It’s no secret that families in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood shoulder an undue burden stemming from impacts of centuries of industrial and economic growth focused in the community.
Every day, parents worry how to keep their children healthy despite well-documented lead exposure, air pollution, and contaminated waterways — problems that require lengthy environmental study and complicated solutions.
A lesser known threat — and one that we can solve together in the Ironbound and other communities — is a severe lack of parks, playgrounds, and green spaces that negatively impact rates of obesity, diabetes, depression and other ills. New outdoor play spaces do not require years of environmental study, and creating them can be community-building opportunities for kids, families, and neighborhoods.
At Lafayette Street School in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, young students from two classrooms are working with The Trust for Public Land and a landscape architect to help plan a desperately needed new playground and outdoor learning space for the school’s 1,100 students.
When the playground is completed, it will offer a rare resource in the Ironbound — a green playground where kids can get healthy and learn about nature. After hours, the playground will double as a community park in a neighborhood where green space is exceedingly rare.
Across New Jersey there are too many neighborhoods that, like the Ironbound, lack the parks and open space people need to get and stay healthy, experience nature, and forge the social bonds so important for community well-being. Finding places to create new parks in built-up cities can be tough, and raising money for them can often be a challenge. But creative ways can be found to build parks for healthier communities.
One key to developing high quality parks and outdoor spaces is to forge cooperation between city agencies, nonprofits, neighborhood groups, foundations, and other private funders. Nonprofits can pull together partnerships, raise funds, and coordinate park creation. With creative thinking, new, and sometimes unlikely, park sites can be found —paved-over schoolyards being a great example. To create successful parks that truly meet the needs of park users, neighborhood residents must be involved early, often, and deeply in planning — like those students at Lafayette Street School.
“Well-planned parks promote neighborhood cohesion and community-building. Enriched with arts and cultural elements, good parks express community identity. They are where neighbors come together. And the very act of helping plan and create a park can give residents a sense of empowerment to shape their environment and generate other civic improvements.”
Using this approach, the Trust for Public Land has worked with public agencies, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and other funders, and community stakeholders in some of Newark’s most vulnerable neighborhoods to create and refurbish parks and green space, including seven asphalt schoolyards converted to playgrounds.
Recent years have also seen the redesign of Newark’s Jesse Allen Park, the creation of Nat Turner Park in the city’s Central Ward and the development of Newark Riverfront Park on a former industrial brownfield along the Passaic River. In all, 96,000 Newark residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park we’ve helped to create or transform.
This work is important in many ways. Just last month, the National Park Service’s Parks RX Day highlighted the growing movement of physicians prescribing time in parks and nature for health and healing. Parks and greenways also support environmental health in a time of climate change, cooling the air, absorbing and cleaning stormwater, buffering communities from flooding, and serving as bike and walking routes for carbon-free transportation.
Additionally — and crucially — well-planned parks promote neighborhood cohesion and community-building. Enriched with arts and cultural elements, good parks express community identity. They are where neighbors come together. And the very act of helping plan and create a park can give residents a sense of empowerment to shape their environment and generate other civic improvements.
There is now a vital need to expand this work to more Newark neighborhoods, across New Jersey, and beyond. Nationally The Trust for Public Land has launched an effort to encourage cities nationwide to adopt a standard that every resident should be within a 10-minute walk of a park. As the nation’s most densely populated state, New Jersey’s cities should be at the forefront of this movement.
Park-building is tough work. But when government, funders, nonprofits, and — most importantly — neighborhood residents work together, we can create the parks people and communities need for health and an improved quality of life.
And even the planning can be fun. Just ask those kids at Lafayette Street School.
Anthony Cucchi is the New Jersey state director of The Trust for Public Land. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In New Jersey, the organization’s land conservation and urban park development efforts have always focused on protecting and creating the places that make our communities more livable. Whether helping residents of tiny Andover Borough stave off an ill-thought-out development, protecting the watershed of Barnegat Bay, or completing the landmark Newark Riverfront Park in our largest city, the diversity of the TPL’s work matches that of the Garden State. To learn more, visit the Trust for Public Land’s New Jersey website.
All photos are courtesy of The Trust for Public Land.