March 15, 2017

33rd St. to Gwynns Falls: Updating Olmsted's Parkways

At the beginning of the automotive age over a hundred years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted conceived one of America's original parkway systems right here in Baltimore. While the lush green appearance of Gwynns Falls Parkway, 33rd Street and The Alameda have changed remarkably little over the years, the way they function and serve the city has always been in flux.

Olmsted's 1904 report stated very clearly that the parkways mission was always about the big picture as well as the design details: The parkways should "be treated as far as possible like extensions of the parks to bring them to the people and place them in touch with each other.”

Inside median view of 33rd Street looking east from The Alameda toward Lake Montebello.
It's already a very attractive greenway, but the challenge is to make it feel like a park.
The festering trash is a sign that this is now a "no man's land"

A lifetime of riding on various parkways has conditioned us to see them from off to the side, either on the road or sidewalk. But the real Baltimore parkway experience can only be had from being inside the median itself. Their typical width of about 40 feet is enough that the surrounding heavy traffic can feel like mere background. The Olmsted parkway medians really can be treated like parks if we would only let them.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is promoting a proposed 35 mile greenway loop that seeks to link and maximize the use of 25 miles of trails that already exist, to "create a powerful interconnected trail network around Baltimore City." But two of the critical gaps in this loop network are Olmsted parkways - 33rd Street and Gwynns Falls Parkway.

The RTC's trail network proposal is precisely the means to treat the parkways "like extensions of the parks to bring them to the people and place them in touch with each other" as Olmsted envisioned. The parkway medians need their own trail. 

Baltimore Greenway Trails Network Map
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Plan for a 35 mile greenway loop, including Gwynns Falls Parkway (#2) and 33rd Street (#4)
 and encompassing the existing Gwynns Falls Trail (#1) and the Inner Harbor (#8).

What would Olmsted do?

In over a hundred years, traffic and other conditions have changed dramatically, but the Rails-to-Trails goal remains the same as the original Olmsted goal: Treat the parkways like parks.

Back then, the neighborhoods around these parkways were considered suburban, and the whole concept of suburbs was relatively new. As conditions evolved, the parkways came to be considered extensions of the houses' front yards. Then as the traffic grew, the gentry moved farther out into suburbia and the green space inside the parkway medians became more isolated - a pretty sight but little else. So now it's time to rededicate to Olmsted's goal by making the parkway medians a people place.

One of RTC's plan options would do that: Create a pathway inside the medians for people to experience them up-close as extensions of the parks.

Along most of 33rd Street and Gwynns Falls Parkway, this would actually be fairly simple to do. Of course, simply laying down a 12 foot strip of asphalt would not do justice to the legacy of high quality design that Olmsted and his successors are known for, most notably in the presence of the stately rows of magnificent trees which line the median.

We also know that high quality design requires a variety of disciplines - not only landscape and urban design but also environmental and traffic engineering. We know that the new pathway must respect the trees. We also know that the pathway must not harm the permeability of the median to avoid poor drainage and excessive runoff. And we know that traffic can be controlled but it can't be eliminated.

In sum, the proposed pathway will create opportunities that can work very well in some respects but there will be limitations. It should not be cheapened with bad compromises.

How to make the parkway paths work

The way to accommodate people on pathways inside the parkways is simply to minimize conflicts between cars and people. This can be accomplished to four different levels:

1 - Gaps in the parkway median should be closed where possible. There does not need to be an opening in the median at every intersection, with full access to and from each of the low-traffic local streets. Cutting back access will also be beneficial to the neighborhoods by reducing traffic short-cutting thru the neighborhoods. It will also be a welcome sight to be able to see the attractive green parkway in the view corridor at the ends of these streets instead of just seeing more pavement.

As an example, closing the three median openings on 33rd Street between The Alameda and Hillen Road at Lake Montebello - at Tivoly, Fenwick and an alley - would create a continuous traffic conflict-free greenway of nearly a third of a mile in length.

A continuous greenway of almost a third of a mile, uninterrupted by traffic, can be created
 between Lake Montebello (top right, east) and The Alameda (left, west) in the 33rd Street median,
due to the lengthy blocks in the Lakeside (top) and Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello (bottom) neighborhoods.

