By Kate Valenta | FBW | April 13, 2016
The established need for urban green space is also heightened within low-income communities because they lack the flexibility of more affluent residents, who have the time and financial means to escape regularly to other natural areas. For those tied close to home by necessity, local parks are often their only contact with nature. Fortunately, research has shown that one does not have to travel to remote or pristine natural settings to extract nature’s rewards. In fact, the good news for our Mile Square City is that the salubrious effects of green space are particularly significant for those living within a 3-kilometer radius of urban parkland. (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 2006). The most important factor — especially for children, the elderly and those in poverty — is the chance to interact with local, native species of plants, birds, insects and marine habitats, to cultivate their sense of wonder and escape the immediate stresses of urban life with regularity. (Louv, 2008) Employing this kind of scientific data to underpin policy decisions offers an opportunity for Hoboken to benefit underserved residents, and all residents, while serving as a model for sound urban planning.
Those of us in the public and non-profit sectors who are committed to addressing the quality of life concerns of communities in need have an obligation to articulate soft concepts such as ‘the human need for a sense of rootedness in nature’ (Louv, 2008), making those ideas manifest through policy decisions and direct action. In the face of rising real estate costs and gentrification, Hoboken must struggle to protect the health and well-being of its underserved residents. An unfortunate consequence of the influx of affluent families in Hoboken and along New Jersey’s “Gold Coast” has been declining quality of life for low-income residents, greater income disparity, and more families living in poverty in real numbers. Since the turn of the millennium, Hoboken’s already dense square mile has swollen to accommodate over 53,000 people, including a 42% increase in low-income households, and a 66% increase in families with children under 18. (city-data.com; hopes.org) Census data covering 2000-2014 bears this out, showing population growth of over 36% in Hoboken, compared to 4.5% for NJ as a whole through roughly the same period (2000-2010). As of 2010, 11.1% of Hoboken residents and 16.5% of Hudson County residents were living in poverty, with particularly disheartening statistics for children poverty, as compared to the rest of New Jersey. Specific to Hoboken, the actual number of children in poverty below age 5 rose by over 44% in the decade between 2000 and 2010. (hopes.org) These statistics illuminate a hidden story within Hoboken’s population explosion: that along with the increase in wealthy residents, there has been a concurrent increase in low-income and underserved residents. Although it may certainly be said that everyone benefits from the presence of public parks, access to green space in urban environments is nothing short of critical for these communities.
Empirical evidence aside, one only has to walk the Hoboken waterfront on any given weekday or weekend to see that hundreds of residents from all walks of life and visitors from Hudson County use our parks regularly for walking, running, cycling, kayaking, fishing or simply relaxing. Local non-profits and commercial groups rely on the parks for major events, concerts, festivals and informal gatherings, and the City of course employs Pier A for beloved free community events like Movies Under the Stars, which bring the whole city together. The preservation of public lands is a worthy goal – particularly along Hoboken’s treasured waterfront – but success will be difficult to quantify, as the benefits will be reaped over time through incremental improvements in the mental and physical health of the population. This may manifest itself in lower crime rates, improved test scores or higher graduation rates from local schools, yet the effects will not be easily traceable back to the vision, years earlier, of a grand waterfront park. Just as it is hard to imagine New York City without Central Park, we hope that it will one day be hard to imagine Hoboken without a fully connected waterfront.
“Benefits of Nature Contact for Children” by Louise Chawla, Journal of Planning Literature (July 22, 2015)
“At Home with Nature: Effects of “Greenness” on Children’s Cognitive Functioning by Nancy M. Wells, Environment and Behavior (Vol. 32 No. 6, November 2000)
Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (Algonquin Books, 2008)
“Poverty in Hoboken, Jersey City and Hudson County” from Hudson County Communty Assessment 2013, Hopes, Inc.
Col. Stevens vision for Hoboken still valid 200 years later
Editorial: A Once-in-a-century Opportunity
NJ-APA 2013 Great Places in NJ
Plan for the Hoboken Waterfont
Hoboken’s first parks established in 1804