Derelict to Dynamic: Examining Socioecological Productivity of Underutilized/Abandoned Industrial Infrastructure, and Application in Baltimore, Maryland

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Virginia Tech


With over 16,500 documented vacant commercial and residential units, roughly 20 miles of abandoned rail lines, a historic loss of approximately 330,000 residents, millions of gallons of annual surface water sewage discharges, and a decade-long failed water quality consent decree - Baltimore, Maryland lies at a crux of chronic challenges plaguing America’s formerly most economically and industrially powerful cities (Open Baltimore GIS [Vacancies Shapefile], 2017; “Harbor Water Alert” Blue Water Baltimore, 2017).

Impending environmental threats in the “Anthropocene” (Crutzen, 2004) and increased attention to societal injustices warrant heightened inclusivity of social and natural urban functions. Socioecological inequities are often highly conspicuous in declining post-industrial American cities such as Baltimore. Chronic social, economic, and environmental perturbations have rendered some of once critical American infrastructure outdated, underutilized, and/or abandoned. Rivers, forests, rail corridors, as well as residential and industrial building stock are in significantly less demand than when America’s industrial age shaped urban landscapes in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. Compounded by insensitive traditional urban development, these phenomena jeopardize urban social and ecological function.

This thesis is an examination of contemporary urban ecology concepts as a systemic approach for revitalizing socially and ecologically marginalized urban areas, with an application in West Baltimore, Maryland neighborhoods. Through an examination of socioecological dilemmas and root causes, a conceptual procedure for urban blight mitigation along the Gwynns Falls corridor is proposed. Adopting an urban green infrastructure plan offers comprehensive alternative solutions for West Baltimore’s contemporary challenges.

Master plans are proposed for the Shipley Hill, Carrollton Scott, and Mill Hill neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Site scale socioecological connections are suggested for the Shipley Hill neighborhood with contextual linkages in the surrounding neighborhoods. Additionally, policy considerations are explored for revitalizing Baltimore’s most vulnerable landscapes. By transforming derelict industrial infrastructure to dynamic socioecological patches and corridors, this work aims to enhance socioecological equity and connectivity.

Negative aspects of Baltimore’s contemporary urban condition such as blight, high vacancy rates, ecological damage, population decline, and other symptoms of shrinking cities are deeply rooted in a complex evolution of social, environmental, and economic management. Current challenges facing Baltimore can be directly linked to a long history, specifically including industrialization and systematic segregation of neighborhoods. As the United States entered a period of stability following the industrial revolution, domestic manufacturing dwindled, causing a once strong workforce population to leave industrial mega-cities such as Baltimore. This population exodus left behind prior workforce housing and industrial infrastructure, much of which now nonessential to Baltimore’s contemporary urban functions.

Housing vacancies and abandoned infrastructure are most noticeable in Baltimore’s predominately minority neighborhoods. Historically marginalized by systematic segregation tactics, “redlined” neighborhoods largely continue to lack sufficient social and economic capital for adaptation to a transformative new era in Baltimore’s history. Disparities in these minority neighborhoods have shown lasting consequences and continue to suffer from financial, social, and ecological neglect.

However, progressive urban planning processes pose significant opportunity for equitable inclusion of historically marginalized urban communities through the introduction of green infrastructure. Because socioecological disparities in Baltimore are incredibly complex, an equally complex solution is necessary to adequately alleviate symptoms of declining cities. Although much research and literature has been cited in systemic solutions aiming to address the totality of these issues, practical implication of these strategies remains limited. This thesis aims to identify primary drivers of socioecological inequity as well as recommend policy and spatial solutions to alleviate symptoms of shrinking cites specific to Baltimore.



Industrial Infrastructure, Abandoned Housing, Shrinking Cities, Social and Environmental Equity, Green Infrastructure, Watershed Restoration, Urban Ecology, System Dynamics