Preview was written by Geoff Buckley
Q: What is the main purpose of your study?
A: Asphalt is the most common paving material in the U.S. This sticky black petroleum product is so commonplace in our cities we hardly even notice it. Although widely used asphalt’s impermeability and heat-absorbing properties are causing it to be viewed in a more negative light. The main purpose of our study was to determine when and why the city of Baltimore began to promote asphalt as a recreational surface and how, in the interest of urban greening, it has partnered with government agencies and developers to finance its removal from city schoolyards and playgrounds.
Q: What are the practical, day to day implications of your study?
A: One of the great “sustainability” challenges cities in the U.S. face today is managing stormwater. Runoff from impermeable surfaces is linked to flash flooding, channel instability, water quality impairment, and damage to aquatic habitats. Asphalt surfaces also contribute to the urban heat island effect. Given the cost of “end-of-pipe” solutions, such as the construction of new water treatment facilities, city officials must consider cheaper options that deal with problems on-site. Rather than repair and repave decaying asphalt playgrounds, Baltimore has come up with a novel way to fund the removal of these impermeable surfaces. The benefits are social as well as environmental.
Q: How does your study relate to other work on the subject
A: While numerous articles, chapters, and books explore the social and ecological advantages of replacing paved surfaces with more permeable layers, very few investigate why we paved over our cities to the extent that we did and why asphalt was selected as the preferred option. We also discovered that there was community opposition to the use of asphalt on schoolyards – and interest in greening – starting in the 1960s if not earlier. To our knowledge such resistance has not been documented before.
Q: What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study?
A: 1) Ironically, it was the Women’s Civic League – an organization known for its efforts to beautify the city by planting trees and flowers – that lobbied strenuously (and successfully) for the paving of vacant lots so they could be used for playgrounds.
2) Restoration is expensive. It costs between $125,000 and $150,000 to remove an acre of asphalt and plant grass. Because cities like Baltimore do not have the financial wherewithal to support such an effort, proponents of schoolyard greening had to find funds elsewhere. New stormwater regulations, cooperation across government agencies and with private developers, and a creative “banking” scheme solved the problem.
Q: What might be some of the theoretical implications of this study?
A: Recognizing that the large-scale engineered fixes and governance structures of the past are neither affordable nor desirable today, urban planners are embracing alternatives that yield both social and ecological benefits. These solutions encourage on-site management practices, public-private partnerships, and community involvement in the decision-making process. As we witness the “sanitary city” of the past–with its emphasis on expensive public health infrastructure and reliance on public funding–give way to the “sustainable city” of the future–which casts urban land management in a broader socio-ecological context–we recognize that many of the solutions that were implemented in the past produced problems of their own down the road.
Q: How does your research help us think about Geography?
A: Making our cities more sustainable and just places to live is a twenty-first century priority. While the social and ecological benefits are obvious, charting a course that achieves these goals is more challenging. There are technical as well as financial obstacles. We also want to avoid solving problems in such a way that we create new problems in the future. Our research casts light on some of these practical considerations, highlights a set of solutions that could be applied elsewhere, and reminds readers that there are legacy effects of past decisions. Just as we inherit the landscapes of those who preceded us, so too will future generations inherit the landscapes we create.