Baltimore’s Art Deserts

artdesertsI love city life for many reasons. The farmers market on Sundays (and Saturdays if I wake up in time), lunch at the Baltimore Museum of Art or Lexington Market, local food trucks, local beer…I could go on. Opportunities for good food and culture abound in Baltimore, and easy access to both are arguably some of the greatest benefits to living in a city.

But I know my experience is different than the 25% of Baltimore residents who live in a food desert. By definition, those Baltimoreans live in low-income neighborhoods that have limited access to a supermarket. That means 1/3 of households do not have a vehicle, and the nearest supermarket or alternative is more than 1/4 mile away. Baltimore’s food deserts have been well documented, mapped, and studied. In fact, this week, leaders who are increasing food access in Baltimore spoke with WYPR about their strategies to increase access to quality food, which includes a focus on food retail and transportation.

Neighborhoods that are food deserts correlate with other indicators of poverty, and mapping these indicators reveal the same patterns of inequality. For example, Penn North/Reservoir Hill and Upton/Druid Heights are food deserts. In those neighborhoods, infant mortality rates are higher than the Citywide rate of 10.7, and median household income is below $41,385. My colleague Matt Pazoles and I wondered if access to other public assets were similarly co-located with food deserts, and we explore that question below.


Life Expectancy
Infant Mortality
Median Household Income
Food Desert
Unemployment Rate
Percentage of Residential Properties that are Vacant and Abandoned
Penn North/Reservoir Hill
Upton/Druid Heights
Baltimore City


We began by pulling a dataset of cultural institutions in Baltimore from Open Baltimore, the city’s open data portal, and converting their addresses into latitude and longitude coordinates so we could map them across the city. In order to represent relative ease of access, these points were converted into buffers representing distances of  .25, .5, and 1 mile, or roughly a 5, 10, or 20 minute walk. There were no surprises there—it looked like the art, history, and sports museums were concentrated in the north-south corridor of the city, which encompasses downtown and the more affluent neighborhoods.

The next thing we noticed was that this pattern was an inverse of the locations of food deserts and those additional poverty indicators, which are located in neighborhoods that surround downtown to the east and west, and radiate northeast and northwest. We added the food desert map layer to the cultural institutions map, and our theory was borne out. There was very little overlap between food deserts and neighborhoods with a cultural institution within easy walking distance. This suggests that the food desert neighborhoods may be “art deserts” as well.

So far we had only been looking at cultural institutions, which for the most part were comprised of established organizations or historic buildings – a pattern that is defined across decades and represents not just a significant initial investment, but the cumulative operating expenses that come with operating such enterprises. In order to gain greater insight into access to art, we would need to account for a much broader definition that was less contingent on philanthropies and trusts. To accomplish this, we processed and integrated a “public art” dataset from Open Baltimore. This is one of those datasets that raised even more questions: How does the city decide on the definition of public art? Who is collecting the data on the public art locations? Are the locations of new installations chosen strategically? Despite the uncertainty around this dataset’s metadata, once we added these points to our previous map using a 10 minute walking distance for reference it became clear that access to public art filled in many of the gaps in access to cultural institutions.

So why is this important? Researchers have drawn a connection between arts and neighborhood revitalization and economic prosperity, physical and psychological well-being, and social capital and community goals. According to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), access is the third largest barrier to participation in the arts, after time and cost. This exploration is not meant to show a causal relationship between proximity to cultural institutions and poverty, or imply that art is a panacea for social inequality. Simply put, the co-location of public art and disadvantaged neighborhoods may be beneficial, and public art should be considered a valuable public asset.

Exploring the definition and location of public art led us to wonder if there may be an opportunity for Baltimore to conduct a public art census, engaging members of the community in identifying what they define as art, to add to the Public Art dataset. There is precedent for this level of engagement in disadvantaged Baltimore communities. In 2014, the Howard Park Civic Association organized and worked with the City to bring a ShopRite grocery store to Forest Park, a neighborhood in West Baltimore segregated since 1960. The ShopRite is the largest grocery store in the city, and Forest Park is no longer a food desert, for the first time since 1999. This transformation signaled a “pendulum swing” to leaders in that community, but problems remained. This spring, volunteers who are part of a service learning project will survey the neighborhood, using tablets and cell phones to gather data on vacant and nuisance houses, and vacant lots to create an electronic map.


If you have comments on this topic or ideas on how to organize such a project, get in touch: @gov_ex



This analysis was produced by combining datasets on public art and cultural institutions with existing research on food deserts in Baltimore. Data on art was collated and cleaned from sources on the Baltimore City Open Data Portal through PostGIS, geocoded using the Google Maps API, and visualized using CartoDB. The food desert shapefile came from previous research done by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in collaboration with the City of Baltimore. Buffers on the Arts dataset were created at 5, 10, and 20 minute walking intervals (0.25, 0.5, and 1 mile respectively) using CartoDB and PostGIS.


Data sources:

Baltimore Public Art Inventory

Baltimore Museums Inventory

Baltimore Food Desert Shapefile


Matt Pazoles and Katherine Klosek are Senior Implementation Advisors with the Center for Government Excellence.