Heathcote is newly dedicated to accessible space, programing, and residential living. Undoing long-time patterns of neglect here at Heathcote and in our societies in general requires both seeing and doing. Seeing the ‘invisible barriers’ to access and reworking previously hostile design choices typical of rural Baltimore County and the ‘me generation’, or histories of environmental degradation from species-centric neglect. While Heathcote is located in a rural area zoned to agriculture, Heathcote is cultivating a living garden of accessibility. That will require time, effort, and planning by a new generation of thoughtful gardeners bringing life and beauty to the land.
Access for growing
This garden-area of 44 acres of woods, stream, and field will bring together the traditional knowledge of the past, and needs of the present, and apply forward-looking future technology. These will be combined into a cooperative of forest, forage, herbal, and plot gardens. This garden will be tended by new people and the culture-wisdom they carry. This garden will be designed to be shared among the community of plants, animals, and rural and urban neighbors.
Access for activity and learning
Heathcote’s gardens have been dedicated to demonstration and learning since the old mill chase was closed to create the first organic growing space on the land. School of Living, fiscal sponsors of the Heathcote Education Center, have long been dedicated to recovering and preserving the learning traditions and relationships of people. Traditional knowledge that is tied to the land and culture.
Access for living
Better inclusion of the other-abled begins with viewing those people as active members of the community and accommodating their needs for full participation rather than seeing them as inactive objects of pity who need to be fixed or infantilized. Thinking of inclusion goes beyond those who are blind, use wheel chairs, or are entirely incapacitated in some way: This includes but is not limited to inclusion of a spectrum of accessibility issues in environments and planning. It is often the disabling environments rather than the disabled individual that is the real source of the problem that is too often left to the individual. Rethinking access as a social question rather than a personal physical limitation leads to fundamental questions of space design.
Like many rural areas, Heathcote suffers accessibility issues that include lack of public transportation and services alongside lack of accessible buildings and infrastructure. Rural areas have the double-distinction of objectively higher rates of disabled residents than urban areas, partly because of rural aging in place from restricted social mobility. This is in contrast to more transient, economically diverse and dynamic urban areas. Lack of access blocks social and physical mobility, trapping the other-abled in environments that exclude them in a vicious design circle.
Heathcote’s long-‘invisible’ accessibility issues are slated to be begin to be addressed. Heathcote’s homesteading ideal added to the rural tendency to dispersion of residencies and common spaces, while existing residencies were not designed for long-term modern group occupancy. Rural cultural barriers that emphasize self-sufficiency often result in a landscape that is discontinuous and narrow-user specific, sharpening class and caste exclusion.
A few years ago, the first other-abled community member joined. The aging of Heathcote’s boomer founder group will expose more challenges in the near future. The urgent question of renewing the Baltimore-area food system due to climate change drives a looming necessity to relocate and reorient the entire American and global food system, disrupting previously complacent attitudes. The countryside can no longer be seen as an escape from urban problems or separate priority for a rural revival. It now more than ever must be an integral part of an urban-rural continuum of distributed, redundant food and culture systems. Physical and social access include hearing, vision, cognitive, and ambulatory questions that require concrete solutions of their own, but they also include participatory barriers of all kinds. This requires awareness alongside concrete steps.
Heathcote is now making its first efforts toward greater accessibility in housing and site activities. The historic mill will see a face-lift that will improve parking, outdoor lighting, grading, door width, add signage, guard-railing, and wheel-chair access. Hopefully, the land will receive new attention as the ‘me generation’ who started the “Heathcote Commune” in 1970 ages and recycles, the aging of the surrounding rural population adds attention to these issues on the county level, and the increased need for exchanges with urban projects drives new thinking and action toward making Heathcote a more accessible destination. Accessibility can be improved through more inclusive planning and thoughtful design, as well as greater diversity of membership and participation.
Starting where we are
Heathcote has 44 acres of partly wooded creek valley punctuated by riparian zone, flat plain, and terraced garden. The reclaimed second-growth woods display their own history of neglect and promise. The promise of Heathcote began in the 19th century as water-powered mills and seaport access turned our area into the first industrial transportation and growth hub of the United States.
Heathcote’s was literally first put on the map in 1842, tied to the construction of the old Heathcote mill. With the appearance of the North Central Railroad a little before that time, this began a process that deeply marked the land Heathcote stands on. Today, Heathcote is zoned primarily for agricultural use and surrounded by agricultural and residential plots. This is in keeping with the county’s sustainable development process and greenbelt. https://bc-gis.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=ada3503289dd4fd78931d62272df3c8d
County planning designates historic preservation of structures like the Heathcote mill as coinciding with agricultural preservation. Registration of properties as historic landmarks is encouraged to preserve the county’s ‘viewshed’. The scenic viewshed strategy not only encompasses buildings like the old mill, but springhouses, stables, barns and outbuildings that make up much of the Heathcote center. The Interstate 83 corridor along which Heathcote is located is intended to be a showcase zone for scenic views preservation efforts, making Heathcote a potential new scenic destination.
