Sustainable Jersey: Identifying local strengths to build sustainable communities

February 4, 2019

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Every community has a different set of needs and challenges. For busy municipalities, it’s hard to slow down, stop and assess. Successful towns and green teams make time to do the important work of figuring out their local strengths, or “the assets,” of the community. Community asset mapping and needs assessments provide a critical element of community sustainability planning – the engagement of people in the shaping of their community.

Asset identification helps members of the community understand what resources are currently being used to support a sustainable economy, support the environment, or promote social equity in the community. By reflecting back on this starting point, communities can identify gaps as well as understand opportunities to link, leverage, expand or create new programs and activities that support a sustainable future. We provide examples from five municipalities working to create a more sustainable New Jersey.

Community Asset Mapping in Manville Borough (Somerset County)

The first Sustainable Jersey action that Sustainable Manville set out to accomplish when starting the Sustainable Jersey certification process was Community Asset Mapping. Asset mapping is a participatory process that allows local decision makers and residents to focus on what is positive about a community as a base for development. Building off existing assets can be a more cost-effective approach to planning and community development, and can increase success through the establishment of new partnerships.

To gather data for the asset maps, the borough used focus groups and then filled the gaps with interviews and a desktop analysis. Manville residents and decision-makers participated in the focus group meetings hosted by the Manville Public Library. Assets were grouped into four categories: physical, economic, community and natural. This analysis also identified gaps in these areas, which provided a foundation for future projects.

The Manville Community Asset Mapping Report was prepared with the assistance of The Nature Conservancy, the Manville Public Library and the Administration of the Borough of Manville. The report and asset mapping process helped the town leverage the borough’s many existing assets as they worked toward a vision for a healthy, more sustainable future. After completing the report in August 2017, Manville Borough achieved bronze-level certification with Sustainable Jersey in 2018 and was recognized with the 2018 Sustainable Jersey Rookie of the Year Award.

Hightstown Borough Develops a Public Art Master Plan (Mercer County)

Creativity tends to flourish when and where it is supported. The leaders of Hightstown Borough realized that increasing access and exposure to arts and culture would increase the borough’s vitality and economic future, so they established the Hightstown Cultural Arts Commission to encourage artistic awareness, participation, and expression. The 13-member commission held regular meetings to develop a Public Art Master Plan. Input was gathered through an online survey and a consensus building and outreach program with the residents.

Ann Marie Miller, chair of the Hightstown Cultural Arts Commission explained, “Art that is public is free and accessible to everyone. It is a gift to ourselves that creates a better understanding of where we live, work and visit, and instills pride in the values we cherish as residents of Hightstown.” The Public Art Master Plan was adopted by the Hightstown’s Planning Board as part of the Borough’s Municipal Master Plan. Included in the plan is a requirement that a percentage of all redevelopment efforts be dedicated to the inclusion of public art.

By supporting the interests of creative people, municipalities can attract and retain more of the energy that helps them become sustainable and adaptable. Over the past two years, the Cultural Arts Commission has worked with the greater community to establish pop-up art galleries throughout the borough and dramatic arts and theater performances with children of all ages at the local parks. On March 23, 2019, the Hightstown Cultural Arts Commission, in partnership with Peddie School, will host the 4th annual Empty Bowls, a community dinner supplied by local restaurants and served in handmade bowls to help relieve hunger.  Hightstown Borough is certified with Sustainable Jersey at the silver-level and received the 2018 Sustainable Jersey Creativity and Innovation Award in recognition of their work to support a creative community.

Tri-Town 55+ Coalition Focuses on Older Adults in Chatham Borough, Chatham Township and Madison Borough (Morris County)

In 2016, the Tri-Town 55+ Coalition was formed as a community-based organization that includes Chatham Borough, Chatham Township and Madison Borough in addition to local businesses, non-profits and other public agencies. Their mission is to help address the quality of life, diverse needs, and interests of older adults and their families in the three towns.

With the help of Montclair State University, an extensive needs assessment survey was completed in Chatham Borough, Chatham Township and Madison. The needs assessment helped to identify the primary concerns of older adults and their families. Participants engaged in focus groups and community forums to share their thoughts for solving the community’s challenges. Survey and focus group participants were asked to name the people, places, and things that they consider assets of the community and identify the most positive things about living in their town as they grow older. Transportation was identified as one of the top areas of need among the residents of the three communities.

One of the first key initiatives implemented by the Tri-Town 55+ Coalition is its Rides for Seniors Program. The goal is to help those 65 and older in the towns get to where they want to go, when they want to go, without a smartphone. This on-demand car service program not only serves residents but helps local organizations and businesses by enabling older adults to remain active in the community.

Madison Mayor Robert Conley said, “The partnership started with a very successful Rides for Seniors Program which now has over 350 registered riders and has provided 2,800 rides since April 2017. The Tri-Town 55+ Coalition is improving our communities through a dedicated design strategy for life long living for seniors.”  Chatham Borough, Chatham Township and Madison Borough are certified with Sustainable Jersey and together received the 2018 Sustainable Jersey Collaboration Award for their participation working with the Tri-Town 55+ Coalition.

Sustainable Jersey Webinar

One way that local governments can communicate and engage with the public is through the use of technology. If you are interested in having a better understanding of the tech tools available, register for Sustainable Jersey’s webinar: Foundations for Using Technology Effectively in Your Town.

This free webinar takes place on Feb. 27 at 1 p.m.: Webinar Registration.