Newark is one of those cities that has always been dogged by a host of urban ills – crime, corruption, poverty, and pollution, to name but a few. For decades, the Passaic River that borders the city served as a massive dumping ground for industrial waste and offered no waterfront to speak of, let alone enjoy.

But now, says Stephanie Greenwood, Newark’s Sustainability Director, “this beautiful new park will allow the residents of Newark to reconnect with this great natural resource that is the river in a completely different way.”

“Thirty years of struggle for environmental justice in Newark have taken form as an orange recycled plastic boardwalk along the Passaic, part of a park made from well-planted slopes, wide paths, and storytelling signs about how the park came to be,” says Damon Rich of the Planning Division. “As Newarkers continue to demand a healthy and accessible environment for their families and neighbors, this park serves as proof that the arc of the universe bends as Dr. Martin Luther King described.”

The construction of Riverfront Park – an expanse of greenery built on land that was once derelict, with a bright orange boardwalk along the water – is one more step in Newark’s ongoing endeavor to reinvigorate, recharge, and rebuild the city for a clean, green, and healthy future. Led by the Office of Sustainability, the task at hand is gargantuan, Greenwood says, and one that won’t be easy to accomplish, but it is something that the citizens of Newark – from Mayor Cory Booker, who recently won the Democratic primary nomination to the US Senate for New Jersey, down to the people on the streets – are deeply committed to and hell-bent on realizing.

The Newark Riverfront Park Plan; photo by the Sustainability Organisation Newark
The Newark Riverfront Park is part of a larger redevelopment and re-zoning plan for the Passaic River that provides public access and responds to public input from thousands of Newarkers; photo: Newark Riverfront Revival

“Newark has always been associated with waste,” Greenwood says. “We have the biggest scrap metal companies in the world here, lots of waste material passing through, illegal dumping, trash, and litter plus all the environmental problems that go with those. But there is also a tremendous amount of pride in the city, and Newark is full of people who want it to be the great place that it can be, who no longer want it to be someone’s junkyard, but an engine of clean, green, and sustainable economic growth.”

Greenwood is Newark’s second dedicated sustainability officer and she has high hopes for the realization of Newark’s goals, particularly since the overall policy framework for sustainability focuses on improving the quality of life for all of Newark’s residents.

“Our program is not a Green Boutique-style program: It is not about only developing downtown Newark, but about expanding opportunities and access to health and a better environment for everyone in all neighborhoods and making sure that people who have been lifelong residents of Newark are a part of this,” she says.

In that regard, improving air quality is high on the list as Newark’s elevated pollution levels have resulted in widespread asthma and other respiratory ailments among its residents. Waste and trash clean-up and management are also a huge part of the project and, according to Greenwood, an area that offers tremendous opportunity to find innovative ways to pull materials out of Newark’s waste stream and reuse them in interesting ways.

“We have adopted a zero-waste goal and one of our most exciting strategies is to promote recycling businesses by new entrepreneurs that take this waste and turn it into new manufacturing jobs,” she adds.

A heavily urban city, only 15 percent of Newark is covered by tree canopy, so moving concrete and putting in more trees through landscaping and encouraging people to plant their own is a huge part of the project, as is promoting green construction and weather-proofing homes to make them more energy efficient.

Finally, increasing peoples’ access to healthy food, by bringing in more supermarkets to Newark and encouraging urban farms and community gardens, is also an important component of the project.

There is a lot of work to be done, Greenwood states, and steps to ensure Newark’s green future will not happen overnight. However, “there is a lot of community feeling about this and what’s been most rewarding is talking to people about their ideas for Newark and the kind of place they want it to be, for themselves and their kids,” she says. “It’s really energizing to see what people want, not what they are up against.”

Text: Savita Iyer-Ahrestani
Header image: Young people help beautify Mildred Helms Park in Newark’s South Ward; photo credit: Trust for Public Land