renewal projects, in which eminent domain legislation was used to clear so-called slums (often, in fact, thriving Black neighborhoods), force locals to relocate, and make way for questionable new developments and highways.

On the other hand, revitalizing these homes may be unrealistic and lead to unwanted gentrification. One advantage of demolition is that it can create space for vacant land conversion towards sustainable ends–green initiatives such as urban farming. But the question of demolition remains complex with very high stakes.


Douwe, I think there is an even larger problem with revitalizing vacant homes: cost. While many of them may be historic, they are in such extreme disrepair that rebuilding the home takes money that it is impossible to get an ROI on. These homes have unstable foundations, missing walls, or even trees growing up through the roofs and often are impossible to repair cost-effectively. The city government practically gives them away because there is so little demand – but the only buyers are organizations like Habitat for Humanity which can mobilize volunteer labor to offset the costs of repair. The problem of gentrification is also a very real one – often times developers will follow volunteer organizations (like Habitat) which are rebuilding neighborhoods, then buy the remaining houses that are still in disrepair because the believe the volunteer revitalization will lead to higher property values (which it does). The new developers are then able to sell their properties for more, and essentially choke out any former residents of the neighborhood.


Another unfortunate part about Baltimore’s vacant homes is that many are purchased by investors who do not reside in the city, or even the country. These investors hold onto this property with no intent to rebuild, renovate or develop the land. Instead they hope that they will get an ROI from the neighborhood gentrifying. From a superficial analysis, it seems like these types of investors hurt Baltimore more than they help. Nor is this problem exclusive to Baltimore - foreign money trickles into cities all across the US ( and many of these properties are also left vacant. I’m wondering how (in an extreme limit of a majority of properties being owned by foreign investors) that may impact the creation of a biophilic city (since a prerequisite for a biophilic city seems to be having its residents present) and whether or not city legislatures’ are capable of instituting policy that restricts these type of investment properties.

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