Rat-proofing row homes in Baltimore

Posted on | January 6, 2017 | 3 Comments

Bin hutches with planters imagined in front of a typical East Coast terrace of row homes. Drawing: Emily Green

When Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s mayorship of Baltimore is finally judged, her crowning achievement may be having provided residents with rat-proof trash cans. The stout green plastic bins that arrived early last autumn came in two sizes, enormous (roughly 60 gallon) and large (more like 40). After the city dropped them off, as is if over night, the cans radically reduced the amount of skimpily bagged food waste left out on city streets as trash collection days approached. It was so effective that in a recent round table assessing Rawlings-Blake’s tenure, NPR host Tom Hall and his guests were talking trash cans in the same breaths as the former mayor’s handling of the riots and a huge port development deal.

But, months after the roll out, with a new mayor, securing Baltimore’s trash remains a job half done. The former mayor’s veto of the single-use plastic bag ban mean streets and drains are still clogged by persistent waste. The city’s quaintest streets are too small for alley collection so the cans must live out front, where they are eyesores and open to unsavory contributions from passers by. Perhaps their biggest failing is that they only address one waste stream: trash. What rats lost in open garbage on Tuesdays, trash day, they won on Thursdays, recycling day. The new bins did nothing to deny rats greasy pizza boxes and glue-rich Amazon packaging.

Why not do as they do in Los Angeles, which is to provide three bins, one for garden waste, another for trash and third for recycling? Space. There simply is no place to put three big bins. A typical row home is perhaps 12 feet wide. And so Baltimore, while having reduced its rat problem, still relies not on the huge improvement of Rawlings-Blake’s bins, or any form of public hygiene, but on rat poison, an approach as cruel as it is ineffective.

Watching sick and dying wildlife caught up in this loophole bothered me enough that over the last sixteen months I designed a prototype rat-proof system, then found local art welders to build it. The ups and downs of that effort are covered in the picture captions below. The uppiest of the rare ups came this week when the welders arrived with the prototype rat-proof garbage shed. There are two cabinets, one for trash, the other for recycling. A rail up top is to guard a planter that will soon carry emerging daffodils. The cages below keep the trash cans contained. The wire mesh allows circulation through basement windows while being rat proof.

Will it catch on? I hope so. If not, it’s this one Baltimorean’s effort toward poison free rat control and a more beautiful city.  Ideas/suggestions/comments all welcome.

1. Before the new regulation bins, residents used flimsy plastic cans that rats could chew through or put garbage out in bags, without cans at all. The yellow open bin is a typical recycling carton.

2. After introduction of the regulation bins in mid-2016, the city was left with secure trash, insecure recycling and a sad new blight in the urban street scape.

3. Many sketches were done of a potential trash can hutch that could hold recycling on one side, trash on another, a planter on top.

4. Turning the idea into something three dimensional presented a choice: Should I do a one-off prototype or pay an industrial designer to do technical drawings for something that could then be produced en masse? The industrial designer referred by a Baltimore sheet metal fabricator unfortunately reinvented the idea to the point it was unrecognizable. Above are three renderings in which he added a stair rail, a bike rack, a crank-driven planter (with marijuana in the drawing), a hose and a compost bin. What it wasn’t was rat proof or big enough to take the recycling off the street. Townhouse dwellers will spot that there would not be room for a bike rack without knocking down the next row-home’s stair case. The material was to be aluminum siding in a witty nod to Baltimore’s Tin Men. I loved the kooky Brookyn-style ebullience of it and I’ve skipped enough briefs myself back in the day to understand the impulse, but this proved an expensive detour that led nowhere.

5. It nearly ended after I blew the budget with the hopelessly wacky and over-designed prototype with crank shafts and pot plants. But knocking on doors of metal shops led to an introduction to welders who turned my own schematic drawing into a handsome article. This first prototype doesn’t interfere with the historical nature of the house or street but only smooths out the visual assault of the green bins. For those given to sea sickness, by way of visual relief in a generally sloping city, it’s level. 

6. Down the line, there is no reason the sheds shouldn’t be different colors and become a standard appurtenance. Painting: EG


3 Responses to “Rat-proofing row homes in Baltimore”

  1. Ed
    January 14th, 2017 @ 9:48 pm

    Wow, great idea. I’ve faced similar problems in the past and like you, I’m against waging biochemical warfare on rats. So, I just place my trashcan on a stool and presto, no rats to eat my garbage.

  2. Madison R
    May 6th, 2017 @ 4:27 am

    Interesting idea, making the best of a bad situation.

    I don’t know what the future holds for Baltimore and the trash problem, but we can at least be hopeful. A three-step plan for rat eradication has been proposed to run in Riverview. This would add a second trash collection day, and working with community groups to increase education.

    They picked Riverview because that’s where the most complaints about rats are. But if this works they’ll expand the program, so fingers crossed!

  3. Chris Gutwein
    November 1st, 2017 @ 6:09 am

    Walking past one of these black, metal structures in my neighborhood caught my attention and I literally stopped in my tracks! It really does fit neatly under the window and offers a large built-in platform for a display of plants. It’s a charming idea, and works so well with the architecture of the old row homes in Baltimore!

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