Greater Greater Washington

An urban park won't succeed with suburban edges

A large urban park may be an oasis where the city feels distant, but to succeed, a good large urban park also ties in well with neighborhoods at its borders. New York's Central Park does this well, as does Patterson Park in Baltimore. Druid Hill Park, to its northwest, does not.


The wide roads at the edges of Druid Hill Park break the park into fragments and are a barrier to the adjacent neighborhoods. Images from Google Street View.


The borders of Central Park are clearly defined. Pedestrians easily cross into it and there is food available on three corners.

Druid Hill Park was built around the same time as New York's Central Park. Its beautiful 750 acres offer urban forest, fields, a zoo, a reservoir, and recreation.

However, at its edge, traffic engineers designed a tangle of speedy arterial roads with grassy medians not unlike route 175 that links Columbia, MD with Interstate 95. Unlike sprawling suburban Columbia, Druid Hill Park is surrounded by dense historic neighborhoods filled with row houses and apartments.


Big roads with fast moving traffic separate Druid Hill park from adjacent neighborhoods. Image from Google Maps.

Many of the people who live nearby do not own cars. The obese hard-to-cross roads do a good job of both being unpleasant for nearby neighbors and creating a barrier to accessing the park. Furthermore, the road slices into the park and leaves the park edges oddly fragmented.

The roads around the park have been engineered for speed to the detriment of nearby residents and families who might want to walk to the neighborhood park.

Compounding the problem, Druid Hill Park's many amenities, including the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, picnic pavilions, pool, athletic fields and courts, gardens, and playgrounds are buried deep in the center of the park. It is a long walk from the edge of the neighborhoods to the park's activity centers. To get to anything easily in the park, you have to drive.

Other large urban parks succeed where

Druid Hill's contemporary, Central Park in New York, did not abandon the urban street grid, and it functions well as both a neighborhood park and a destination.

The same goes for Patterson Park, five miles to the southeast of Druid Hill Park. It has a road network on its edges that work much better. Patterson Park is bordered by heavily trafficked Baltimore Street and Eastern Avenue, but these roads remain true to the urban street grid with regular T-shaped intersections.

All streets are only four lanes, including on-street parking. Traffic travels much slower. Crosswalks are more frequent. Neighbors can see ball fields, playgrounds, people enjoying the park right from their bedroom windows.

Patterson Park is much more intimate with its neighborhoods on all four sides. This design difference helps make Patterson Park, far more interwoven into the daily lives of the residents in the blocks across the street.


In Patterson Park, the activities in the park are easily viewed from bedroom windows, traffic is slow, and the roads are easily crossable. Photo by the author.

Design is psychology

Happy City author Charles Montgomery writes, "Cities that care about livability have got to start paying attention to the psychological effect that traffic has on the experience of public space." He explains that humans get anxious when speeds increase, because we know our bones cannot withstand a crash at more than 20 mph.

This makes places like the swift roads dividing Druid Hill Park with the neighborhoods of Reservoir Hill, Parkview, Liberty Square, and Park Circle unhappy places. It may also help explain why these neighborhoods' park-front real estate is so weak.

In 2010, Gerald Neily, writing in the Baltimore Brew, made some of the arguments made in this post. Since that time, very little has changed.

Cities and neighborhoods always have to evolve to prosper. The southern, western, and northern edge of Druid Hill Park are not working. The evidence is as clear as the vacant buildings and lots on the park's edge. New York's Central Park and Baltimore's Patterson Park can give direction on how to design the edge of a park in an urban setting. Druid Hill Park has unrealized potential to be a much better urban park. Retrofitting its suburban design will help.

Jeff La Noue is a project and sustainability planner in Baltimore. He has an Economics degree from St. Mary's College of Maryland and a Masters in Community Planning from the University of Maryland-College Park. Posts are his own viewpoint and do not necessarily reflect his employer. Jeff also runs his own urbanist blog, Comeback City

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Even Central Park has some fast-moving cross streets. Putting them below grade is the answer. Here, if the roads were submerged, similar to the big dig, the park could be effectively enlarged. It wouldn't solve the problem of the buried amenities, but it would provide access at the margins.

by BenK on Jun 26, 2014 1:15 pm • linkreport

The northern edge doesn't work for a different reason. Its not fast moving roads - druid Park DR is not that big of a road - its simply that the amenities are on the other side of the park.

The location probably hurts much more than the park design. Its really the eastern edge of West Baltimore, cut off from the booming Charles Street corridor by 83.

by TomA on Jun 26, 2014 3:19 pm • linkreport

In Toronto, Lake Shore Drive also separates people from the park along the shore. It's awful.

by Capt. Hilts on Jun 26, 2014 4:15 pm • linkreport

Urban parks aren't great for their own sake; their power comes from the contrast they set up with the city around them. One of my favorite parks in Chicago was Indian Boundary Park, where two of the bordering streets were never built. The apartment buildings alongside thus open up directly into the park, so their courtyards meet the park seamlessly.

Meanwhile, in Southwest, some of the neighborhood groups now want to "save" a spooky, empty park that's hidden behind the backs of a bunch of buildings (like the DMV and some garages). They don't want better access through or across the park, and of course they abhor any density. Keep our vacant lots empty, because that's "historic"!

by Payton Chung on Jun 26, 2014 4:18 pm • linkreport

What about pedestrian bridges?

by asffa on Jun 26, 2014 4:27 pm • linkreport

While I tend to agree with TomA's point that Druid Hill Park's location is a big issue, the general point of the article pertains, and the headline of this post is one of the best, a better summation of the argument than Jane Jacobs made in _Death and Life_.

