This is Part 1 in our series on Gehl Institute’s Open Call: Proposals for Public Life. Throughout Summer 2017, we provided technical assistance to three community design organizations working in public space.
The Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) offers free design and planning services to help community partners achieve their visions. We were thrilled to work with them as they measured the impact of programming at Ynot Lot in Baltimore’s Station North Arts District. Initially, NDC’s research question focused on social mixing among different groups in the Lot. After studying the space with public life tools, NDC walked away with another, more powerful narrative. – Gehl Institute
I stand in spaces. I stand in spaces. I stand in spaces.
— From Michelle Antoinette Nelson’s “Perspectives,” commissioned by the Neighborhood Design Center with support from Gehl Institute
Bring someone new to Baltimore, take them down North Avenue, and you’re sure to be asked one question: what’s up with all the vacants? With 16,000 vacant homes and 14,000 vacant lots, Baltimore is a place where vacancy—how it happens, how it affects the city, how it might be solved—is a regular topic of conversation.
One popular strategy to address this issue is the temporary activation of Baltimore’s vacant spaces—with urban gardens, play spaces, and cultural programming. The Neighborhood Design Center (NDC), a nonprofit focused on equity in the built environment in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, has worked on many such projects. However, we’ve been so focused on program that we’ve had limited resources and time to examine the impact of lot activation on the city’s public life.
In the summer of 2017, with support from Gehl Institute’s Open Call: Proposals for Public Life initiative, NDC undertook a study of the Ynot Lot: a privately-owned vacant lot in Baltimore’s Station North Arts District. The research served a dual function. First, we wanted to asses the impact of programming on social mixing in Baltimore’s public spaces, and second, we were interested in learning how to use Gehl Institute’s research tools for studying public spaces. Gehl Institute’s larger questions—”How can designers, planners, and community activists tell better stories about their work in public space? What research methods help us understand the state of public life in our cities?”—were deeply relevant to the work of NDC.
The Ynot Lot is located at the northwest corner of North Avenue and Charles Street, two of Baltimore’s major north-south and east-west corridors and a fault line that divides majority-black and majority-white neighborhoods in a segregated city. In 2013, the vacant lot was designated an “outdoor event venue” managed by the Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc. (the nonprofit in charge of the arts district). NDC provided a design for the site, which now includes a mural by local artists and a simple stage structure.
Open to programming by any interested individual or group, and managed by Station North, the Ynot Lot features “art, performance, and design events that center social justice, integration and cross-cultural collaboration, daring arts and cultural work, and youth-run or youth-oriented events.” NDC was interested in the impact of this programming: how important is it in supporting social mixing in Baltimore’s public space? Answering this research question had the potential to inform NDC’s other small-scale public realm improvements throughout the city.
Last summer, NDC surveyed the Ynot Lot on July 15th, August 5th, and August 12th, during both programmed and unprogrammed times. Utilizing the public life tools, we counted users; documented the function of sidewalks, transit stops, and the Lot itself; and gathered people’s thoughts and opinions about the site. We collected photos from events by Tortilla Girl, Blush & Brews, Artscape, Red Bull Amaphiko, Rooted Arts Festival, Sticky Bun Festival, and SunDance.
The research brought the impact of the Ynot Lot into focus. It suggested that programming supports the presence of women and transgender people in public space. At times with no programming, more than half the people present were men. During programming, this dynamic was reversed. The research also indicated that programming at the Lot supports the presence of creative people of color. Though Baltimore is a majority-black city, the statistical area that encompasses Station North is predominantly white. When unprogrammed, the area around the Lot was about 50% black. During events, this rose to almost 70%.
We discovered that events make the whole area more positive. People’s perceptions of the neighborhood rose when there was something going on at Ynot. Observations about the unprogrammed space, like “transitional” and “disconnected,” became “convenient” and “great for community functions” during programming. Programming was also great for leveraging positive activity. It supported physical movement and social and commercial activity. It also encouraged people to stop and stay. With no entry fee, the Ynot Lot events were open to all—a crucial draw for a community in which 40% of visitors surveyed earned less than $10,000 per year.
Prior to the study, NDC had watched the Lot, casually and in passing. But with the help of Gehl Institute’s tools, we were able to really see the place. Going into the research, we expected to observe that Ynot programming supported casual meetings between diverse people who might not otherwise interact. What we found was that the Lot does more: it supports identity building for Baltimore’s creative community of color; it makes their creative practice visible and accessible.
Viewed through the lens of Gehl Institute’s public life tools, the Ynot Lot offers a strong counter-narrative to the typical gentrification story, in which white creatives displace working class and low-income communities of color. To honor this counter-narrative, NDC commissioned an original piece by writer Michelle Antoinette Nelson. In the resulting poem, Nelson addresses the complexity of being a black artist in Baltimore while declaring, in one simple refrain, her right to this lot, this neighborhood, this city: I stand in spaces.