News & Community

Stillmeadow Peace Park is Baltimore’s Latest Tale of Urban Reinvention

Starting with an inspired vision from a parishioner and nurtured by an outpouring of collaboration, Southwest Baltimore's Stillmeadow woods have been given a second chance.
From left: Pastor Michael Martin with Morgan Grove at Stillmeadow Peace Park. —Photography by Christopher Myers

In the woods next to the Stillmeadow Community Fellowship church in Southwest Baltimore, Pastor Michael Martin has another sanctuary he eagerly shares with visitors. The church leaders poses meditative questions—”What do you hear?” “What do you see?” “How does it make you feel?”—as he walks parishioners, neighbors, and other participants in Stillmeadow’s “daytime retreats” through the 10 acres of once-neglected, church-owned property overlooking busy Frederick Avenue. Here, freshly planted and fast-growing saplings, carefully carved-out walking trails, and streamside sitting areas invite each person who passes through to pause.

“Cars become white noise, and you shift from what you’re used to,” says Martin from his office inside the church. “All of a sudden, you can hear the trees and the breeze. You hear birds—and now, you hear different birds. And you can see different trees. You can tell that there are different things going on in this park. And then you get down to the water, and it’s flowing and making that cooling sound [and you think], ‘Hey, I didn’t remember I liked this. This is beautiful and I’m really affected by all of this.’”

Just a few years ago, this small woodland tract was an arboreal graveyard, strewn with dozens of ash trees leeched of life by the invasive emerald ash boring beetle, which in the late 2010s wiped out much of these woods. Rampantly growing vines and ravenously grazing deer were also playing a part, killing off other native species and the next generation of trees before they could mature and fill in the void of the dead ash grove.

But you’d never know that today, what with the hundreds of new poplar, willow, elm, and oak trees, some just two years old but already topping 30 feet, that are deepening their roots in carefully maintained, protected plots uphill from the church. Starting with an inspired vision from a parishioner and nurtured by an outpouring of collaboration and resources, the Stillmeadow woods have been given a second chance. And in just a few years, they have already become a nationally renowned proving ground for ecological resilience.

Since 2020, the U.S. Forest Service has been working with the church to use the self-proclaimed community “peace park” to research the potential of smaller-scale reforestation in city environments. They’re not only planting native and climate-adaptive tree species, but also studying soil resiliency, testing planting cycles, trialing groundcover materials, and even training new generations of urban foresters here in Baltimore, with an ultimate goal of establishing long-term networks of community caretaking.

Can small, degraded urban forests like this one regenerate in healthy, sustainable ways? And can they establish a framework for their communities to be invested in them for years to come? That’s what the dozens of people now involved in this project hope to find out. Elementary, middle, high school, and university students have poured out in droves to pitch in, clearing dead trees and invasive plants, planting saplings, laying down woodchips, maintaining trails, and more, while forging their own bonds with the park in the process.

And of course, there’s Martin, the church parishioners, and their neighbors, who are spreading the naturalistic gospel through tree giveaways, community education, and by ho- listically reconnecting with the land.

Baltimore, a city of many famous firsts, is a fitting setting for this pioneering ecological restoration. Stillmeadow is its own tale of environmental justice, natural reinvention, and community-led caretaking. It’s an instructive case study in how forestry and environmental resilience research can and should—focus more on resource-deprived communities in cities, says McKay Jenkins, a restoration volunteer and partner at Stillmeadow.

“What Baltimore is showing the rest of the country is that the environmental restoration impulse has to extend into the city,” says Jenkins, a local environmental journalism professor and author of the forthcoming The Maryland Naturalist handbook and field guide. “Cities are obviously human communities but also ecological communities, and always have been. Environmental justice is not just air pollution. It’s a holistic view of the way that communities should be able to live.”

“Stewardship” was the assignment that drew Pastor Martin from his longtime home of Los Angeles back to Baltimore in early 2017. The Michigan native and Morgan State alumnus was up to the task of bolstering the spiritual health, membership ranks, and financial standing of Stillmeadow, a 34-year- old church located in the Beechfield neighborhood south of Leakin Park. But he soon learned that the assignment was bigger than the church itself.