Similarly, Payton Chung's comment gets to the meat of the issue as well. WRT his point about people in SW, Dan Malouff once made a great argument, that people don't really want parks as much as they don't want development, and parks are the next best thing to no development (my paraphrase of his point).

2. I still haven't read the PlayDC planning document yet, but hopefully they will put forth these kinds of arguments as an organizing framework for making decisions about parks, open space, natural features, and recreation spaces.

by Richard Layman on Jun 26, 2014 4:28 pm • linkreport

Richard Layman - Many people are happy living near a "park" as long as no kids are there and there's no music - as long as there is silence.

by asffa on Jun 26, 2014 4:34 pm • linkreport

Payton, that's an interesting example, because it once (sorta) characterized the boundary between Mount Royal and Druid Hill Park too.

There's a "ghost" portal on Madison Avenue just before you hit Druid Park Lake Drive. Before DPLD was built in the 40s, that was where the park actually started, and people only had to cross a narrow, brick Cloverdale Road to get into the park.

I think Jeff's point on the placement of park activities is also important. Jacobs argues that these generate better "cross use" if they're placed along park edges rather than secluded deep within parks.

by Marc on Jun 26, 2014 7:14 pm • linkreport

Druid Hill is one of those urban gems that you hope will survive their current state of affairs and be restored to it's former glory. I completely agree with the author but wonder if it could be accomplished with a road reconfiguration into a boulevard configuration. Just taming the street and planting an archtural order of trees would help stitch the neighborhood to the park, short of a building wall hard up against the edge. Baltimore, what a beautiful city in need of love. Then again, if the love came, we'd be having the same affordable housing discussion about DC.

by Thayer-D on Jun 27, 2014 7:06 am • linkreport

Druid Park Lake Dr. is not fun but not awful. Fix the sidewalks and make couple of mroe ped friendly crossings and your golden. Seems like the Jones Fall Expressway barrier is more of an issue that would require some serious infrastructure to connect the two sides.

by BTA on Jun 27, 2014 10:13 am • linkreport

Marc - off-topic a bit, but what's a "ghost" portal?

by asffa on Jun 27, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

@asffa
I think this gate is what is being described:
http://goo.gl/maps/9zTuo

by MLD on Jun 27, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

MLD you're probably right. Very cool.

by asffa on Jun 27, 2014 11:26 am • linkreport

I do agree that the park is a gem, and it has come a good ways in 10 years with the construction of the JFT making it more accessible, but also agree more can be done regarding the Lake Drive and Auchentoroly-McCulloh and the barrier it presents. Given that this road handles a LOT of peak traffic with no real place to divert to, I'd think only the most incremental traffic changes will really fly. The rest may have to be handled with ped/bike bridges to segregate traffic.

I do like how Druid Hill combines the recreation nature (like Patterson) of its south end with the relaxation nature (like Leakin) of its northern end. I'd always hope that would never change.

I do wish and hope that some day, the Boat Lake can be more accessible to all visitors instead of being hidden behind a fence, and also wish some of the classical statuary of the spring stones (Edmunds Well, Crises Spring) could get some TLC and be more than just largely forgotten. Restoration of the Three Sisters Pond would be some great icing on the cake!

by Lord Baltimore on Jun 27, 2014 2:41 pm • linkreport

Gwynn Falls Trail is a great example of a people-based initiative to open up and provide more access to Baltimore City park resources. There is a proposal to leverage that trail and extend it in Baltimore County.

asfaa -- fortunately, at least around me, people move here knowing the parks are here and don't seem to be as parochial as you make it out to be.

the revival of Takoma Rec. Center playground after a renovation is quite remarkable and I haven't ever talked to anyone who thinks it's a bad thing.

similarly I think it's awesome that Cap. City PCS built a playground in their front yard that is open to the community.

Thayer-D's point about reconfiguring the road network for Druid Hill Park is very very very good.

by Richard Layman on Jun 27, 2014 3:06 pm • linkreport

One thing Jeff's article didn't mention is how with changes to EPA regulations, the reservoir may be covered over and the fence could be removed.

I did some unofficial consulting with the Reservoir Hill Improvement Assn. a few years ago and kept stressing that they need to work to recover the edge--there is a lot of vacant land along Druid Park Lake Drive.

I suggested starting by planting a field of sunflowers or lavender.

by Richard Layman on Jun 27, 2014 3:09 pm • linkreport

people do complain though about amplified music louder than what regulations allow. Sadly, the city and the councilmember's office don't seem to have a systematic response.

plus, some residents do complain about loss of parking access when many people drive to the park or rec. center (especially for the Black History Month swim meet).

by Richard Layman on Jun 27, 2014 3:15 pm • linkreport

Hi Jeff, interesting post! Thanks for mentioning the 2010 Baltimore Brew piece by Gerald Neily on Druid Hill Park. Here's a more recent Brew piece where Gerry and Marc Szarkowski propose a way to re-do the park entrance and fast-moving streets around it in order to knit the park better into the community. Check it out!
https://www.baltimorebrew.com/2013/11/08/druid-lake-rebuild-offers-chance-to-reconnect-gateway-street-to-premier-park/

by Baltimore Brew on Jun 30, 2014 8:26 am • linkreport

The JFX is a huge shame, because on the other side of that is an urban stream, just the sort of amenity that people the world over are waking up to as an asset. Baltimore has a lot of examples of this sort of thing: solid bones, but some really horrid mid-century urban design littered on top. I hope that someday the foundations can be dusted off and they city can make the most of what it could be.

by Mike on Jun 30, 2014 8:36 am • linkreport

@Baltimore Brew

Thanks for sharing the gateway piece.

by Comeback City on Jun 30, 2014 11:51 am • linkreport

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