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If you live in Baltimore City, there’s a chance one of Graham Coreil-Allen’s artworks has saved your life.  

That sounds like the kind of hyperbolic praise some artists would receive for an emotionally uplifting painting or song. But Coreil-Allen’s collaborative “painting” practice—colorfully cascading across sidewalks, asphalt, and other infrastructure—is as much about the objective probability of preventing deaths as subjective aesthetics. Through his company Graham Projects, which offers a mix of urban design, public art, neighborhood advocacy, and placemaking services, Coreil-Allen and his team have transformed streets in Remington, Station North, Pigtown, Druid Hill, and beyond. Many of their projects are graphic, eye-catching murals designed to slow drivers down at intersections and reclaim a bit of public space from private vehicles, making the city safer, block by block. 

“I often mention some statistical things like the level of injury or survival rate of folks going down as traffic speeds go up,” he explains. “We know that, approximately, if cars are driving twenty-five miles per hour or more and they strike a pedestrian, that pedestrian is more likely to die than live.” 

In America, we’re also statistically about as likely to be killed by a car as a bullet. In Baltimore especially, both of the above disproportionately impact low-income Black citizens. But when we talk about violent deaths, we tend to ask a lot of questions with not-so-easy answers about deliberate violence, overlooking the abundance of relatively simple design solutions for spatial justice and safety on our streets that most people accept as immutable places. 

Luckily for Baltimore, Graham Coreil-Allen is not most people. He’s one of those problem-solvers who understands that the city and its (dys)functions are the result of design and policy decisions, many of which have historically imperiled the most vulnerable residents to prioritize capital. 

A lot of the time, we find opportunities where we're simply reconfiguring what already exists, which is very much the situationist concept of rearranging an environment to either reveal something or to inspire change.
Graham Coreil-Allen

“We can reorganize a street so that it helps to make people more visible, especially those who walk and roll,” Coreil-Allen says, in reference to his projects that have created protected, accessible street space for wheelchair and mobility scooter users. “A lot of the time, we find opportunities where we’re simply reconfiguring what already exists, which is very much the situationist concept of rearranging an environment to either reveal something or to inspire change. What’s cool about that too is you get more space for creating stuff like street murals, custom-designed benches, wayfinding signage… There are all sorts of fun ways that we can leverage the features of urban design as a form of artistic expression—something that can be more than just a bench and more than just a sign.” 

The artist is also quick to point out that his company’s projects always begin with a community organization or neighborhood association asking for help, a welcome change from decades of top-down urban planning. “Our community-based design process is driven by being invited into their neighborhood and then working with a diverse set of collaborators, both within the community organizations that we’re typically working with, but also within our team.” Those collaborators include varied skill sets ranging from Operations Director Melvin Jadulang, to social worker JaVon Townsend, and landscape architect and native plant expert Zoe Roane-Hopkins, among many others. Importantly, everyone from metal fabricators to painters is paid above a living wage or “prevailing” wage afforded to skilled trades workers according to city and state guidelines. 

Coreil-Allen’s process of community engagement is perhaps best exemplified by the project Oliver Allover Eyes, which started with a commission from the Oliver Community Association and local nonprofit developer Rebuild Metro. Concerned about the amount of car traffic speeding through their neighborhood, they reached out to Graham Projects for a proposal and cost estimate. With a budget in hand, the neighbors were able to secure grant funding and permission from the Department of Transportation to transform a particularly dangerous intersection at the corner of N. Bond and E. Biddle Streets. 

Graham Projects met with both the neighborhood association’s design committee and the public to solicit ideas, inviting residents to a series of pop-ups in a nearby vacant lot to discuss the problem. Once Coreil-Allen explained the principles of traffic calming, a solution was reached: the areas around the crosswalks would be protected from illegally-parked cars by flexposts, clearing sightlines for approaching motorists and visually bumping-out the sidewalk to shorten the crossing from a daunting thirty-eight feet to a more human-scaled twenty-one feet. 