Nine months after his arrival, Martin first journeyed into the woods up the hill, led by one of his parishioners, Patrick Healey, who hacked a path through the brush with a machete. This had long been just “the woods” to Stillmeadow’s congregants. But Martin saw an opportunity in the winding expanse that they wandered through together.

“We kept going and we got down to the creek—I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ it just wouldn’t end,” he says. “I’m a city boy, but even that experience told me, this is a lot here.”

Another parishioner, Troy Burke, coined the idea for a “peace park” in those woods. The vision was a space for trauma resolution and quietude in a historically underserved, often-overlooked, majority-Black neighborhood. Why should Southwest Baltimore residents have to escape to rural areas to be in a space for solace and contemplation, wondered Martin. “We could do this in our own way here in the city limits.”

Nature set things in motion the following spring. In May 2018, Stillmeadow became a hub for food and water distribution as well as disaster response coordination following a two-day flash flood that overtook Frederick Avenue, inundating the local stream, known as Maiden’s Choice, and sending a seven-foot surge of water down the thoroughfare, dam- aging more than 140 homes. The church received a measly $250,000 in federal aid and otherwise sparse attention compared to Old Ellicott City, a wealthy white suburb also destroyed by the flooding.

But the new relationships that arose from this catastrophe would pave the way for the Peace Park project. Among the connections that Martin made in the aftermath of the flood was Morgan Grove, a research forester at the Baltimore Urban Field Office of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Catonsville, where he has worked since 1996. The federal agency would soon commit $90,000 over three years, plus staff time and planting materials, while also coordinating with the church on a plan for silviculture—the cultivation and management of trees—to respond to the uncovered ash tree blight.

Bonnie Sorak, director of Baltimore City and County outreach for Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, was another connection. The regional nonprofit helps faith-based entities—churches, synagogues, mosques—secure funding for environmental projects and programs that will improve the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Religious congregations make excellent tree-planting partners for a few reasons, starting with the fact that many religions view trees as the source of life itself, says Sorak, who is Jewish. “It resonates with people of multiple faiths…We call trees God’s cure-all.”

Places of worship also tend to have an audience receptive to participating in community-based projects. “After I started engaging with [Stillmeadow], they learned that they were part of the problem—by no means can they solve the flooding on their own, but also, if you have a large roof and a large parking lot, you’re creating stormwater runoff,” be it into the city streets or, ultimately, the Bay, says Sorak. The decimation of the ash grove in the nearby woods hadn’t helped either. A single tree can absorb hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons of runoff each year, but trees left to rot can’t contribute.


And then there’s the property aspect: Many churches and other such sanctuaries have significant land holdings around their buildings that provide their own opportunities for native plantings, rain gardens, and other stormwater capture and green-space projects. “With the vast amount of land that spaces of faith own and manage and steward, they can have a huge impact,” says Sorak.

Other partners joined the mix—among them Jenkins (who has recruited his own University of Delaware students as volunteers and helped obtain grant funding through the school), as well as the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Annapolis-based Nature Sacred, Baltimore Tree Trust, Blue Water Baltimore, Civic Works, the National Wildlife Federation, and various city and state agencies, to name a few. After roughly two years of planning, the church held a grand opening ceremony for Stillmeadow Peace Park in October 2020.

And so began a years-long commitment to restore a neglected urban forest into a thriving ecosystem once again, beginning with cyclical plantings of thousands of new trees, constant maintenance of invasive species and overgrowth, and phased improvements each year.

Since 2021, they’ve planted more than 2,500 trees in phases, including 970 this past fall. The park now has a community vegetable garden, a small trail network, multiple meditation areas, and various programs for visitors of all ages. Future plans call for replacing impervious surfaces, including in the parking lot down below.

The ensemble of collaborators, which Grove describes as a “jazz band,” is growing stronger each year, with new resources pouring in and momentum increasing as the trees establish themselves. The Forest Service, for its part, gave the project a big boost with a $2-million forestry grant this past December.

