Located on the banks of the Passaic River approximately five miles west of Manhattan, Newark is New Jersey’s largest city, and today is home to over a quarter million people – about one-third of the entire population of Essex County. The City’s poverty and unemployment rates are two to three times the County and State averages, and Newark struggles with intense urban pressures as it works to improve, invest in, and rebuild its community. The City’s current challenges come in large part from a much more glorious past. The City of Newark was once an industrial gem in New Jersey’s crown – the most important industrial city in the State through most of the 19th century! At the time of the Civil War, when Lincoln founded the Land Grant College system, Newark was manufacturing 90% of America’s patent leather and had a larger percentage of its population engaged in manufacturing (almost 75%) than any other city in the country.
However, Newark’s industrial prowess came at a high environmental cost. Human and animal wastes created major public health crises in the city, and industrial wastes polluted the Passaic River, Newark’s primary water source. NJ’s industrial decline and the suburbanization that occurred after World War II left Newark with more than 700 acres of largely abandoned and underutilized public and private properties. Many of the properties are known or suspected to be contaminated from their former industrial and manufacturing activities. Newark’s residents are still paying the price today for the City’s mighty industrial past, in the form of brownfield sites that lay like gaping holes in what should be a vibrant urban landscape. These barren landscapes range from small scattered lots located in residential neighborhoods to large tracts of vacant industrial land in the port and waterfront areas. Returning these properties to productive use is critical in bringing prosperity and a healthy quality of life back to Newark and its residents.
“Greening” of abandoned lots can serve as the catalyst to transform neighborhoods. However, creating a green oasis in the middle of an urban environment is a challenge, especially because a reliable source of water is required to support the green infrastructure. Local officials, the Greater Newark Conservancy, and the Rutgers Water Resources team recognized both the challenges and the opportunities presented by “greening” Newark’s vacant lots. This team submitted an application to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and was awarded one of the first Environmental Justice grants under the 319(h) grant program. The Environmental Justice category is a new addition to the 319(h) funding program, and it seeks to provide funds to communities that have historically been exposed to a disproportionate amount of industrial pollution. Fair Environmental Justice treatment means no racial or socioeconomic group should bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences as a result of industrial or municipal decisions – a category that Newark certainly fulfills.
Supported by the Essex/Passaic County Environmental Agent Amy Rowe, the partner’s approach is to develop designs that transform vacant abandoned lots into community green spaces. The project also focuses on providing educational opportunities for Newark’s school children, as well as green job training for adults in the community. Rutgers Cooperative Extension and the Greater Newark Conservancy are collaborating to develop educational and job training programs that emphasize the importance of managing stormwater runoff throughout the City. This hands-on approach will given local residents the opportunity to create community gardens and pocket parks, while learning stormwater best management practices (BMPs) to capture, treat, reuse, and infiltrate urban stormwater runoff. By capturing runoff and reducing the volume of water that reaches the sewer system, overflows of untreated sewage will occur less frequently. All these steps result in a healthier City and healthier environment.
One transformational site in the City of Newark is in the Central Ward at 298 Sussex Avenue, a 2,500 square-foot vacant lot that is being cleaned, managed and converted into a community green space by the Greater Newark Conservancy through its Clean and Green Communities Program, which helps individuals returning to the community from being incarcerated learn new skills and to rejoin their community.
The Conservancy has cleaned the site, removed existing debris and spread woodchips over the entire property to help manage weedy growth while plans for a community garden are developed. This spring 10 small garden boxes and two compost bins were built. The boxes provided an opportunity to gauge local interest in having a community garden, and to begin building connections with local leaders to adopt the site as a community green space. The formal design is now being prepared to expand the garden areas, construct a rain water harvesting system, and construct a rain garden with native plantings to capture, treat, reuse, and infiltrate stormwater as part of this project. For the garden to be sustainable the biggest challenge is to have a reliable water source onsite.
The lot is relatively flat, slopes gently toward the street, and is surrounded on three sides by residential buildings. This section of Newark uses a combined sewer system that transports both sewage and stormwater to the wastewater treatment plant. When it rains, the heavy volume of stormwater running off roadways, sidewalks, roof drains and parking areas flows into the sewer, where the rain mixes with raw sewage. During heavy rainfalls, the combined stormwater and wastewater overwhelm the whole system, causing overflows that release untreated sewage into streets, properties, and nearby waterways.
The plan will create a 100 square-foot rain garden near the front of the lot, adjacent to the sidewalk along Sussex Avenue. The rain garden will capture and infiltrate runoff from the property and the surrounding impervious surfaces, and this will reduce the volume of rainwater that enters storm drains. A cistern that can hold 2,500 gallons of water will be built at the rear of the lot and downspouts from the four adjacent buildings will be redirected to the cistern, allowing the water to be captured. A total of 15 raised garden beds will be built to create gardening opportunities for neighborhood residents and school children. Partnerships with the neighboring Sussex Avenue and Newark Christian schools will give students a hands-on opportunity to learn about urban stormwater and urban gardening opportunities. Construction of mulch pathways, seating areas, and beautiful plantings will give residents easy access to the community garden. Workbenches, chairs, and tables will be installed so local residents and students can work and relax in this pocket garden park.
Community members and residents have been invited to participate in reviewing and finalizing design plans for the Sussex Avenue Community Garden on November 17th – but all are welcome to join us. On November 18th, the partners will lead a training session for the Clean and Green Team members as part of the Rain Garden installation activities.
Many of the challenges faced by New Jersey’s communities as they work to revitalize and rebuild can be traced to the neglect of environmental problems in the oldest urban centers of the State. The Newark 319(h) Environmental Justice Project provides an opportunity to create and establish a “greening” program that can make a difference in the quality of life for the residents of the City of Newark, and the project partners are dedicated to the success of this venture! The time has come when actions must be taken that will bring environmental justice for all the State’s residents, not only in the City of Newark, but throughout New Jersey’s urban core.
You can follow the progress of this project on the CUES website.
For more information on Rutgers Cooperative Extension urban-suburban initiatives in Passaic/Essex Counties please contact the Environmental & Natural Resource County Agent, Amy Rowe (ROWE@AESOP.Rutgers.edu).
For information about CUES activities throughout New Jersey or to support for an urban-suburban environmental initiative please contact Dr. Beth Ravit (firstname.lastname@example.org).