Socioecological Revitalization of an Urban Watershed (Baltimore, MD)

By: Guy W Hager, Kenneth T Belt, William Stack, Kimberly Burgess, J Morgan Grove, Bess Caplan, Mary Hardcastle, Desiree Shelley, Steward TA Pickett, and Peter M Groffman.

Baltimore, MD (February 2013) – Older, economically troubled urban neighborhoods present multiple challenges to environmental quality. Results from an initiative in Baltimore, Maryland, where water-quality improvements were rooted in a socioecological framework, highlights the interactions between biogeophysical dynamics and social actors and institutions. This framework led to implementation of best management practices followed by assessment of changes in human perception, behavior, and education programs.


Results suggest that such an initiative can improve both water quality (e.g. reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus runoff) and quality of life (e.g. increased involvement in outdoor recreation by residents and improvements in student environmental literacy and performance) in urban neighborhoods. However, proposed solutions to the water-quality problems in such neighborhoods have (1) typically emphasized the need for stormwater facilities that are difficult to build and maintain and (2) comprehensively addressed neither the issues related to aging infrastructure and hydrologic complexity nor the benefits derived from linkages between resident perception of environmental improvements and behavior and water-quality outcomes.

Research Conclusions

Experiences from the WS263 project suggest that there is an important relationship between the ecological and social revitalization of urban watersheds. Revitalization efforts can improve both water quality and the quality of life in urban neighborhoods. Water quality can benefit from social engagement if interaction with the community during planning, implementation, and maintenance improves the long-term effectiveness of best management practices (BMPs) and if behavior change results in “cleaner” neighborhoods.

Likewise for quality of life, we see clear evidence of a disproportionate increase in outdoor recreational activities and neighborhood satisfaction in WS263 as compared with elsewhere in metropolitan Baltimore that may be related to both actual and perceived environmental improvements. Linkages between BMP implementation and education may also have improved student environmental literacy.

These results suggest that environmental restoration has unambiguous potential for contributing to the revitalization of underserved urban neighborhoods. Moreover, environmentally based revitalization is more “bottom up” and “community based” than is more traditional urban renewal-, gentrification-, or immigration-based approaches to neighborhood improvement.

Many challenges remain, however. Solving water-quality problems in older, dense urban neighborhoods requires an emphasis on retrofits that can be expensive to implement and maintain. Planning and implementation is further complicated by the realization that the hydrology of old urban neighborhoods is much more complex than previously thought, with major uncertainties about flowpaths, residence time of water in different compartments, and transformations of stormwater and associated contaminants.  An additional problem arises from aging and failing infrastructure, which contributes to the hydrologic complexity.

Still, our results suggest that BMP implementation that is solidly rooted in a true socioecological framework and that includes community education and awareness campaigns and support for community action can be an effective vehicle for bringing substantial improvements to both water quality and the quality of life in urban neighborhoods.

Related Resources
Socioecological revitalization of an urban watershed (pdf of research)
Socioecological revitalization of an urban watershed ( Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 28–36)
First in a series of blogs on Baltimore’s Watershed 263 Experiment in Socioecology
Parks & People Foundation, Baltimore, MD