Walk through the Old Goucher neighborhood in North Baltimore, and husbands Kelly Cross and Mateusz Rozanski will tell you how several of the tree-lined streets weren’t always filled with such greenery. The couple planted hundreds of trees and took out over 100 tons of concrete in the neighborhood over the past decade.
At first, they simply wanted to beautify the neighborhood, but soon realized that those projects were bringing other positive changes. Even if they didn’t have the official data to prove cause and effect, they know it feels cooler, and trees and other plants thrived where they removed concrete and improved access to water.
“One thing we found is just by virtually doing this stuff it changed the character of how people coming to the neighborhood treated the neighborhood,” Cross said.
Little did they know, their tree planting would become part of a bigger climate research effort.
Through a $25 million federally funded project called the Baltimore Social-Environmental Collaborative led by Johns Hopkins researchers, residents and government agencies are hoping to use projects like the couple’s to conduct meaningful urban climate science.
The project will focus first on extreme heat, outdoor and indoor air pollution, urban flooding and city decarbonization. The collaborative wants to build a measurement and modeling system to support and enhance environmental research in the Baltimore region, said Ben Zaitchik, the lead researcher and a Johns Hopkins University professor in the department of earth and planetary sciences.
The data is needed to evaluate existing inequities and ways to improve environmental conditions and climate resilience in marginalized neighborhoods of Baltimore, Zaitchik said. Data can also further support why investment needs to go toward improving environmental conditions, he added.
“We really want to have a system where we’re building these climate-resilient strategies together,” Zaitchik said.
The project is part of a U.S. Department of Energy effort to promote research on the impact of climate change on urban communities and address science challenges through climate and energy solutions. Baltimore is one of four sites the department is funding.
“The selected projects will advance our scientific understanding of urban systems and harness that understanding to inform equitable climate and energy solutions, strengthening community scale resilience in urban landscapes, and addressing climate change impacts on underrepresented and disadvantaged communities,” said Sally McFarlane, a program manager in the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s biological and environmental research program.
Several laboratories, colleges and universities are contributing to Baltimore’s project, including the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Morgan State University. Zaitchik said they’re also also collaborating with the Office of Sustainability and the Department of Public Works.
James Hunter, an associate professor in Morgan State University’s department of civil and environmental engineering, said he feels colleges and universities could work better together and the project is an opportunity for institutions with strengths in different areas to do so. He also said there aren’t a lot of African American professionals in the environmental field, and the project could attract students.
As part of the project’s first year, weather stations have been placed in Roland Park, Abell, Westgate and other neighborhoods. Cross and Rozanski have a weather station in their garden that looks like a small toy panel on a tripod. The weather stations measure wind, radiation, humidity, precipitation, surface pressure and temperature. The data goes to a public website supported by the manufacturer. Also in place are iButtons, which help monitor heat conditions, placed in trees along streets or parks.
Zaitchik said the collaborative wants to continue involving other neighborhoods.
Broadway East is also a project collaborator. Separate from the project, Old Goucher, Broadway East, Clifton Park, Darley Park and other neighborhoods along the North Avenue corridor are part of a community group called the Baltimore Climate Resilience Coalition. The coalition aims to create walkable communities tailored to each neighborhood.
Ballington Kinlock, a resident of Broadway East and a health equity activist, said it was important for him to join the project’s steering committee to make sure his community “isn’t left out of the equation when it comes to climate change preparation and resilience.”
Some Baltimore residents said extreme heat is a problem in the city, especially during the summer. Urban heat islands — areas that have hotter temperatures because of how land is used and the number of people living in a place — are something the research will explore.
“The amount of the wrong hardscape just basically fuels the heat island even more,” Rozanski said as he pointed to a dying tree next to an asphalt parking lot in Old Goucher.
Nearly 86,000 people in Baltimore live in neighborhoods 10 degrees hotter than other areas, according to a report released by Climate Central, a nonprofit that studies the impacts of climate change. Baltimore was also one of only 12 cities where a percentage of the population lives in an area with an urban heat island temperature increase of over 12 degrees, said Jen Brady, a senior analyst with the organization.
Permeable surfaces, rooftop gardens and urban tree canopies are several commonly mentioned ways to help counteract urban heat islands. Tree canopies, though, aren’t equally dispersed. In areas like Old Town, Pigtown, Broadway East and Franklin Square, tree coverage is up to 60% less than in wealthier areas like Roland Park, Federal Hill and Canton, according to an American Forest database.
Zaitchik said the collaborative will also place instruments more advanced than the weather stations to measure energy and carbon fluxes in Broadway East and parts of West Baltimore. They’ll have to provide annual reviews of their work and ultimately deliver scientific results, but he said their success will have a deeper meaning.
“We’re building the climate science we need for an equitable and just future,” Zaitchik said.