Henrietta Lacks Park Inspires Bright Future for Baltimore Community

October 31, 2019, Department, by Jennifer Fulcher and Wende David

2019 November Conservation Henrietta Lacks Park Inspires Bright Future for Baltimore Community 410

Green infrastructure transformation brings big changes to the neighborhood

Just a couple years ago, Henrietta Lacks Educational Park — formerly known as Ambrose Kennedy Park — sat unrecognizable as a park. Primarily a dumping ground and a place for illicit activity, its main benefit was as an alley that people living in Baltimore’s Johnston Square neighborhood used as a cut-through to a nearby school. But, behind the cracked asphalt, faded paint, overgrown vegetation and dilapidated structures, a few local leaders saw possibility.

About six years ago, longtime neighborhood resident Regina Hammond attended a community meeting that inspired her to make a difference. “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. There was no investment coming into this neighborhood,” she explains. Hammond started learning how to organize people to create change, eventually becoming president of the Rebuild Johnston Square Association. She and her husband, Keith Hammond, set out to reclaim the park space for the community.

Work began with local volunteers gathering to make small improvements to the park: picking up litter, cutting back the overgrowth and repainting the basketball courts. However, the volunteers lacked one thing: funding.

Opportunity Knocks with NRPA Great Urban Parks Grant
The opportunity to make a real difference came in 2016 when NRPA announced its very first round of Great Urban Parks grant funding aimed at improving environmental and social outcomes in underserved communities through green stormwater infrastructure in parks.

Parks & People Foundation applied for the grant and received $437,500 as one of four grantees across the country. The Baltimore-based nonprofit organization began working with Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks (BCRP), which owns the land, as well as numerous civic groups, including Rebuild Johnston Square Association, to re-envision the park.

“Great things are happening, and the possibilities are just endless here,” Hammond says. With the NRPA Great Urban Parks grant, Parks & People led the park revitalization effort with green stormwater infrastructure components integrated throughout the design. Strategically engineered landscaping planted with native grasses and hundreds of other plants and trees replaced the broken asphalt. Gentle slopes guide stormwater to a large bioretention area designed to slow stormwater and capture runoff before it can transport pollutants to the Chesapeake Bay. In total, the park captures about 230,000 gallons of stormwater a year and helps prevent nuisance flooding in the surrounding neighborhood. It also includes a splash pad, walking paths, automated lighting features, resurfaced basketball courts, bathrooms and an updated swimming pool.

Ripple Effect of Improvements
The NRPA grant started a ripple effect in the park that has spread into the surrounding community. “We activated the community,” says Terrell Williams, IAF/BUILD organizer. “It has been quite a wonderful, incredible, complex journey.”

That activation has unleashed support through other funding, new volunteers and new policies, and has inspired nearly $100 million in renovation investments in the surrounding neighborhood through rebuilding homes and creating business areas, Williams adds. Civic groups and neighborhood associations, like Rebuild Johnston Square Association, are overseeing this economic stimulus to avoid displacement of current residents and encourage home ownership.

Generating Community Interest and Support
According to Steve Preston, park construction and design manager for Parks & People, the mixture of funding and support provided the creative solution this area needed. The neighborhood previously had been categorized as not worth the financial risk of investment. Once NRPA showed up, however, other funds and supporters followed, Preston notes. And, after completing revitalization of the park, the community organizers finally had the pressure and partnerships in place to activate the government to demolish nearby abandoned housing to expand the park.

Throughout the entire project, Parks & People involved the surrounding community. Preston brought design ideas to neighborhood meetings, and residents identified which features they liked, as well as other components they wanted the park to include. Now that it is complete, community members and steady volunteers from The 6th Branch, a military veterans organization that transforms vacant lots throughout Baltimore, maintain the space and the green stormwater infrastructure facilities. Approximately 30,000 hours by more than 700 volunteers have contributed to the park’s development and upkeep. A grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust also supports ongoing maintenance through a training program for community volunteers led by Blue Water Baltimore.

Park Ownership and Pride
Partners initially were concerned about vandalism, but, after being open for more than a year, nothing has been destroyed or damaged. “The neighborhood respects it. People waited their whole lives, decades, for a space like this, and now that they have it, they treasure it,” Preston says.

“This is now a world-class park,” Preston affirms. It helps connect people to water by teaching them about stormwater and the importance of water resources. The volunteers who maintain the park are also trained to recognize what native plants are, which help to capture stormwater. “[It] has really been a great connector to the environment for people otherwise isolated from the water downtown,” he adds.

These neighbors and families rely on Henrietta Lacks Park for a safe play space among trees and nature, a gathering place for social celebrations, an inclusive outdoor recreation zone to stay active and a nature-based solution to localized flooding and pollution. That’s why in Johnston Square neighborhood and other historically neglected communities across the country, parks matter.

Check out the Parks & People Foundation video of the Ambrose Kennedy/Henrietta Lacks Education Park transformation.

Jennifer Fulcher is NRPA’s Communication Manager. Wende David is NRPA’s Senior Conservation Program Manager.