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Baltimore Project Aims to Ward Off Effects of Climate Change

Communities along south Baltimore’s Middle Branch of the Patapsco River have long benefited from the waterfront but are now facing increasing risk of flooding and the negative effects of the warming climate.

The South Baltimore waterfront restoration plan.
The South Baltimore waterfront restoration plan.
South Baltimore Gateway Partnership
A $32 million FEMA grant, just a “formal notice” away, will help Baltimore transform a waterfront from a vulnerable area that's increasingly at risk of being cut off from vital services to a vibrant, resilient community that uses its location for economic and social benefits.

The south Baltimore area along the Patapsco River’s Middle Branch is a region where the residential neighborhoods and vital infrastructure such as hospitals, transportation corridors and water evacuation routes run right up against the waterway.

In recent years, the warming climate has meant an increasing number of high-intensity storms that produce major flooding and cut neighborhoods off from some of this infrastructure. The South Baltimore Community Land Trust is one of the groups involved in transforming the area, along with the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, which is one of the finalists for funding under FEMA's Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program.

The master plan, Reimagine Middle Branch, includes returning the 11 miles of shoreline to nature, and in the process creating resiliency for the communities and even reconnecting some of the neighborhoods that have been historically cut off from the waterfront by train tracks and other infrastructure.

“We’re trying to solve these complex resiliency issues, but not think of them in a siloed way,” said Brad Rogers, executive director of the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership. “We want to think about how they affect the ecological restoration, how they provide enhanced recreation opportunities, how trails and boulevards around the waterfront can improve connectivity and transportation, and how all that can improve economic development, particularly in low-income minority communities around the water.”

Those low-income neighborhoods have not historically shared in the benefits of the waterfront. But the plan calls for that to change, for those communities to be connected to the waterfront and use it as a tool for economic development. So creating affordable housing opportunities is part of the equation, and that is being done already.

Local community development organizations have been provided with funding to improve their operations by hiring consultants and staff to help acquire property and enhance existing dwellings.

“Because we don’t want to save the land but lose the neighborhood, we don’t want to create resiliency features and have neighborhoods where the quality of life is too low and people choose to leave, or neighborhoods where we’ve created such amazing natural resources that we have unplanned gentrification and people who want to stay can’t,” Rogers said.

“It’s all sort of within that framework of ecosystem and community resilience, and outlining the inextricable linkages between the two,” said Brett Barkley, a consultant on the project.

The Middle Branch was for years an industrial waterfront and built up right onto the shoreline, which means the wetlands were lost. The plan for resiliency calls for restoring those wetlands that act as a sponge and absorb water and energy and prevent erosion.

“Our strategy starts with replacing the wetland habitat that’s been taken away and letting nature do what it’s designed to do, which is protect the shoreline with wetland habitat and vegetation and other landforms that would have been here,” Rogers said.