Baltimore, like many post-industrial cities, confronts novel challenges. Once the sixth-largest city in the United States, Baltimore’s population has contracted by more than a third, resulting from a complex suite of factors, including job loss, economic decline, and discriminatory policies or housing and lending practices. It’s estimated that at least 16,000 buildings in Baltimore are boarded up; most are slated for demolition.
But where others see blight, the Baltimore Wood Project sees opportunity. The Baltimore Office of Sustainability’s Waste to Wealth Initiative worked with partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, to pilot a project designed to salvage wood from both buildings and urban trees. The Baltimore Wood Project aimed to reduce landfill waste, create jobs, refill municipal coffers, and engage the local community while encouraging environmental sustainability and demonstrating the concept’s viability to other cities.
Buildings, such as the vacant rowhouses in Baltimore, can be demolished, but they also can be deconstructed to salvage the materials. The salvaging process requires much more time and labor than demolition. For Baltimore — a city with an unemployment rate of nearly 5 percent, climbing up to 15 percent or more in some neighborhoods and a poverty rate nearly double the national average — this presents an opportunity.
The project partnered with Humanim, a non-profit organization that helps find jobs for residents with barriers to employment, such as former prison inmates. Since 2012, Humanim has employed more than 150 low-income residents and generated more than $4 million in sales from recovered wood. In Baltimore, Humanim demonstrated that this model could work in a way that includes underrepresented groups and creates opportunities for workforce development and leadership.
Although this project’s inclusivity and emphasis on job creation set it apart, Baltimore isn’t alone in re-using urban wood. In Lagos, Nigeria, nearly 300,000 tons of wood waste are generated each year — and to deal with the volume, open burning of waste is common. But more and more, Lagos is using the wood in creative ways: turning it into sawdust as bedding for chickens or using it as fuel for cooking, which can relieve pressure on surrounding forests.