Even so, it’s going to take multiple generations to complete, and the many partners and volunteers know that they are in it for the long haul. And while it might not be a solution to prevent more natural disasters from occurring in the first place, a healthier forest will provide outsized ecological, community health, and other benefits, says Grove.

“To get this whole forest going is not going to solve the flooding issues. As for the flooding issues—just look up,” he says. “But this forest is going to solve a whole bunch of other problems. It’s like when you walk into the doctor’s office and you’ve got this one problem, but the doctor actually says, ‘Hey, you’ve got all these other things you need to pay attention to.’”

When most people think of the U.S. Forest Service, it’s about fighting wildfires or managing vast expanses of woods out West. The agency has 193 million acres under its purview, including 154 national forests, 20 grasslands, and myriad other public lands.

But small patches like Stillmeadow are vital areas of study for the federal agency’s nine urban field stations. Baltimore’s Urban Field Office is the oldest city research station among them, and Baltimore is actually “one of the birthplaces of urban ecology,” explains Nancy Sonti, an urban ecologist who works alongside Grove studying the social and ecological benefits of trees in cities. Since 1997, Baltimore has been the subject of the Forest Service’s multi-decade Baltimore Ecosystem Study, which examines the city and its metropolitan area as a social-ecological system.

In New York City, where Sonti began her career studying street-tree growth and human engagement with urban green spaces, “I was used to thinking all green space was good,” she says. But vacant or neglected land does not provide the same advantages as a well-tended forest.

When a space becomes overrun by invasives or loses significant canopy, its utility diminishes in many regards, such as its ability to capture greenhouse gases like carbon or foster native plant species, which better thrive in local environments and sustain a biodiversity of native wildlife. Conversely, its function improves if it’s well-loved; trees can grow to their full potential, shade out invasives, and capture more storm-water in their root systems.

A growing body of research indicates that, aside from improving air quality, providing cooling in heat-absorbing cities, and mitigating damages caused by heavy rainstorms, trees can also simply make us happier and healthier. Studies have linked urban tree canopy to lower stress levels, reduced blood pressure, and increased participation in physical activity. A 2020 study by Cornell University researchers, for example, determined that spending as little as 10 minutes in natural spaces could make an impact on the moods and heart rates of college-aged students.

Stillmeadow has drawn so much federal interest because, with the hillside’s ecosystems disrupted by deer populations and invasive plants, as well the need for community stewardship, “this is representative of many forests in the Mid-Atlantic,” says Grove. For these reasons, the Forest Service and its partners are using this land as a test ground for different silvicultural techniques in urban settings. And so far, the findings have been promising.

“We’ve seen really incredible tree growth,” says Sonti, with the researchers trialing everything from where and when to how they’re planted. “We’re learning to sort of trust that the land is resilient, and we can regenerate biodiverse forest.”

Sociologically, there have been early lessons in building community networks, too. Partnerships are bearing fruit, like the Forest Service collaboration with Turnaround Tuesday, a local work-training nonprofit that graduated an inaugural class last summer of five young adult foresters, some of whom are now employed by Baltimore Tree Trust, or volunteer engagement with students from nearby schools, such as Beechfield and North Bend Elementary/Middle, Edmondson-West-side High, Friends, Gilman, and Mount Saint Joseph.

“It’s really different than saying this project is only going to be controlled by researchers,” says Sonti. “Everyone feels invested in its success.”

Martin was initially cautious about providing a de facto federal research lab on Stillmeadow’s grounds. There’s a sordid history of researchers unethically studying minority communities, particularly Black residents, using them as guinea pigs, profiting from findings, and disappearing without sharing the benefits—most infamously in the Baltimore tale of Johns Hopkins Medicine and Henrietta Lacks. But after several years, “everybody is learning healthily,” he says.

On a soggy December morning, Jenkins and Grove are gathered in the Stillmeadow parking lot, ready to show off what this jazz band had composed so far. With them is Lenwood Hayman, a Baltimore social psychologist recently hired by the Forest Service to serve as a liaison for the community.

“This was a shitshow,” says Grove, before gushing, “It looks so beautiful!”

