Last summer, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore worked overtime to bring residents to the city's Inner Harbor.
They organized concerts at West Shore Park, a small patch of green space near the city's visitor center. They gave out free drinks. There were free yoga classes, free science lab days and the opening of a new park near Pier Six. The Partnership even offered a deep parking discount for some of their events.
It was a curious effort, considering that the Inner Harbor is one of the Chesapeake Bay watershed's premier tourist destinations, with millions of visitors each year. Almost a million people ventured downtown this summer alone for the Star-Spangled Banner Sailabration, a commemoration of Baltimore's role in the War of 1812, complete with tall ships and a Blue Angels performance. Pick almost any fair-weather weekend, and it's hard to find a parking space. The most popular restaurants require more than an hour's wait.
And yet, many Baltimore residents are not among those crowds. In becoming a tourist attraction, the Inner Harbor became unattractive to residents. Visiting is an expensive hassle, to be done only when out-of-towners visit, and even then only when they ask. And because locals don't visit, they are less inclined to care about the quality of the harbor's water, and how they could make changes at home to help it become cleaner. Reports of fish kills and foul smells, coupled with images of trash in the water, do not entice more visits.
But the partnership's director, Laurie Schwartz, is trying to change all that. The Partnership has an ambitious goal: To make Baltimore's harbor fishable and swimmable by 2020. Schwartz, a longtime city advocate who served in Martin O'Malley's cabinet when he was mayor and founded the city's Downtown Partnership, has her work cut out for her. The harbor has long been one of the most polluted areas in the Chesapeake Bay, thanks to a densely populated city with aging infrastructure and such acute problems associated with poverty that environmental protection is often low on the budget priorities list.
"It got to the point where it was really taken for granted," Schwartz said of the Inner Harbor. "I felt like it was an untapped opportunity, and I really wanted to be part of it."
The harbor's problems stem from the tony neighborhoods that ring it as well as the poorer ones farther out. Trash, bacteria from sewage, and nutrients from stormwater flow along the city's streets and into Jones Falls and Gwynns Falls, which carry it to the harbor, a branch of the Patapsco River, and eventually into the Chesapeake.
Two hundred years of industry along its shores have loaded the harbor's sediments with toxic chemicals and metals, among them chromium, zinc and PCBs.
Getting locals to eat dinner at Inner Harbor restaurants isn't going to remove those toxins. But what Schwartz and the partnership's board hope it will do is persuade those residents to remember what they have and take care of it. That can mean putting a lid on trash cans to keep garbage out of the streets or installing a rain barrel to reduce stormwater runoff. Maybe it means reducing lawn fertilizer or planting more trees. Or it might mean adopting one of the city's many vacant lots and turning it into a landscaped community asset.
These environmental messages aren't coming from traditional environmentalists. They're coming from the city's business leaders, who pay a surcharge on their tax bills to fund the waterfront partnership's projects. The board is a who's who of city leaders and includes developers, bankers, and those in charge of tourist attractions and universities. Its chairman is Michael Hankin, the president and CEO of Brown Advisory, an investment firm.
The partnership collects about $2 million a year — enough to pay a small staff to run its programs, maintain the walkways and keep the harbor clean. It also recently took over management of the Walter Sondheim Fountain, where children have been playing all summer.
The partnership paid for and managed the installation of floating wetlands. It plans to turn an abandoned pier in Fells Point into a cascading wetland. It has hired a community liaison to visit neighborhoods and educate the public about the watershed and how to protect it. Over the summer, the Healthy Harbor tent was a regular presence among the Harbor's ice-cream shops and crab cake restaurants. Visitors could stop by and learn about the water quality and examine a small disk kept underwater that showed what was living in the harbor at that moment.
The partnership also organized several Healthy Harbor Lab Days, where residents could visit the Columbus Center and examine examples of the harbor's underwater life in the lab, as well as conduct experiments.
The result, partnership officials said, is a public that is more informed and engaged than it was seven years ago, when the group was formed.
"The worst thing we could have done would be to go to the elected officials and say, 'we have a problem. What are you going to do about it?' " said Van Reiner, president of the Maryland Science Center and a member of the partnership's board. "We decided to put our money where our mouth was and lead the effort. We can be part of the solution. Government has a piece of it, but they can't do the whole thing."
That the reformers are wearing three-piece suits instead of Patagonia fleeces is an important distinction, said William Dennison, vice president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
"These are not groups traditionally aligned with the Green movement. They see a healthy harbor as part of the future of Baltimore, and they totally embrace that," he said. "From what I've seen, the city and the county have responded very well to that. I think it's a great model that we could emulate for other places in the Bay."
