By Jay Watson
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began two years ago, many people have rediscovered the joy of spending time in the great outdoors. Not only is being in the sunshine and fresh air good for physical and mental health, it is a great way to gather with friends when socializing indoors is not safe.
A big challenge for New Jersey – a state with extremely diverse geography and populations – is making sure all residents have access to outdoor recreation in their communities, and are given a say in the development of facilities and programs funded with public dollars.
On Earth Day, April 22, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Shawn LaTourette launched a new Murphy administration initiative called Outside, Together! to increase public engagement and input.
Speaking at a ceremony in Secaucus, LaTourette signed an order creating an advisory committee to oversee the update of New Jersey’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP), a document that guides a multitude of land acquisition, park development and program decisions.
New Jersey’s SCORP must be updated every five years in order for the state to be eligible for federal grants, such as those awarded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Recreational Trails Program. Together, these grants account for $7 million to $8 million a year flowing into New Jersey and improving our economy and quality of life.
What is new about Outside, Together! is the emphasis on ensuring there will be green spaces in every neighborhood in this state we’re in. This is especially crucial in New Jersey’s cities and communities of color, where there has historically been less access to nature.
The development of the new outdoor recreation plan is exciting because the public will have a stronger voice than ever before. The DEP plans to elevate its engagement process to get meaningful, honest dialogue on what New Jersey residents want and need.
There is a growing realization that not every community wants and needs the same thing. We cannot expect that every child is going to want to go into the woods, walking along a stream and flipping rocks to find salamanders. Though many of us have come to nature in that way, it is not the only way.
For many communities, the best way to enjoy the outdoors might be through parks that serve as spots for neighbors and friends to mingle. There might be musical performances, poetry events and art festivals.
Residents may want community gardens where they can grow fresh fruits and veggies, and swap gardening tips with others. They might want more playgrounds to enjoy, and spray pads for cooling off on hot summer days.
Other communities might want more trails – not just the kind where you hike through the woods, but the kind where you can walk and bike through urban areas without having to dodge street traffic.
The soon-to-be-built Essex Hudson Greenway, which will stretch for nearly 9 miles from Jersey City to Montclair, is a great example of an urban trail that will enable a wide range of activities, from commuting to work by bike to visiting local shops and restaurants.
Another example is the Circuit Trails in the greater Camden-Philadelphia area, an interconnected network of trails that will total 800 miles when completed.
In Camden City, the Circuit Trails is working to link the Cooper River Greenway – including Gateway and Farnham parks – with the Delaware River Heritage Trail.
I am confident that once we get folks outdoors – in safe, quality spaces – they will feel at home. Nature has a way of seeping into our souls and the next generation of environmental leaders and activists will emerge. We can have climate resiliency and connections to nature in every neighborhood.
The first step is to ask people what projects and programs they want for themselves and their communities.
“We have to think as big as we can and get everyone to the table,” said DEP Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Dragon, who is in charge of the Outside, Together! initiative. “It’s open space and it’s for everyone.”
The six core principles for Outside, Together! are:
• Expanding high-quality open space and recreational opportunities for all New Jerseyans;
• Enhancing climate resilience and sustainability through acquisition and development;
• Empowering communities through investment in ecotourism and outdoor recreation;
• Embracing the role of technology in conservation and outdoor recreation;
• Furthering equity and environmental justice through outdoor recreation;
• Continuing the commitment to stewardship and the conservation and restoration of biodiversity.
What do you want in your town, your neighborhood, your community? Tell the Department of Environmental Protection.
Beginning this summer, multiple opportunities for public engagement will allow DEP to set priorities, determine action to optimize access to open space and parklands, and help ensure the state’s recreational investments are consistent with the Murphy administration’s environmental, climate, equity and economic goals.
To find out how you can participate, go to the Outside, Together! website at https://dep.nj.gov/outside-together/ or email your ideas to the DEP at Outside.firstname.lastname@example.org
We in New Jersey are incredibly fortunate to have one of the most successful and forward-thinking land preservation programs in the nation.
New Jersey is the most densely developed and densely populated state, yet we rank second – behind only Alaska – in the percentage of our land permanently dedicated to open space and recreation. Our challenge now is making sure all residents benefit equally from this bounty.
Jay Watson is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. He may be reached at email@example.com