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The State We’re In: The power of parks to help with climate change

By Tom Gilbert, Co-Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Parks go a long way toward improving quality of life in New Jersey, especially in cities where asphalt and concrete dominate.

Parks offer something for everyone: playgrounds and splash pads for kids, ballfields and trails for those who want exercise, community spaces for events like concerts and farmers markets, as well as quiet places to enjoy nature and escape the bustle of urban life.

But that’s not all parks do. Did you know that they can also provide vital defenses against the impacts of climate change?

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit that creates parks and protects land, recently released a special report, “The Power of Parks to Address Climate Change.”

The report makes the case that urban parks and schoolyards are uniquely positioned to help mitigate the impacts of climate change, such as dangerous heat and flooding. But achieving these goals takes planning and investment.

“Communities are struggling with real threats from the climate crisis, like flooding and extreme heat,” says Diane Regas, president and CEO of TPL. “And areas with the least amount of park space, namely communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, suffer the most. The good news is we have the tools to counter some of the worst impacts of climate change by using our public parks and schoolyards.”

One relatively easy improvement is to plant more trees. Trees soak up and filter rainwater, cool the surrounding air temperature, provide shade, sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and emit oxygen.

Another climate change strategy is adding “green infrastructure” features to capture and filter runoff from heavy rains to help prevent flooding. These include water detention basins, rain gardens and “bioswales” – vegetated channels that hold and filter runoff.

The TPL report on climate change grew out of the organization’s annual ParkScore index comparing parks in the 100 most populous cities in the United States, including Jersey City and Newark – ranked 36th and 47th, respectively.

In its study, the TPL found that 85% of America’s biggest cities are adapting parks and recreation facilities to address climate change, 80% are enlisting parks to help counter urban heat, and 76% are improving surfaces to reduce flooding and runoff from rains.

In addition, 20% are actively managing parks and woodlands to sequester carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Other cities are restoring shorelines to absorb storm surges, managing parks to reduce wildfire risk and choosing renewable energy sources.

Scott Dvorak, New Jersey state director for the TPL, said Jersey City and Newark – as well as many of New Jersey’s smaller cities not included in the report – are working to address climate change.

Dvorak is especially excited about the potential of schoolyard projects. The TPL Community Schoolyards program seeks to turn underutilized school property into community parks with climate superpowers. Instead of asphalt, renovated schoolyards have trees, specially landscaped gardens, bioswales and porous surfaces that absorb stormwater.

The Trust for Public Land is currently working to upgrade a schoolyard in the Vailsburg section of Newark into such a resource. “What if all 60 schoolyards in Newark did this? It would really make a difference,” Dvorak said.

Here’s a sampling of other climate-friendly park improvement projects in this state we’re in:

Newark – The City of Newark and TPL are completing the final phase of Jesse Allen Park this summer, including a new football/soccer field and two baseball diamonds, restrooms and a storage building. It also features a large stormwater store-and-release system designed to capture rain falling on playing fields. Rainwater filters into the storage tanks and is released over time into the city’s combined stormwater and waste sewer system, helping the local Sewage Commission prevent overflows of untreated water.

Hoboken – The mile-square city along the Hudson River is constructing a series of “resiliency parks” designed to remedy its longtime flooding problems. On the surface, the parks have the usual amenities: playgrounds, basketball courts, gardens and community spaces. But they also have porous surfaces that allow heavy rains to collect in large below-ground water storage structures.

Passaic – As plans were being made to improve Dundee Island Park, new flood maps came out showing that much of the park’s acreage is in a floodway. A planned building for concessions and restrooms was relocated out of the floodway, and also elevated above ground level as a precaution. Rain gardens and bioswales were also added to control stormwater.

Elizabeth – Like many other New Jersey cities, Elizabeth suffers from both flooding and the “heat island” effect of so much pavement and concrete. Groundwork Elizabeth partnered with New Jersey Conservation Foundation and others to build a “microforest” on a 30-by-50-foot plot behind a public library branch. The group hopes to build several more throughout the city and beyond.

Camden – Once a cracked asphalt lot with two basketball hoops, the schoolyard at Cooper’s Poynt Family School has been reinvented. TPL worked with the school community to transform the barren schoolyard into bold space with colorful new play equipment and porous pavement. An important function of this new park is its ability to relieve Camden’s over‐taxed sewer system through rain gardens to capture and direct stormwater.

These examples demonstrate that parks, with planning and investment, can be important tools to better prepare our communities for the impacts of our rapidly changing climate.

To learn more about the TPL report on parks and climate change, go to https://www.tpl.org/parks-address-climate-change-report. For more about TPL’s ParkScore rankings, go to https://www.tpl.org/parkscore?utm_source=digital&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=parkscore&utm_content=parkscore_button.

And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, go to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact info@njconservation.org.

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