The Science of Connection in a Disconnected Place

The news from Baltimore has been sad and disturbing over the past few weeks.  Urban ecologists, like all ecologists, I think, love the places where they work.  So I must remark on what is happening in Baltimore and what it means to me, as a scientist who has committed more than two decades to research on the ecology of metropolitan Baltimore. 
But this post is not the usual kind of thing for this web log, which typically intends to note conceptual issues for the BES community, or provide alerts and background for important project activities, or stimulate interactions of BES with other projects conducting urban ecology research, education and community engagement.  This post is more like an editorial, in which I explore my own reactions as a scientist and as an African American to the troubling recent events in Baltimore.  Like the playwright Eugene Ionesco, I write here “to find out what I think.”  These opinions are my own and do not reflect those of other researchers, educators, or funders of BES.  Here goes.

The Science of Connection

Ecology can be thought of as a science of connections.  In fact connections, in the form of interactions, are enshrined in the early definition of the science: The study of interactions between organisms and their environment.  A more fleshed out version expands this, but keeps interaction and processes as key: The scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy and matter. 
This fundamental interest is sometimes trivially reduced to the idea that everything is connected to everything else.  But what makes the ecological world work is not that everything is connected, but that things – organisms, processes, places – are differentially connected.  That is, some connections are strong, others are weak, and some don’t exist.  Some connections are brief, some persistent, and some change strength over time.   Some connections happen through close contact while others are transmitted by signals, materials, or cascades of effects over great distances. 
It is the job of ecological science to understand the nature and effect of such differential connectivity and exchanges in the systems it studies.  The connectivity principles of ecology might be better summarized like this: 1) everything is connected to something else; 2) connections change over space; 3) connections change over time including being created anew and disappearing; 4) connections are the glue in ecosystems, linking organisms, biological processes, and physical structures.  In urban ecosystems, social structures and processes, and infrastructures are included as nodes of connection.

Baltimore as a Differentially Connected Mosaic

Baltimore, including the chartered city and several nearby counties of equivalent jurisdictional level, is a hugely heterogeneous, patchy ecosystem.  The patchiness reflects the underlying geology and soils, the vegetation types, and the contrasts between wet and dry places.  It reflects where buildings and infrastructure have been installed, and where they have been replaced or abandoned.  It reflects the things that people plant for agriculture or for decoration, as well as plants that disperse, establish, and grow spontaneously.  It reflects how and where all these plants are managed – or not.  Patchiness reflects the habitats that people intentionally or accidentally make for animals, and the fact that people move animals around.  It reflects where people choose to settle and live, and where firms locate or leave from, and where people with different resources and social characteristics have access.  It reflects policy that govern zoning, transportation, financial investment, taxation, and public versus private expenditure. 
Many more sources of spatial differentiation could be mentioned.  But key is the idea that such patchiness sets up a field of differentials for connectedness in the Baltimore region and in its subsystems.  Like all American urban regions, Baltimore’s heterogeneity appears in the form of contrasting neighborhoods, social relations, wealth, and ecology.  BES has spent 18 years applying interdisciplinary methods to understand how this complex, differentially connected system works.

Disconnection in Baltimore

The sad fact and circumstances of the death of Mr. Freddie Gray point to some of the deep and persistent disconnections that exist in parts of Baltimore.  Certainly, the kinds of disconnection in evidence here are shared with many American urban systems – old and new, majority African American or not.  And certainly, not all neighborhoods in Baltimore are disconnected.
Sandtown,the neighborhood where Mr. Gray was born and in which he apparently suffered the wounds that led to his death a week later, is one in which we work.  It is a part of Watershed 263, a watershed defined by a stormwater drainage catchment.  Mr. Gray’s Sandtown is at the northern headwaters of this drainage catchment.  We use the drainage network – the watershed – as a tool to study connections between built infrastructure, household and institutional decision making, community activities aimed at environmental quality, and the amount and quality of the water draining different parts of the larger Watershed 263.  We use the same concept of watershed throughout the Baltimore region to understand how the rich diversity of patch types and their social, built, and biological conditions affect the water quality and flow across the entire Baltimore region.