There, in the parking lot, he gazes up at the newly landscaped south-facing hillside next to the church, now adorned with fresh plantings atop a shallow wall of rock repurposed from the 2018 flood. Volunteers spent long days here clearing out English ivy and porcelain berry, and planting new native species such as red oak and shadbush, and their work shows.

Today, while ambling through the grounds, Jenkins and Grove light up as they reflect on each part of the journey: the more than 100 dead ash trees cut down to start anew; the five plots of young local oak, disease-resistant elms, and willow and poplar trees, slowly helping to restore the decimated canopy; the 45 cubic yards of wood chips heaved up and poured out using wheelbarrows; the small garden at the foot of the hill, which in 2021 temporarily housed 850 tree saplings in two-gallon pots; even the stubbornly reappearing Japanese honeysuckle and wineberry down near a sitting area overlooking Maiden’s Choice.

“We can’t get behind with clearing the invasives,” Grove laments. “I’m gonna be out here every Saturday.”

The logs lining the trails are solemn remembrances of the earlier generations of ash trees killed by the boring beetle. Many bear serpentine scars from the larvae. These insects—an Asian pest now infamous, loathed, and detected by foresters in 36 states, plus Washington, D.C.—burrow into the trunks, eat away at tissues beneath the bark, and lay their offspring within. Tens of millions of ash trees have fallen victim nationwide, becoming like hollowed-out “straws with sawdust in them” before they ultimately snap in two, says Jenkins. Still others remain dead in place as existing habitat at Stillmeadow, easy to spot in the tree line with their severed trunks.

Grove likens those carefully placed trail markers to fallen soldiers. It’s a similar approach to that taken on the Green Road at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, where logs from deceased trees were incorporated into a therapeutic trail network for veterans, he says. “In this community, it’s a reminder of not just soldiers—it’s also your children, your brothers, your sisters in Baltimore who have been lost.”

And with its visibility along Frederick Avenue, the restored hillside serves as its own powerful symbol as well.

“Living in Baltimore, it’s much like any other city—there’s all kinds of chaos all over,” says Hayman, a former professor at Morgan State University’s School of Community Health and Policy. “But if we’re able to see examples of folks working in chaos and still finding purpose…then hopefully when folks drive by, they not only see a renewal of a forest, but they can find a renewal in their spirits.”


And it’s working, says Martin. The church has facilitated giveaways of hundreds of trees to local residents with Blue Water Baltimore. A communal journal placed in the park is filling up with observations and reflections. People are there every week now. And multiple generations of parishioners are deepening their ties, from wide-eyed youth taking field notes to seniors reconnecting with the land via activities like daytime nature walks and nighttime bird-watching “owl prowls.”

“Everybody is remembering being 10 years old in Georgia, Mississippi, going down to the Eastern Shore every summer,” says Martin, glowing. “It feels not just nostalgic, but so natural and normal.”

In this sense, Stillmeadow has become a symbiotic project. Martin’s church benefits from an improved ecosystem that’s more resilient, biodiverse, and inviting for its entire community. The Forest Service can apply research findings from this project to similar communities in other cities. And both partners and volunteers are learning firsthand about not only the history of environmental degradation in Black urban areas like this one, but also—hopefully— how to help reverse it during a time of ever-worsening climate change.

All signs indicate that periods of prolonged drought, as well as more intense rainfall and temperature swings, are part of the new normal in the Mid Atlantic, putting more stress on communities and their native ecosystems.

“This kind of dynamic is going to happen more frequently and more chaotically in more places,” says Jenkins. “The more communities can anticipate that, they can learn how to use their various resources—scientific, but also community resources—because they’re big, complicated problems and they take a lot of voices.”

Standing on the trail overlooking Maiden’s Choice, water gushing in from heavy rains the night before, Jenkins considers the interconnected nature of so many social challenges confronting Baltimore communities: cycles of poverty, stunted economic development, and ecological neglect. Fixing these problems calls for many minds and bodies working together. In this way, this forest restoration project is no different.

“It’s not just the experts that are going to fix this,” he says. “We all have to realize that we’re doing this together.”