The partnership hired Dennison's group, the Integration and Application Network, to grade the Inner Harbor for dissolved oxygen, water clarity and toxins. Since 2006, Dennison's group has been grading major tributaries of the Chesapeake, and the Bay itself. In 2011, the Patapsco and Back rivers scored a D-minus, a slight improvement from the F it typically received. There is sea grass at the mouth of the Patapsco — the first time in many years.
The swimmable/fishable by 2020 goal remains ambitious, Dennison said, but he has seen business leaders make headway in other places. When Dennison lived in Australia, he watched a construction company head up an initiative to clean the Brisbane River. Within 10 years, the river went from a place known for high bacteria counts and sewage spills to the site of triathlons. Businesses had their back entrances on the river side; the cleanup inspired them to turn them around so the river became a showpiece.
The construction company, Thiess, began sponsoring the International Riverprize to honor best practices in basin management around the world. Last year, Boston's Charles River won the prize. That river became swimmable in 2005, after a decade-long effort to clean up industrial pollution. The Boston effort is seen by many as a model of what Baltimore can do. Two years ago, Charles River Watershed Association executive director Bob Zimmerman spoke at the first Healthy Harbor conference.
In Brisbane, Dennison said, "the whole attitude about the waterfront changed, and I think we're seeing the same thing at the Inner Harbor. It has become a desirable location."
The business leaders — and the jobs and tax dollars they represent — have credibility in Annapolis, too. During the 2012 legislative session, Hankin and other board members joined environmental groups in lobbying for a stormwater fee. The legislation passed.
"As an organization made up of businesses, we were able to lend a unique voice to an environmental issue. I think a lot of people thought, 'wow, here are a bunch of businesses basically asking to be charged a new fee,'" Hankin said. "That may not be something you see everyday, but it's a testament to the fact that we recognize what a swimmable/fishable harbor would mean economically to Baltimore as well as what it would mean to neighborhoods around the city."
From his balcony at the Maryland Science Center, Reiner can see it all: families dancing together at the Partnership's West Shore Park concerts, children playing on a musical fence at the just-opened Peerce's Park, downtown workers on partnership-sponsored fitness walks, teenagers watching from the footbridge as scientists pull out a disk teeming with life from under the water.
It is, Reiner said, the sort of thing that should be happening in the city, and didn't for too long.
"This is not easy. The health of the Inner Harbor, it's taken 200 years to get here, and we've got to fix it," Reiner said. "Personally, I would love to see us go much faster. But I'm enough of a realist. I'm amazed at the progress we've already made."
Baltimore students take to the street to deliver their anti-trash message
Since the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore began its work seven years ago, a lot has changed around Baltimore's harbor —one of the Chesapeake's most polluted waterways.
The walkways are cleaner. More people are coming to the harbor for outdoor activities. And visitors are noticing the floating wetlands and restored areas.
What hasn't changed much, though, is the water quality.
The 2011 Healthy Harbor Report Card, released Oct. 4, shows how much work is ahead for Baltimore's premier tourist attraction. Dissolved oxygen in the harbor improved, earning a C, compared with 2010's D. Water clarity also improved, earning a C+ instead of 2010's C-minus. But the score for chlorophyll a — a measure of the algae that has crippled so much of aquatic life in the harbor — was a D+, down from 2010's C-minus. The researchers weren't able to get an accurate reading on nitrogen and phosphorus.
"We didn't think conditions would change in one year," said Laurie Schwartz, the partnership's executive director. "A lot hasn't changed. But there's a lot happening now...and within small areas, such as the floating wetlands, there is a difference."
The partnership held the report card announcement at the corner of McElderry Street and North Collington avenues, in the shadow of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore. Next to the busy intersection, neighborhood groups had built a rain garden. The black-eyed susans were still in bloom in the garden.
The partnership chose the site to highlight the importance of upstream communities to the harbor's health.
Much of the trash that enters the harbor comes from upstream city and county neighborhoods — either from littering outright or from not covering trash cans properly. The trash enters storm drains and then flows underground to the Inner Harbor, where it can suffocate marine life. Trash is not measured in the report, but eliminating it is an important component of cleaning up the harbor. Efforts to combat trash have made a dent in the debris going into other urban rivers, such as the Potomac and the Anacostia.
Elementary school children have been painting storm drains all over the city to promote awareness of the trash problem. The one at McElderry and Collington reminds would-be litterers that "trash in the street pollutes what we eat."
Monet Baker, a 6th grader at Tench Tilghman Elementary a half block away, told the group: "I live in a community that has a trash problem that we are trying to address."
Baker said that she and her family help with cleanup events, and knowing that she could make a difference in cleaning up the harbor was very empowering.
She said she's hopeful the new storm drain designs will deter people from littering.
"I hope if they understand that, it will make them think twice about throwing their trash."