Social Disconnection

While our watershed ecology research uses a conceptual tool emphasizing connection via water, it has become clear that Sandtown is a place of profound social disconnection.  There are many people within Sandtown and the 10 other neighborhoods of Watershed 263 that are deeply committed to improving people’s lives, through access to knowledge, gainful employment, healthy food, and a clean, stimulating, and comfortable green environment.  Seeing these dedicated people at work, and being able to support them through partnerships, including those with city agencies, public schools, private institutions, community groups, and NGO’s such as the Parks & People Foundation, has been one of the unalloyed pleasures of ecological research in Baltimore.
All these worthy activities and hard work can be seen as antidotes to the profound disconnectedness that many of these neighborhoods experience.  I draw my roster of disconnections from the writings of social researchers and journalists who have summarized these especially forcefully in recent days.  People in many old city neighborhoods, and in older suburbs, are disconnected from jobs.  Baltimore was a magnet for unskilled but willing workers in its industrial heyday.  Such jobs are largely gone.  Families are disconnected due to laws that stipulate incarceration for even some non-violent crimes.  Students are disconnected from effective learning by the social demands placed on public schools, and by the funding of public schools by the local property tax base.  Homeowners and would-be homeowners are disconnected from access to capital at reasonable rates by predatory lending and by the legacy of early 20th century mortgage restrictions.  Lack of capital or property-based profits affects ownership, repair and maintenance by occupants, and the willingness of absentee landlords to invest in their properties. 
Of particular relevance to the situation in which Mr. Gray found himself is a disconnection from the police.  Other events over the past few years may have left people with the idea that disconnections between the police and communities is a matter of race.  Clearly that is not the case in Baltimore, given the demographics of the city’s population and its police department.  However, there is disconnection nonetheless.  Ta-Nehesi Coates, Baltimore native, memoirist, and social critic, calls out the difference between policing based on authority versus that based purely on power.  Authority would arise from mutual respect and engagement (a rather Lincolnian – of, by, and for).  Power, in contrast, resides in distance and force.  This is not to deny that legitimate authority must sometimes draw upon force.  Others, better suited than I, should be consulted for the nature and significance of this kind of disconnection, which is coming to wider attention these days due to a well publicized litany of harm and mortality arising in the gap between power and authority.  But it is the disconnection currently most obvious on the nightly news beamed from Baltimore at convenient helicopter height.

The Deep Roots of Disconnection

As researchers of the long-term, the deep history of disconnection
An abandoned rowhouse
in Sandtown. The graffito
reads “Sadtown.”

becomes apparent in such places as Sandtown.  The riots following Mr. Gray’s funeral are a contemporary echo of literally centuries of disconnection weighing on the population of Sandtown (or Watts, or the South Side, or Hough, or name-the-disconnected-areas in any number of other towns and cities).  Baltimore’s history of differential disconnection is storied, but not unique.  As a thumbnail sketch: 

First, of course, is the long fact and persistent shadow of slavery.  The period of slavery in the United States is much longer than the period of emancipation.  The commodification and capitalization of individual humans of African or mixed African and other descent, was simply the largest single source of wealth in the Antebellum United States.  The brief hope of Reconstruction after the Civil War gave way to a retaking of power (yes, power, as defined above), by those whose economic interests and social status had been damaged by the Civil War and its outcome.  The terrorism, legal exclusion, and absence of opportunity in the South in part fueled the Great Migration, the largest movement of people in the history of the United States.  Lasting, according to some scholars, from the 1880s through the 1960s, the Great Migration saw the exodus of African Americans from the South to cities to the north and west.  Washington DC, and Baltimore, although thought of as southern cities, were destinations in the Great Migration.  
The resulting changes in urban demography, employment patterns, and settlement patterns were major and sometimes long lasting events in the receiving cities.  For example, the creation of American sociology at the University of Chicago had as one of its foci the mechanisms and patterns of change occasioned by the migration of new residents from the American South and Eastern and Southern Europe.  The previous experience of cities and urbanists with such change had been with the relatively more homogeneous and familiar immigrations from Northern and Western Europe.  The unfamiliar arrivals, who were not schooled in urban living, seemed to discomfit the Chicago scholars, whose early writing embodied, to my reading a kind of racist reaction. 
In Baltimore at the beginning of the Great Migration, the city was, at the coarse scale, relatively integrated.  African Americans did experience fine scale segregation, being housed in meager alley houses, while their employers lived in more capacious and well appointed dwellings fronting larger streets.  The arrival of new migrants from the South caused a disruption of Baltimore’s racial patterns.  A series of policies and practices were put in place to purposefully segregate the growing African American population.  First, was the ordinance forbidding integration at the city block level.  Although the ordinance was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court a few years after it was established, the replacement activities were harder to dismantle.  Among these was exclusionary zoning, in which industrial zoning was concentrated in areas from which the removal of African Americans or other recent immigrants was desired.  Also in the tool kit were deed covenants which forbade selling to African Americans or Jews.  Neighborhood Associations were established to help prevent “incursions” of African Americans.  And perhaps most notorious of these prejudicial tools was the Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) rating of neighborhoods by credit worthiness.  Mortgages were not encouraged in areas receiving low ratings.  Low grades were bestowed, by definition, on the presence or risk of incursion by African Americans.  Age and size of housing stock were also included.  Even after World War II, with its segregation of the Armed Forces, the benefits of service were effectively preferentially available to white veterans.  The GI Bill, and access to mortgage tax credits are two such benefits, and these benefits opened the suburbs with their subsidized expressways, to those who qualified demographically.
The neighborhoods in Baltimore city clustered near downtown are some of the most conspicuous loci of the disconnections sketched above.  I think it is legitimate to call all of this the long shadow of slavery – the originally constitutional commodification of most African Americans, and the purposeful and continual disconnection of this group of persons from access to the organs of state, of policy, of capital, and of mobility. 

