Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Baltimore Row Home and Urban Design

As I travel this summer, I plan to reflect on the various architectural and neighborhood designs of the places I visit.  I believe that reshaping the built environment, and our expectations of neighborhoods, is a key component of our effort to create a sustainable future.

While in Baltimore, I was very impressed by the architecture of the famous Baltimore row homes.  To illustrate, here are some pictures of the row homes:

At first glance, these homes reminded me of the “shotgun” houses prevalent in The Hill and other St. Louis neighborhoods.  However, instead of existing as separate boxes, row homes are constructed side by side, so that each home shares the length of two walls with neighboring houses.  Some row homes are ornate, with Victorian style upper extensions and welcoming porches.  Other row homes are simpler, with a vertical front and a small step instead of a porch.  Like older St. Louis architecture, some row homes have been remarkably well maintained, while others are boarded up and have fallen into disrepair.  In most cases, the state of the row home is a good estimation of the state of the whole neighborhood.

According to my friends at BNEC, most of the Baltimore row homes were built in the early 20th century to house factory workers.  The homes seem fairly inexpensive to construct and do a great job at maximizing urban density.  While most row homes are very energy inefficient due to their age, I understand that they can be retrofitted to significantly improve their building performance.

I find something about brick homes and older, turn of the century building to be inherently pleasing.   These buildings feel so much more authentic than the aluminum clad houses or McMansions of suburban subdivisions.  To me, older homes hold a certain level of individual craft and charm.  These homes were built very intentionally, with purpose and care.  Even the Baltimore row homes, which are by in many ways are standardized copies, contain a level of detail I rarely see in modern homes.  Their exteriors are not bland spaces behind which residents retreat to solitarily watch TV.  These buildings have character, with upper windows that jut jauntily out above welcoming porches. 

While biking past row homes on way to BNEC, I often observed people having conversations on their porches, while others simply sat quietly and watched the street.  These were not sterilized neighborhood devoid of life; these were neighborhoods that thrived on social interactions, where people acknowledge one another’s existence.  From my BNEC friends, I learned that most Baltimore neighborhoods have a strong sense of identity, with active neighborhood associations, frequent block parties, and neighbors in constant communication.  These cohesive neighborhood dynamics make it much easier for BNEC to collect pledges from Baltimore residents.  I know few suburban settings that have a similar sense of community.

Lest I only romanticize about Baltimore neighborhoods filled with beautiful row homes, I should note that many, if not most, of Baltimore’s neighborhoods have major problems.  Crime and drugs are widely prevalent, and poverty and unemployment are rampant.  In many places, it seems that a culture of hopelessness, created by years of public neglect, precludes the potential for improvement.  Many people in these poor black Baltimore neighborhoods lack educational opportunities and turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.  In these neighborhoods many row homes are abandoned and crumbling, and the social infrastructure of a sense of community has also decayed considerably.

Yet, the “privileged” children of the suburbs still have a lot to learn from some of the social habits of “inner city” families in Baltimore.  How many of us know our neighbors?  How many of us have ever attended a community block party?  How many of us have ever sat on our porches, simply observing the world, and talking with anyone who walks by?  How many of us even live in houses with porches?

For myself, I have begun to redefine the “good life.”  I now feel that true relationships, being part of a supportive community, and living in a meaningful way hold true secrets to sustaining happiness.  The built environment has a tremendous impact on our ability to engage socially and create a sense of “community” within a neighborhood.  If we build our homes like fortresses and design our streets to be welcoming to cars but not pedestrians, is it any wonder that we do not know more people in our neighborhoods?  If we make it impossible for people to walk or bike to their jobs or to the grocery store, is it any wonder that our nation is obese and constantly irate due to long commutes?

The Baltimore row home, and the behaviors I casually observed of many Baltimore residents, show the great potential for urban design.  By emphasizing livability, density, and community, we can create better neighborhoods.  But it is vital to understand the larger regional context of a neighborhood, and to think about urban design on all levels.  Urban design works well because neighborhoods are surrounded by other neighborhoods, which leads to a larger sense of identity for the whole city.  If urban design principles are applied in isolation, you can end up with something like New Town in St. Charles, MO: a great attempt to capture New Urbanism ideas, but a result that feels rather like a Disney Theme Park attraction surrounded by rural Missouri farmland.

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