Urban Solutions Are Just a Call Away

November 8, 2010

Introduction by Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director

Last year, the team from the Center for Urban Environmental Sustainability (CUES) at Rutgers asked Dodge to provide a bit of seed funding to help support their vision for an expanded University Extension Program (i.e., outreach, research and educational services designed to be of practical value to residents). While Rutgers has one of the oldest and most well regarded Ag Extension Services in the country, the CUES faculty wrestled with changing conditions and demographics in New Jersey. Given that NJ is now the most densely populated state in the nation, one in which rural, suburban and urban lines can be blurred into one big metro region, the CUES team wanted Extension Services that would be relevant to all New Jerseyans. The result is a pilot program of Environmental County Agents who apply creative solutions that meet the sustainability test of addressing integrated environmental, economic and social justice goals.

Yes, farmers and county and town officials are still able to call the County Ag agents at Cook College, but now, Environmental Commissions, Sustainable Jersey Green Team members, town engineers and planners, and school officials can call Environmental County Agents to help with water resource (e.g., stormwater management challenges), urban infrastructure, and landscape rehabilitation issues. There is now one county agent per every two urbanized areas in the state (Morris/Somerset, Camden/Burlington, Passaic/Essex, Union/Middlesex).

The CUES team is leveraging federal and state funds (and a seed grant from Dodge) to support the growth of this innovative program. In this new guest blog series from CUES, we will hear stories about ways in which the new Environmental County Agents are providing technical assistance and building community capacity to generate solutions to pressing urban environmental issues in New Jersey, but first we hear from the CUES team to get some historical perspective and an overview of the Center’s work.

Kearny Marsh ditch, Kearny,      NJ

By Dr. Beth Ravit, Dr Wolfram Hoefer,
Dr. Christopher Obropta, and Jeremiah Bergstrom

Imagine yourself as Abraham Lincoln. In your own presidential way, you are trying to help students who cannot afford to go to the existing colleges and universities figure out a way to get a higher education—if not in the traditional, textbook, general education way, then through a new way—a more practical approach. Lincoln signed the law that created a uniquely American system known as the Land Grant University. Under this system, states would be “granted” random parcels of land to sell to acquire funds needed to build a school that would provide “a liberal and practical education for the industrial class” —hence the Land Grant Colleges established through the Morrill Act signed by President Lincoln in 1862. So, the state of New Jersey sold off its parcel of land, oddly enough located in Utah, and in 1864, the Rutgers Scientific School was created, just edging out cross-state rival Princeton, and the college began instructing students in the practical issues of New Jersey.

At that time, the education that students received was primarily concerned with agriculture and engineering. It was said at the time by Abraham Browning of Camden that the state of New Jersey, the “Garden State,” was like an immense barrel filled with good things to eat and open at both ends, facing both New York and Philadelphia. Students got to study questions ranging from blueberries, cranberries and beautiful crops in southern Jersey to the industry that was dominant in the northern regions of the state. Over time the Land Grant College developed a three pronged attack to address these issues. The college itself offered a more traditional education approach, while the Agricultural Experiment Station was responsible for leading research, and the Agriculture Extension Service placed “County Agent” educators in a very hands-on role out in their communities.

Fast forward one hundred and thirty years.

Jersey City Reservoir

Although New Jersey is still called the “Garden State,” parts of it are anything but a lush, ripe garden ready to supply the East Coast with its plentiful bounty. Our Garden State is now projected to be the first fully ‘built –out’ state by 2050, and we are the first state to have all our residents living in metropolitan areas, as classified by the US Census. Our state ranks 46th in terms of size, but we’re # 1 in terms of population density, with an average of over 1, 100 people per square mile—14 times the national average! Any and all of these ‘accomplishments’ are individually a dubious distinction, but combined they are staggering to imagine. Our state has lost its rustic, agricultural landscape, and is now dominated by houses and suburbs, athletic complexes, warehouses, refineries, roads and highways, and big box shopping centers.