Seeing Connection

As desperate as the need for multifaceted connection in Sandtown and other neighborhoods continues to be, what does ecology have to contribute?  Little on the list of disconnection is under our control.  But, perhaps part of what ecology can do is honor the residents of all neighborhoods in Baltimore with knowledge and experience in the kinds of connection that we study and understand. This may seem like Gahndian idealism, and count for little in the face of accumulated anger and fear, sudden death and riot.  But perhaps the science of connection can help people to envision change, to see how they are linked to a larger and longer world, in which their future matters. 
Analysis of potential areas
available to plant trees (left panel),
a scenario for increasing tree
cover (right panel).
Part of that larger world is the unseen urban ecology, that is the underappreciated role of water, air, organisms, substrates – and differential connections – in the urban matrix.  Part of that larger world is social and historical.  We have shared findings that can help people move beyond myths that trees are associated with crime, and have documented how environmental inequities were created by the zoning process when Baltimore city was majority white, and have shown how amenities and hazards are currently differentially distributed in Baltimore’s underserved white and African American neighborhoods.  We have helped people understand the buried streams in their neighborhoods, and the relationship of what they plant to a milder local climate and the quality of water flowing toward their beloved bay – and crabs. 
Our contributions may help people whose horizons are painfully close, to see some connections to the larger world.  Maybe that’s a step in empowering people to claim more of the roster of connections that can overcome the long shadow of exclusion that falls so oppressively on people and places we love in Baltimore.

Some Background Sources

Boone, Christopher G. 2002. An assessment and explanation of environmental inequity in Baltimore. Urban Geography 23  581-595.

Coates, Ta-Nehesi.  2015. “The Myth of Police Reform”
Coates, Ta-Nehesi. 2009. The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood.  Spiegel & Grau.
Coates, Ta-Nehesi.  2014. “The Case for Reparations”
Friedersdorf, Connor. 2015. “Two States of Emergency in Baltimore”
Geldenhuys, Odette. 1995.  “Housing Segregation: Apartheid in Baltimore.” Baltimore Sun. Tribunedigital-Baltimoresun, March 17, 1995.
Graham, David.  2015. “The Paradox at the Heart of Police Brutality Protests”

New York Times. 2015. “The Timeline of Freddie Gray’s Arrest and the Charges Filed”
 Home to ‘Lot of Fries’
New York Times.  2015.  “Hard but Hopeful Home to ‘Lot of Freddies’”

Olson, Sherry H. 1997. Baltimore: the building of an American city. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Reid, Ira De A. 1935.  The Negro Community of Baltimore: A Summary Report of a Socal Study conducted for the Baltimore Urban League, Baltimore.
Troy, Austin, J. M. Grove, and J. O’Neil-Dunne. 2012. The relationship between tree canopy and crime rates across an urban-rural gradient in the greater Baltimore region. Landscape and Urban Planning 106:262-270.
Wilkerson, Isabel.  2011.  The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  Vintage Books, New York.