Going forward on our ever-changing land
At the time of first contact with the Europeans, Baltimore County was almost entirely covered with mesophytic forest typical among eastern US hardwood forests. These prominently contain oaks, chestnuts and hickories that fed a complex and continuous ecology. We might image what that would have looked like. Chestnut, sugar maple, oaks and hickories perhaps grew on local slopes and ridges, while watercourses like the one running through Heathcote may have mostly been hemlock and rhododendron, with white pine and hemlock scattered throughout different stands. Some of the wider areas of our little valley may have formed bogs or fens that would have contained their own mixture of vegetation more common to moist, cool biomes more commonly seen further to the north.
In 2020, Baltimore County was split roughly in thirds between forest, agriculture, and developed urban use. The low-ebb for the Maryland woodlands coverage came before the introduction of scientific forest management into Maryland at the beginning of the 20th century. About 17,000 acres have been reclaimed as wooded land since that time, though those gains are newly being eroded now. Regardless of size, this is not the forest that once covered Maryland. The decline in quality and quantity of wooded land is also complicated by uneven management under mostly private initiative. Although approximately 75% of Baltimore County forests are privately owned, the largest forest blocks are owned by state, city, and county parks and reservoir reservations. Overall, the forestland is fragmented into thousands of patches, the majority of which consist of less than 100 acres, mostly surrounded by urban and agricultural development.
Within the remaining stands, the composition and living cycle of these forest lands have changed since their first disruption centuries ago. Today’s pressures continue to degrade and transform surviving wooded areas. Fire suppression has drastically changed the mixture of vegetation, as did unrestrained intentional and uncontrolled burning in the centuries before. Meanwhile, the proliferation of white-tailed deer to historic overabundance has had a similar impact; These browse selectively on particular species, such as oaks and hickories.
Overall fragmentation has accelerated exotic invasive species competition and further introduces urban pollution, such as cement sediment and air chemistry, while accelerating erosion. This has left our local forest more vulnerable to climate stress overall, but it has disproportionately impacted particular forest species vital to the complex overall ecology. The American chestnut has been nearly eliminated by an invasive pathogen more than a century ago, and now ash trees are rapidly dying off due to invasive borer beetle attacks. Oak and hickory is in decline while beech and maples—species that add less value for the wildlife ecology– are becoming dominant.
The wooded areas on Heathcote land show an abundance of all of these stresses and scars, with deliberate restoration efforts having been neglected from lack of past interest or priority. There is, however, no reason why prioritization of the land and its ecological and human needs could not still establish a more productive and enjoyable landscape, more accessible to human use and more ecologically, socially, and personally resilient and valuable.
The Changing Social Landscape
Heathcote has been impacted by social changes in its surrounding area since it was first established in the late 1960s in a significantly different world. According to Baltimore County’s 2020 Master Plan, sustainability consists of: community (and social equity), economy, and environment. In 1967 Baltimore County established the Urban Rural Demarcation Line, where two-thirds of Baltimore Country will contain 10% of the population; Growth has been limited in rural areas where Heathcote is located. While this saved money on services and preserved the north county’s rural agriculture, it resulted in sprawling, car-dependent housing separated from shopping, offices, and industry. That disrupted old neighborhood development based on walkable contiguous design. The 2020 Master Plan estimated that county population will add 30,000 to 2020’s estimated 846,000 residents by the end of the planning decade. Most of that growth is expected in rural areas like ours.
Despite continued growth, Baltimore County population growth has slowed after rapid increases in the 1950s and 1960s. Since Heathcote was established in the late 1960s, the surrounding community has changed in many details. The median age of residents has risen more than a decade since 1970, now standing at over 39 years old. Seniors are now 17% of the population, a proportion that has more than doubled since 1970. Changes in population and economy have in turn changed the average Baltimore household from predominantly married couples to now greater numbers of younger and older singles, including more single-parent households. Baltimore County is also significantly more culturally and ethnically diverse than it was, with a white population that has actually declined by 60,000 residents since 1970, and a growing Black and other non-white population. Just about the only thing that has remained the same is home ownership rates, which have remained stable despite all these changes, although new housing starts have been unusually low due to the post-2008 real estate market.
Ultimately, Heathcote’s land will be shaped by human use and prioritization that emerges, which in turn will be an issue of who accesses it and why.