Dodge Road Trip: Exploring an Urban Oasis with NJ Tree Foundation

Dodge Road Trip

If you know where to look, there are hidden treasures blossoming in Camden.

That’s what I learned on a summer visit with the New Jersey Tree Foundation‘s Lisa Simms and Jessica Franzini while tagging along with Margaret Waldock, Dodge’s Environment program director.

Simms, executive director, and Franzini, a senior program director, led us on a tour of the neighborhoods in Camden where the NJ Tree Foundation and residents have been planting trees and rain gardens to fill in losses to its tree canopy over the years.

The significant loss of trees takes its toll in the city in troubling ways — higher street temperatures, increased flooding and severe loss of natural spaces. By engaging locals in Camden in urban forestry and stewardship, the Simms, Franzini and the staff hope to reverse this trend.

Situated between two waterways — the Delaware River to the west and the Cooper River in the northeast — Camden was once a hub of manufacturing and industrial growth.

The city’s population peaked at about 125,000 people in the 1950s. Census records indicate that more than 36,000 workers were employed within the city for major manufacturers such as RCA Victor and the New York Shipbuilding Corporation.

Today, the population has dropped to 79,000 people. Campbell Soup Company’s international headquarters is still located in the city, but soup is no longer produced.

Ferry Ave Orchard

Ferry Ave Orchard

We began the tour at the Ferry Avenue Orchard, located near Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority’s wastewater treatment plant in the southwestern corner of the city. Set back from a busy road grows a variety of fruit trees laden with fruit, their roots growing strong here for 10 years.

Heading toward Lanning Square, markers of a city that has seen better days were everywhere — some blocks were fully inhabited with tree-lined streets while others were dotted with vacant lots and windowless buildings. Through open car windows radio hits on Latino and black stations rang out. The feeling reminded me of driving through urban communities in North Jersey that are more familiar to me.

As the car neared Royden Street, Simms explained that a local resident had approached the organization about 10 years ago hoping to have trees planted on this street. He wanted it to look nicer and feel safer for when his children came to visit, she recalled. Simms explained to him that the trees would need care just like other plants. More specifically, he and his neighbors would have to commit to caring for the trees for at least three years. So, he organized and gathered his neighbors to make the planting happen.

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For the next few hours, Simms and Franzini recounted numerous stories of how they first connected with residents to plant trees. From school principals, small business owners and parolees, Simms and Franzini have laid the groundwork for a welcoming culture for anyone interested in planting and caring for trees in their neighborhood to bloom.

While trees make the local streets look good, they also serve another function – they can help reduce localized flooding.

Von Neida Park

Von Neida Park

At Von Neida Park, NJ Tree Foundation planted 150 trees — the organization’s largest community planting to date. This park flooded regularly during routine rain storms due to the inadequate capacity of the combined sewer systems and low ground elevations, making the park inaccessible to the surrounding Cramer Hill community. To mitigate the problem, they “daylighted” an underground stream — uncovering a previously paved over and filled in tributary and wetland area. By using a what environment groups and planners call a “green infrastructure intervention” in this park instead of hard concrete solution, this community gets a chance to reconnect with nature.

People relaxing in the Roosevelt Plaza-Pop-Up Park

People relaxing in the Roosevelt Plaza-Pop-Up Park

Next we headed to the Roosevelt Plaza Pop-Up Park in front of City Hall, a plaza transformed from what you might expect an ordinary city hall plaza might look like into a bustling hub with seating, canopies, lounge chairs and an interactive water installation.

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Our final destination took us back to the downtown area to visit the Cooper Sprouts – Tree of Hope and Rain Garden. Together with members of the Camden SMART initiative, this area was identified as a place suffering from localized flooding and blight.

Although a community garden already existed, Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program identified the vacant lot next to it as a prime place to install green infrastructure to mitigate stormwater runoff. The intervention resulted in the installation of porous sidewalks that absorb rain water and prevent it from running off into the roadway too quickly.

NJ Tree Foundation’s green street team installed a rain garden and planted various trees including a striking willow tree, fondly named the Tree of Hope. Simms and Franzini explained that the tree was chosen by the garden’s founder, Shelia Roberts, a woman with a fierce commitment to greening her community and creating a place for people to gather and connect. Planted five years ago, the tree has grown tremendously just as Roberts had intended. On the hot day we visited, it was refreshing to find refuge from the sun underneath its canopy.

To see the various green infrastructure installations and trees that NJ Tree Foundation and residents planted over the past ten years is a reminder that long-term change happens from the inside out. If the NJ Tree Foundation team had tried to plant trees without engaging local residents, those trees would not thrive.

Further, the long-term relationships Simms and Franzini have developed with nonprofit partners such as Coopers Ferry, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, Camden Collaborative and the Camden SMART team enable them to share their tree care knowledge with a larger community.

Yes, Camden is a city with numerous challenges but this visit is a testament that community members planting trees together seeds hope and neighborhood revitalization.

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