2 - Gaps in the parkway which cannot be closed should be made as small as possible. There is very little need for the pavement openings in the parkways to be as large as they are now. They should only be large enough to track the traffic paths and no larger.

An example of this is the 33rd Street intersection with Old York Road. "Flexi-posts" have already been installed in the median opening as a cheap traffic-calming and diversion measure. Although the better solution is to close the median opening altogether, the second best alternative is to extend the median out to where the flexi-posts are now located.

This Old York Road median opening was already the very smallest (45 feet) along the entire length of 33rd Street. The flexi-posts have reduced it to about 20 feet. But the median openings for the other minor intersections on 33rd Street range all the way up to over 80 feet at Ednor Road - the equivalent of crossing an eight-lane highway! The median opening at the Guilford Avenue "Bike Boulevard" is a less-than-average 60 feet, but designing it for bikes-only would be appropriate, essentially bringing the width down to zero. All in all, there is great potential for increasing green space and the integrity of the parkway simply by putting the 33rd Street median on a pavement diet.

These "flexi-posts" in the 33rd Street median opening at Old York Road (looking west) are a cheapo temporary way
 of doing what needs to be done - reduce the size of the median opening to only what is needed.
Better yet, close the median opening altogether. The "Waverly Village" sign is also very non-park like
 and blocks the greenway, more like one would expect to see in suburbia than a park setting. 

3 - Wherever the parkway median must remain open, left-turns from the parkway should then be prohibited if possible. This means left-turn traffic would be accommodated from the side streets, but not onto the side streets. This further prioritizes the local neighborhood streets for residents. Also, the necessary size of a median openings for left-turns from side streets would be smaller than that from the parkways, because these vehicles can make wider turns.

4 - Wherever significant traffic conflicts remain, special signalization for pedestrians and bikes along the greenway should be provided. At some major intersections - Charles, St. Paul, Loch Raven, Alameda and Hillen - left-turns are sufficiently heavy that signalization is the only solution. At Charles and St. Paul in particular, the left turns are so heavy that it probably justifies the current lack of any median at all in the block between them. In that case, it is probably best to use signals to direct pedestrians and bikes to the existing sidewalks and bike lanes, for which further improvements are no doubt possible.

The goal should be to create the highest quality and most park-like environment inside the medians for people. With this priority, the pathways will not provide the best possible speed and connections for bicycles. Many skilled and commuter bicyclists will find it more advantageous to use bike lanes and routes along the streets than to use the pathways inside the parkways. This will also help resolve conflicts between bikes and pedestrian users of the parkway trails.

Better solutions may also be available for specific locations. In particular, the critical intersection of Gwynns Falls Parkway and Auchentoroly Terrace on the edge of Druid Hill Park is very poorly designed for anyone - pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists and the neighborhood as a whole. This intersection, as well as Druid Hill Park's entire edge highway system, needs a major redesign and realignment (see my 2010 BaltimoreBrew story - update coming soon).

The Gwynns Falls Parkway is particularly beautiful adjacent to Hanlon Park (to the left/north).
The median and park should be integrated in human design as Olmsted intended.
Gwynns Falls Parkway also provides great opportunities. Perhaps the most beautiful segment of the entire parkway system is adjacent to Hanlon Park. The new greenway path in the median of Gwynns Falls Parkway is an opportunity to extend the pathway system into Hanlon Park and northward to lovely Lake Ashburton. This should be given attention before the upcoming reconstruction of Druid Lake takes place to give the community more options during its severe disruption.

The large 35-mile RTC greenway loop is also a framework for an even larger system. Alameda, proceeding from Clifton Park to 33rd Street and northward, should also be given similar attention to 33rd Street and Gwynns Falls Parkway. The 6-mile West Baltimore greenway loop which I have proposed would also coincide with the RTC loop system along the Gwynns Falls Trail. This trail and others may be seen as tools for redeveloping the city as much as for access and recreation.

Urban parks are precious. Even after a century, the Olmsted parkways are as invaluable as ever to maximize the use of Baltimore's parks and green space for urban living.

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