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Reviving the ‘Urban Corpse’

February 5th, 2015 by

Baltimore’s global prominence as an industrial heavyweight is a thing of the past. The city’s horizon is not rising up under new skyscrapers, nor is it outstretching its shoreline through new industrial piers at its harbor. Its public transportation is piecemeal and inconsistent, and its population peak has long since passed. Yet, beyond the glimmer of industrial greatness, lies a city whose bones are primed to flex their urban muscle once again.

A city with a rich industrial past, Baltimore’s urban form developed in response to the qualities of its landscape and how it could support specific economies. Over time, these economies fell into decline and the city lost its intrinsic connection to the structures of industrialization. As today’s global economy presides, opportunity exists to reinvigorate these abandoned spaces and landscapes through projects that will construct Baltimore’s future while embracing its past. Historically, urbanization was known to embrace the inseparability of urban land occupations and the distinct features of the natural environment. Natural resources such as oil, minerals and water, as well as natural features such as valleys, deltas and bays, offer unique qualities that support the development of local economies and their associated urban form.

Patrick Geddes’ Valley Section of the early 1900’s describes this relationship as the natural occupation of the land. At the origins of contemporary discussions on landscape ecologies, Geddes demonstrates the integral link between features of the terrain, the local economies they support, and the fabric and form of settlements they produce.

Patrick Geddes' Valley Section

Patrick Geddes’ Valley Section suggests that the qualities of Baltimore’s urban fabric are directly
related to the qualities of the land and the economies it supports.

(Image Source: Philip Mairet, Pioneer of Sociology: The Life and Letters of Patrick Geddes,
London, Lund Humphries, 1957, p. 124 fig. 4)

The urbanization of Baltimore City in the 18th and 19th centuries evolved directly from the offerings of the Chesapeake Bay estuary. Linked to the Atlantic Ocean via the Chesapeake River, the unique geographic and ecological conditions at Baltimore’s inland harbor took advantage of the confluence of ocean, river, and the terrain. The surrounding land was naturally primed to support urbanization related to marine economies, inland mobility networks, and coastal defense. At this estuary, a port economy boomed.

Spurred by the riches of the land, international commerce quickly took root in Baltimore. Industrialization propagated inland from the harbor, and the city’s urban form took shape. Waterways such as Jones and Gwynns Falls served as liquid conduits connecting the material exchange of international markets at the harbor with the manufacturing potential and new railroads built inland. Mills sprung up along these waterways, featuring robust open spaces for machine manufacturing that ranged from flour production, oyster canning, and cotton and cork production. This sprouted residential communities needed to support the influx of workers and their families.

Typical of industrialization, the pursuit of commerce and the establishment of local economies quickly becomes a spatial project. New urban forms emerged in Baltimore, like mill towns, port communities and rail yards, which flourished from their geographic setting. In turn, these industrial pursuits shaped both our territorial understanding of Baltimore’s geography of the time, and local capacity to advance infrastructural and architectural innovation in this lucrative region.

Baltimore Inner Harbor

An aerial view of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, 2015, reveals a continuity of urban form, nearly a century later.
(Image Source: Bing Maps. [2015]. [Baltimore, Inner Harbor] [Aerial Map].)

Fast forward to the present, and we find a global economy that tends to disconnect urban form from geographic setting. Cities are expanding under new environmental conditions that are decentralized, non-physical and diffuse — situations that do not favor, nor reflect, a connection with the terrain.

In industrialized regions, we see the “urban corpse” emerge where entire urban areas adapt and change shape only to find that the global economic motivations that stimulated its change have already moved on. Baltimore’s industrial infrastructure was once harmonious with its geography and local economies. But now this direct relationship and prescriptive model of urban form is no longer clear, and the historical and formal relevance of its city fabric becomes quickly ignored. Our concern shifts from local causalities to global challenges pertaining to new modes of global logistics, transportation, and energy issues. This shift sacrifices the development of locally-appropriate urban forms in favor of global economic drivers whose ill-planned, spontaneous actions further scar our urban fabric through highways to nowhere, neighborhood razing, and expressway extensions.

Union Mill

The adaptive use of Union Mill, on the city’s historic Jones Falls, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Fortunately, Baltimore’s urban corpse lends itself to architectural invention through adaptive reuse projects, urban infill, and reindustrialized landscapes. Residential populations who fled the city for the suburbs when manufacturing disappeared are returning once again. This time, they are drawn to the allure of the city’s industrial past, re-inhabiting forgotten spaces in new ways. The city’s historic identity shows hope for revival through various scales of development. By the very nature of their open interior floor plans, unmatched structures, and large-expansive volumes, the building typologies of the city’s historic mills and foundries lend themselves to adaptive use projects. The multi-family housing and mixed-use spaces at Union Mill are a perfect example. Urban renewal projects like Clipper Mill are boasting commercial and retail spaces, artists’ studios, and maker spaces that recall the city’s foundations through their small-scale manufacturing and production and the associated economies and structures that support it. Similarly, the harbor hosts an array of building and landscape design projects that bring visitors and residents back to the city’s origins. They support recreation at public parks like the Canton Waterfront Park, local commerce at shops and restaurants, and transportation on commuter water taxis and bike paths.

Undoubtedly, architectural innovation can align the incremental developments of our past with current urban needs. The urban corpse need not be the end condition of urban development. Rather than privileging the land or economic resources utmost, there should be a balance between what the terrain can provide, what the economy requires, and how infrastructure can negotiate the other two. In Baltimore, where the global economy overrides the local, the city’s allegiance to its industrial prowess has been lost and thus, the landscape has changed. We are no longer building massive industrial plants, filling marshes and covering flowing waterways. Instead, we are opening up the lucrative developments of our past and breathing new life into abandoned landscapes and spaces. These acts of renewal and reinvention will, over time, invigorate a new identity for the city. It will make a sustainable future more palpable. Knowing that a city’s economic actions — be they global or local — affect both its land uses and how it emerges spatially, today’s global-minded cities have the opportunity to emerge in new and enticing forms that respond to the city’s past and are cognizant of our future in innovative ways.

To learn more about how architectural innovation can breathe life into once-forgotten urban spaces, read our case study on Miller’s Court, an abandoned factory given new purpose as a residence for city school teachers. Or contact us for more information.