In Urban Land We Trust

April 27, 2009

Michelle Knapik, Program Director, Environment

Camden waterfront

I had the privilege of joining the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF) board and staff for part of a weekend retreat that included a tour of conserved lands and targeted preservation parcels. We boarded vans with our cameras, binoculars, and high-powered scopes in tote – all for our tour of Camden – yes, Camden. While NJCF may be best know for protecting New Jersey’s wilderness areas and agricultural lands, it has been working on the land conservation puzzle in Camden since the mid 1980’s.

As the vans headed for New Camden Park, NJCF’s Manager of Science & Stewardship Dr. Emile DeVito said, “We can’t save the Pine Barrens if we don’t save our cities.”

camden-rowhouseOur first stop clearly highlighted the challenges and opportunities of working on open space preservation in urban areas. Chris Jage, NJCF’s Assistant Director for South Jersey, stood on the border of two properties and said, “This is a unique point from which we can talk about NJCF’s past and future.” He pointed in one direction and talked about a seven-acre urban forest filled with white mulberry trees that connects to the large linear Cooper River Park, which runs all the way into Pennsauken and Collingswood. Then he looked in the other direction and grabbed the corner post of a large chain link fence that surrounds a five-acre brownfield site known as the Solutia property (once owned by Monsanto). “This,” Chris declared, “is the future site of an urban farm.” It is also worth noting that these sites are essentially the backyard of several schools, including a new early education center (more on the model that inspired the urban farm later).

The next stop was the north waterfront where Tom Corcoran, head of Coopers Ferry Development Association, painted a picture of redevelopment that will reconnect Camden residents to their waterfront. Currently, the connection is limited.

Along the 15 miles of waterfront property in Camden, only 1.5 miles are accessible. When you view the North Camden and Cramer Hill neighborhoods from above, you see 150 acres of potential linear green space along the water and 150 acres of the distressed urban core. Thanks to public-private partnerships that have invested $500 million in this area, there have been some victories on the redevelopment front such as Adventure Aquarium, Campbell’s Field (home of the Camden River Sharks), and the Victor Lofts.


Camden mural art

Camden Greenways Inc. (CGI) has been a cheerleader for creating similar victories on the open space side of the coin, and a vital link in terms of incorporating neighborhood voices. Though CGI is a grassroots organization that has experienced some stops and starts, its new Executive Director, Eva Vlamis, seems to have the skill sets and energy to implement the CGI’s parks to people connections. Whether you talk to Tom Corcoran or Eva Vlamis, it is clear that they want and need NJCF at the table. As Tom said, “NJCF brings credibility to the land preservation process.”

View of North Camden from the Ben Franklin Bridge

View of North Camden from the Ben Franklin Bridge

After a congested ride across the Ben Franklin Bridge, we boarded the Captain Lucky boat near Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. We traveled the narrow channel between the North Camden and Cramer Hill neighborhoods and the 300-acre Petty’s Island (slated to become a wildlife refuge in 2018).

Today the tour is a mixed bag of industrial spoils that include brownfield sites, the 75-acre Cramer Hill landfill, and old ship paint stripping operations.

camden-waterfront1 camden-waterfront-2
Eva, however, helped us imagine the 2019 tour that starts with eagles soaring above the 38-acre Camden County Municipal Utilities site that is now the gateway to the Petty’s Island and ends with the vibrant open space where the Waterfront State Prison used to stand. We see bike riders of all ages (thanks to Rails-to-Trails advocacy in securing federal transportation funding for bikeways and parks), green jobs in high gear, recreational programming at the Salvation Army Kroc Community Center, and remediated brownfield sites (thanks to the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s Brownfields Office and dedicated government leaders like Frank McLaughlin who is on the ground in Camden).

A view toward Petty's Island

A view toward Petty’s Island

After we docked back on the Philly side of the Delaware River, we headed to Greensgrow to hear how Mary Seton Corboy transformed a vacant lot that once was the site of a galvanized steel plant into a famed model of urban agriculture. Their motto says it all – Greensgrow farms: Growers of food, flowers and neighborhoods. There are endless stories about this urban oasis, but I’ll let a few pictures tell the story and then ask you to think back to that 5-acre brownfield in Camden.



For this transformation, we do not have to wait until 2019, this is Camden 2011. Teachers, students and their parents move between school and farm all year long; the school kitchens become processing centers for local food; cafeteria cooking grease is converted into biodiesel; and food waste is composted on the farm. This is a time when NJCF celebrates a twenty-plus year-old vision of urban land conservation that brings people back to the land – in Camden.