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Let’s take parks and recreation to New Jersey's urban communities | Opinion

Tobias A. Fox and Ed Potosnak Special to the USA TODAY 

In 2020, during the COVID-19 outbreak, many people experienced the outdoors and open space as a refuge, offering fresh air, exercise, and relaxation. Nearly 40 years of research provides evidence that confirms nearby nature, including parks, gardens, forest and green spaces, support human health and wellness.

Unfortunately, not every community has access to open space and the benefits of a walk through the park. People of color are far less likely to engage in or have access to nature-based outdoor recreation activities, with historic discrimination being a large underlying factor. 

Throughout history, parks in the United States have been conceptualized, created, and managed by white men who held racist beliefs. John Muir, who is credited with the creation of the National Park System, was recently admonished for his long history of racism by the Sierra Club, an organization that he founded.

People of color often feel unsafe in certain parks and open spaces and fear they will be confronted by someone who doesn’t believe they belong there. This type of harassment made headlines last year when a white dog owner called the police on a Black birdwatcher in New York when he asked her to follow park rules. We need to change this dynamic because everyone should have a right to enjoy open space and the benefits of nature no matter who they are or their zip code. 

There are several ideas we believe could help bridge the gap between low-income and communities of color with the natural world and nature.  They would bring open space and other amenities to communities of color so they can enjoy the health and wellness benefits of nature just like other, mostly white, neighborhoods.

First, we are extremely excited about the proposed Essex-Hudson Greenway Project. This development, which would create a nine-mile, 135-acre linear park in Northern New Jersey, spanning Essex and Hudson counties, would offer a range of activities including walking, biking, running, and birding. This nature trail could also set the stage for enhanced local economic activity as well as transportation, health and wellness, and environmental improvements.

We urge Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to move forward with purchasing the land to advance this much needed project. The health and wellness benefits would be immeasurable, and the Greenway fits right in with the Governor’s plans for a better and fairer New Jersey for all.

Another idea is the establishment of urban farms. This is an area that needs immediate attention in communities of color due to the lack of healthy and nutritious food sources. We support the creation of more urban farms, which would encourage local farmers to grow nutritious food and make it readily available to residents in their communities. Urban farming also offers local farmers another source of revenue and fosters green space expansion in urban areas, which can help mitigate the effects of climate change.

A great example of urban farming is a program in Newark titled “Adopt a Lot,” where local residents and organizations convert empty impervious lots into sustainable green spaces that can be used to grow local healthy foods, create parks and promote environmental education for youth. Initiatives like these are helping transform Newark into a more sustainable and greener place for residents. We’d like to see more urban farming programs throughout the state of New Jersey, especially in communities that are currently considered “food deserts” that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food.

Open space for recreation and urban farming can provide long-term benefits to communities in New Jersey that have been neglected. We look forward to working with elected officials and partnering with local communities to adopt common-sense approaches to create more open spaces and parks and expanding urban farming to improve mental and physical health, provide more nutritious food, create economic benefits, and mitigate climate change.

Ed Potosnak is a board member of NJ Keep It Green), which is an active coalition of more than 150 statewide, local, and regional organizations committed to land conservation, agriculture, historic preservation, environmental protection, urban parks, hunting and fishing, and other forms of outdoor recreation. He is also the Executive Director of New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

Tobias A. Fox is Founder and Managing Director of Newark Science and Sustainability, Inc. a nonprofit organization based in Newark, New Jersey that implements various initiatives to increase awareness of environmental, ecological, and wellness issues through educational programs and hands-on activities, such as creating community gardens and urban farms. He is also a Newark NAACP 2014 Environmental Justice Honoree and in 2017 selected by peers for outstanding contributions to the Newark community to be part of the 100 People of Newark.