On a frigid day in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Harlem Park, Chris Swan parks his pickup on a block where vacant lots outnumber houses. On the tailgate, he organizes envelopes of native wildflower seeds: Liatris squarrosa, Pycnanthemum muticum, Monarda bradburiana. For the next several hours, Swan, who teaches ecology at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, will sprinkle the seeds over an acre and a half of scrubby land, lots that once held the neat brick row homes that still define much of Baltimore’s working-class housing stock.
Perennial wildflowers are often best sown in fall or winter. “The seeds have to sit over the winter and kind of crack open,” Swan says. Trowel in hand, bundled in camouflage hunting gear against the cold, he’s an odd sight on this desolate street. His project is an oddity as well: He’s searching for the combination of native species that can thrive in the poor soil left behind after homes are demolished.
Some 14,000 vacant lots pockmark the city of Baltimore, where decades of population decline have left some blocks nearly abandoned. And there may soon be many more. Over the next few years, the state of Maryland plans to spend $75 million on tearing down and stabilizing thousands of the estimated 16,000 vacant or abandoned buildings in the city, with a goal of attracting future development. The idea behind Swan’s wildflower experiment is to help the city restore some biodiversity and reduce polluted runoff by converting these swaths of fallow land into temporary prairies while they await—hopefully—the return of new construction.