Finding Sustainability in Newark

Imagine making essential repairs on an aging but still stylish automobile, while simultaneously driving as quickly as possible to the next city to get the good new job that awaits you.

That's roughly the situation Newark and other older cities in the Northeast find themselves in. While older streets and buildings are increasingly in fashion, nevertheless these cities still must work to overhaul and upgrade crumbling streets, water lines, and other infrastructure, as well as deal with a complicated industrial legacy. And they must do this while preparing for a future where sustainable, low-impact growth will be a top priority.

This is a tough challenge. But if the experience of its neighbors like New York and Philadelphia are any indication, Newark can turn its liabilities into building blocks. In the race to build greener, more sustainable places, older cities like Newark actually have a leg up on the sprawling suburbs.

In Newark, that network of older streets can be easily adapted for more energy efficient bicycling and walking. The older buildings with shared walls can be upgraded and are already cheaper to heat and cool than stand-alone buildings. That old warehouse can house new green industries employing local residents. Overhauling the city's storm water management system may take more work, but making it greener and smarter is an attainable goal.

We here at the Regional Plan Association lay some of this out in a new report called "Sustainable Newark," funded by the Victoria Foundation. It attempts to build on what the city is already doing in this regard, which is a lot, even if they don't always fly under the banner of "sustainability."

City-wide initiatives include the restoration of the Passaic River Waterfront and the development of green affordable housing stock. The City is actively engaging the citizenry (including the previously incarcerated) in a variety of green jobs initiatives. There are new opportunities for subsidized weatherization and energy reduction programs as well.

At the neighborhood level, both the Lincoln Park and Ironbound neighborhoods are putting into place storm water management techniques and are promoting green jobs and green building practices. These are all excellent initiatives.

The political, civic, business and other leaders of the Newark can build on this foundation and take sustainable Newark to the next level. In the full report, we suggest, among other things, that the city emphasize health as a calling card. With a little work, the old image of the dirty, unhealthy industrial city can be turned on its head. Newark can be the clean, new-industry city where walking and bicycling and parks make it a great place to live and work, and not to mention cut down on diseases like asthma that have plagued urban areas

For examples of next steps, Newark need not look far. Just across the river, New York City is pursuing its "MillionTreesNYC" initiative. An hour to the south, Philadelphia leads the nation in best-practices urban storm water management. Both these cities are doing a good job not only on the initiatives, but in talking about them with their citizens through interactive web sites and other new communication tools.

In Newark, civic engagement continues to be a challenge. A comprehensive sustainability initiative can point the way to addressing this challenge. By leveraging sustainability with the help and participation of its citizens, Newark can be a national example in sustainable cities.