This also freed-up a blank canvas of extra asphalt for colorful artwork to further demarcate the newly-gained space. At one of the pop-up events to solicit design ideas from the neighbors, a young girl named Braylin Montague told Coreil-Allen about a dream she had the night before: eyes that cried rainbows. When she sketched her vision, the adults realized the eyes could serve as attention-grabbing street graphics and the bolts of color radiating out into the surrounding blocks could represent an optimistic vision for the neighborhood. “That was one of the weirdest ideas I’d ever heard, and I loved it,” Coreil-Allen recalls. 

It's not easy, but that's part of the value that we bring—my company and I—we're problem solvers and we're tenacious, we're very organized, we're project managers and we're gonna work proactively with the community… getting it through this sort of complicated system that is the city government. And then ultimately facilitating the situation where the community can come out and take joy in creating this work with us.
Graham Coreil-Allen

Other neighbors found the design to also be a fitting reminder of the intersection’s tragic past—another young girl in the neighborhood had recently been killed by a speeding driver on the same street, and a lamppost near that corner already served as a roadside memorial with votive candles and notes. 

The community voted for the design, and Graham Projects could apply for the city permits to begin installation. After Coreil-Allen’s professional team completed the more dangerous task of applying the road markings and epoxies to the asphalt, neighbors were invited to a Community Paint Day, extending the stripes of rainbow tears up onto the sidewalk. 

Although this turned out to be one of Coreil-Allen’s most personally rewarding projects, he recalls it wasn’t easy. Changes at the Department of Transportation and bureaucratic red tape delayed the execution by almost a year, but Graham Projects stuck with the Oliver community and helped them navigate the new challenges to making their street safer. “It’s not easy,” he admits, “but that’s part of the value that we bring—my company and I—we’re problem solvers and we’re tenacious, we’re very organized, we’re project managers and we’re gonna work proactively with the community and the city bureaucrats who are also doing their best, short staffed, etcetera… getting it through this sort of complicated system that is the city government. And then ultimately facilitating the situation where the community can come out and take joy in creating this work with us. That was something I was really proud of.”

A more recent, albeit storied, project on W 27th Street is perhaps the best place to physically feel the transformative power of the team’s design interventions. After seven years of petitioning the Department of Transportation for improvements to a chaotic five-way intersection that left a dangerous void of unregulated asphalt in the middle of their neighborhood, the Greater Remington Improvement Association received permission to hire Graham Projects. The result is a mural that carves a space for people (and potted greenery) out of the former roadway in front of plant shop B. Willow, guiding both human and vehicular traffic through gently curving lines inspired by the work of local artist Bruce Willen. The design references the buried waterways and natural topography of the neighborhood, before planners in the automobile age decided to pave paradise for parking lots. 

Crossing the street now not only feels safer, but noticeably several degrees cooler, thanks to the specialty paint Graham Projects chose to reduce the solar gain from the urban heat island effect asphalt infamously intensifies on this ever-warming planet. 

The detail-oriented team behind Graham Projects selects their materials for practical considerations such as this, as well as their longevity. But Coreil-Allen’s intent isn’t that these are “forever” fixtures, despite their durability. “Successive regimes with new political philosophies can easily overwrite these relatively low-cost, quick installations. And so the goal is that they’ll prove they’re worth it,” he says. If politicians tried to take-back streetspace for cars, there would be an outcry. Coreil-Allen predicts that these projects will last at least five to ten years, until the life cycle of the existing asphalt surfaces comes to an end. 

The long-term hope is that artwork like this inspires cities to take more permanent actions to improve spatial justice, safety, and the environment when these streets need to be replaced. A painted-over parking space could one day be a bioswale to filter runoff with local plants. A once-dangerous intersection could be a permeable cobblestone plaza with shade trees. The distance from sidewalk to sidewalk will be short enough that other parents won’t have to mourn a child killed walking home from school. 

In the meantime, we’re lucky to have Graham Projects’ colorful, thoughtful, and sometimes wonderfully, collaboratively weird designs.

This story is from Issue 16: Collaboration, available here.

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