Baltimore – Watershed Demonstrations

As part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed — one of the most ecologically and economically important watersheds in the country — Baltimore is home to several watershed-focused initiatives.

Baltimore Inner Harbor. Credit: James Cridland.

In the early 1990s, Parks & People entered into a long-term partnership with the U.S. Forest Service on a project called Revitalizing Baltimore. The goal of the project was to create a national model for community forestry in assisting with ecological concerns, like watershed management. For 10 years, the project focused on increasing the tree canopy in 45 Baltimore neighborhoods by planting street trees, riparian trees and woody plants.[1] As the modeling project came to end, Parks & People transitioned the work and lessons learned into a new watershed initiative.

The organization, working closely with the city’s Department of Public Works, has begun a demonstration project called Watershed 263, which focuses on one watershed in the city “to demonstrate measurable improvement in water quality and quality of life and hopefully to do it in a cost-effective manner such that can be replicated across the city and maybe other places,” Hager says. Started in late 2004, Watershed 263 encompasses 12 west and southwest Baltimore neighborhoods across a 930-acre storm drain area. The plan for the project involves tree planting, vacant lot restoration, community gardens, schoolyard asphalt removals and more to reduce runoff into the Patapsco River.[2]

By focusing on a watershed boundary with the 263 project, Parks & People is able to expand its community forestry work beyond just one neighborhood. “We like watersheds because they’re nested,” Hager says. “We like them because they can bring neighborhoods together and break up existing boundaries. Part of the problem in Baltimore has always been one neighborhood against another neighborhood. Through these watershed programs, we can get neighborhoods to work together on a common goal.”

Also focused on watershed issues is the newly formed nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore. Blue Water has only been around since 2011, but its roots go back much further — it’s the result of a merger between five different Baltimorebased water associations. The idea of merging Baltimore’s various watershed nonprofits was floating around for many years before active negotiations began in 2009 to create one voice to represent Baltimore’s watersheds during funding discussions and collaborative ecosystem projects.[3]

With the merge now complete, Blue Water Baltimore’s mission is to use “community-based restoration, education and advocacy to achieve clean water in Baltimore’s rivers, streams and harbor, so that citizens of the Baltimore region will enjoy a vibrant natural environment, livable neighborhoods and a healthy, thriving Inner Harbor and Chesapeake Bay.”[4] To achieve that goal, the group mobilizes volunteers to patrol streams for pollution, organize trash cleanups and help property owners who want to reduce polluted runoff from their properties. It’s partnering with groups like TreeBaltimore and Parks & People on urban forestry projects that affect watersheds, such as vacant lot conversions and school-yard greening. And, like so many other urban forest groups in Baltimore, Blue Water is focused on connecting with individual residents and neighborhoods. Its Water Audit and Community Greening programs help homeowners and communities set up rain barrels, plant trees, create rain gardens and reduce impervious surfaces.

As Baltimore’s many urban forest advocates continue to develop programs, projects and networks to protect and enhance the city’s green assets, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding research aimed at helping their efforts. The Baltimore Ecosystem Study, part of NSF’s Longterm Ecological Research Network, is studying how the city’s ecosystems change over time, ultimately providing data on its watersheds, biodiversity, soil, social ecology, urban and community planning and more.[5]

Under the program, spearheaded by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, and supported by a long list of city, state and federal agencies, universities and organizations, researchers selected 200 plots around the city to monitor over time. The researchers first surveyed the plots in 2004, measuring the height and density of the trees and recording the species. Another survey is scheduled for 2014, which should provide needed insight into the effectiveness of some of the efforts underway in Baltimore. The study will help urban foresters understand how various stressors, such as pollution and root-cramping pavement, affect tree growth and which species are more resilient, among other things.[6]

Through this new research, ongoing demonstration projects, community outreach and cooperative efforts, and watershed activities, Baltimore is hoping to continue to move closer to its 40 percent canopy goal, which in turn will help the city move closer to its goals concerning urban blight and even reducing crime. A 2010 study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning revealed that just a 10 percent increase in tree canopy in Baltimore correlated with a 12 percent decrease in crime.[7]

“Where there are more green spaces, more trees, there is a decrease in the level of tension and the level of violence that’s exhibited,” Parks & People’s Carrera says. “So from a social perspective, trees and greenspace are important to keep civility alive in cities.”


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[1] State of Maryland. Department of Natural Resources. Forest Service. Urban & Community Forestry. (accessed Sept. 26, 2012).

[2] Parks & Peopled Foundation. Greening. Greening for Water Quality. Watershed 263. (accessed Sept. 26, 2012).

[3] Blue Water Baltimore. Mission & History. Merger: The Story of Five Baltimore Watershed Organizations That Became One. (accessed Sept. 26, 2012).

[4] Blue Water Baltimore. Mission & History. (accessed Sept. 26, 2012).

[5]Baltimore Ecosystem Study. (accessed Sept. 26, 2012).

[6]Baltimore Ecosystem Study. (accessed Sept. 26, 2012).

[7] Troy, A.; Grove, M.; O’Neil-Dunne, J. The Relationship Between Tree Canopy and Crime Rates Across an Urban-rural Gradient in the Greater Baltimore Region. Landscape and Urban Planning [Online], 2012, 106, 262-270. (accessed Aug. 10, 2012).