City partnership allows developers to replace asphalt with grass around schools, to everyone's benefit

The greening of Baltimore

November 20, 2006|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

On a crisp fall day outside Franklin Square Elementary School, children fill the playground. A group of boys and girls scout for butterflies in a garden. Others run around the grass, their bulky coats half-buttoned in the breeze.

There's nothing remarkable or shocking about this scene in the large yard at the corner of Lexington and Calhoun streets in West Baltimore - but just last year, it would have been unthinkable.

For decades, all of Franklin Square's 2-acre playground was asphalt - much of it cracked, covered in broken glass and weeds. The children were forbidden to run on it, and when they did, they often ended up in the nurse's office with scrapes and bruises.

But under a partnership with the city, the Parks and People Foundation and various developers, the pavement at Franklin Square and nine other schools has been transformed into green space. The city is using storm water requirements to encourage some developers who are building in Baltimore to compensate for their paving by removing impervious surfaces somewhere else.

"It's such a good idea to try to create some natural schoolyard habitat. Not only do you get an environmental benefit for a reduction of runoff, but you're getting an education benefit and a quality of life benefit," said William Stack, who runs the water quality management section for the city's Department of Public Works.

Asphalt playgrounds came of age in the 1950s, when homes were torn down to make way for schools. At the time, inner-city schools like the ones in Baltimore were much more populous than they are now, and the concrete was needed for parking lots, basketball courts and other facilities. With nothing to mow or landscape, the surface was also thought to be easier to maintain.

But over the years, the asphalt became cracked, dangerous and full of litter. With no funds to maintain the playgrounds, they became off limits to many city children.

"It had way too much glass," said Kianna Johnson, a Franklin Square fourth-grader. "It was hot, it was black, and if you tripped on it, you would hurt yourself."

City public works officials had long known the asphalt was a problem and asked school maintenance crews to make a list of the playgrounds in need of an overhaul. The city received some money from the state's Critical Area Commission to remove asphalt from six playgrounds, but the cash-strapped school system didn't have the funding to remove any more.

Then three years ago, a Johns Hopkins Hospital parking garage project gave city public works officials an idea.

Under the state's critical area law, any developer that builds in the city has to improve water quality on its site by 20 percent. Hopkins told city officials that, because of design configurations, they couldn't reduce the impervious surface on the garage they were building.

City public works officials asked the Critical Area Commission to permit Hopkins to replace school asphalt as mitigation for its garage. The commission agreed, and last summer, Hopkins contractors finished removing the asphalt from Calverton Middle School in West Baltimore, and Hamilton Middle School and Brehms Lane Elementary School, both in Northeast Baltimore.

Stack was thrilled with the results.

"It just seemed like a natural fit. I don't know how else to describe it," he said. "And what we had to do was some mathematics to prove to the Critical Area Commission that we could equate storm water greening with storm water management."

Once Hopkins met its requirements, Stack and his staff began looking for more developers unable to mitigate on their sites.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Port Administration was seeking off-site mitigation projects. The state agency has been redeveloping buildings at its Dundalk Marine Terminal for several years. But because real estate at the port is so valuable, port managers didn't want to build storm water management ponds there.

The two agencies got together, and Franklin Square was next on the list. Work was finished last month.

The Parks and People Foundation, which runs an ecology-minded after-school program called SuperKidsGrow and had previously planted a reading circle in Franklin Square's backyard, asked the children what they wanted on their new playground in addition to grass.

Once they got past the fanciful impossibilities - there would be no waterslides or giraffes - the group agreed that they needed a garden to attract birds and butterflies. Together, school and foundation staff helped the children plant marigolds, serviceberry bushes and spartina grass.

Now neighborhood children like Katria Conaway, a Franklin Square third-grader, come to the reading circle on the weekends with their books. Despite its rough surroundings, the playground is as pristine as any suburban lawn, with no blowing potato chip bags or rolling soda cans in sight.

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