NJ Turnpike

Today, New Jersey is in the process of transitioning from the manufacturing and farming communities that survived the Industrial Revolution into a vast array of communities that combine cultures, religions, and economic levels. We are working to repair many of the mistakes that were made in the past with respect to urban growth, while trying to protect the quality and integrity of the State’s current and future population and environmental resources. Residents are now dealing with issues as diverse and localized as contaminated soils, endangered species, open space preservation, providing mass transportation, stormwater management, “green” energy sources and the effects of global warming on our little peninsula (yes, New Jersey is a peninsula, bounded on three sides by water). Each of these issues by itself is daunting, and the entire list is staggering! People are beginning to look to the Land Grant College, created over a century ago, to help them address environmental questions through education, research, and the grass roots Agents that are still serving in the trenches of their communities.

Fortunately the full mission laid down for the Land Grant College of New Jersey was to help residents tackle environmental, natural resource, and community issues. In the College’s evolution, the approach is being taken that more ideas are better than one, and it now embraces not only Agricultural Agents, but also the new Environment and Natural Resource County agents, urban planners, landscape architects, scientists, and engineers to tackle environmental issues that rarely respond to a one-dimension solution. It will take a community of educators and researchers and that is how the College is adapting. These educators, researchers and practitioners truly believe and embrace the idea that they have been called to support New Jersey’s environmental and natural resources, as well as our urban and suburban communities. This collaboration has resulted in the creation of the Center for Urban Environmental Sustainability (CUES) and is fully supported by the Rutgers Departments of Environmental Sciences and Landscape Architecture & Design. We have certainly come a long way from Abraham Lincoln’s vision for the program!

Obropta building rain gardens

We view the mission of CUES as providing technical support for our County Extension Agents out in the trenches as well as local municipalities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to address New Jersey’s environmental problems and contribute to the State’s long-term sustainability. In April, CUES brought together elected officials, the NGO community, Environmental and Natural Resource County Agents, and Rutgers faculty members who are working on urban-suburban issues in New Jersey.

The participants gathered for a daylong discussion to begin identifying the issues New Jersey is facing as it works through the coming transformation and begins to implement steps towards a sustainable future. The Shaping the ‘City’ of New Jersey Conference, funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, was held on Rutgers’ Cook Campus. Conference attendees actively participated and contributed to the success of this gathering – identifying ways that CUES and the State’s Land Grant College can support their activities at the municipal, regional, and state level (for a recap of the Conference please visit the CUES website.

CUES Conference poster

The enthusiasm generated in the room during the CUES Conference was palpable, and convinced us that providing support to urban-suburban communities throughout New Jersey was desperately needed – especially as local groups struggle to find financial resources and technical guidance and direction on complex environmental issues! CUES has just begun this very exciting journey, and we have already had the opportunity to work on projects all over New Jersey. Along the way we have met terrific individuals – working as both public servants and through non-profit organizations. We deeply appreciate the opportunity provided by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to introduce you to some of these people and their projects, which we’ll be sharing with you in the next month on this blog. You’ll hear about the 46-acre EcoArt Park and Wetland Restoration in Teaneck, NJ; the Hackensack Riverkeeper Green Roof demonstration project; the Rain Garden Program in Holmdel, NJ; the Newark, NJ Community Garden and Rainwater Harvesting Project funded by an Environmental Justice Grant from the State; and the Camden Green Infrastructure Initiative. We hope you find these individuals, organizations and their work as inspiring as we do!

We also hope you will reach out to us so we can support your initiative! To become a member of our email database or for additional information about CUES please contact:

Dr. Beth Ravit
Department of Environmental Sciences
School of Environmental & Biological Sciences
Rutgers University
14 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, NJ
P: 732-932-9800 ext. 6210
Email: ravit@envsci.rutgers.edu

Dr. Wolfram Hoefer
Department of Landscape Architecture & Design
School of Environmental & Biological Sciences
Rutgers University
93 Lipman Drive, New Brunswick, NJ
P: 732-932-9313
Email: whoefer@sebs.rutgers.edu

Dr. Christopher Obropta, P.E.
Department of Environmental Sciences
School of Environmental & Biological Sciences
Rutgers University
14 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, NJ
P: 732-932-9800, ext. 6209
Email: Obropta@envsci.rutgers.edu

Jeremiah Bergstrom, LLA, ASLA,
Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program
14 College Farm Road, New Brunswick, NJ
P: 732-932-9800 ext. 6126
Email: jbergstrom@envsci.rutgers.edu

And for information about the latest programs and resources, see CUES’ November 2010 issue of its Green Knight newsletter, produced by its Environmental County Agents.

Images courtesy of CUES

This series continues next Monday.