So long, Ralph. Save me a seat.

I learned this morning that Ralph Copleman, the former Executive Director of Sustainable Lawrence, died on January 6.

Shortly after George Gershwin died, the novelist John O’Hara wrote “”George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to”.

It may sound silly, but, aside from a deep and grinding sense of shock and loss, that’s how I feel.  When someone whom you knew for only a little over a year dies, and you feel like you’ve lost a lifelong friend, it says something more than you could read in any glowing obituary.

So I won’t say “Goodbye”. I’ll just say “So long, Ralph.  Save me a seat”.

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Bromley Park: Why Parks Go Bad and What to Do about It.

All but invisible to local passersby – and local police –  from its entrance on State Street, bordered on one side by the backyards of adjacent homes, on the opposite side by a chain link fence overlooking Pond Run, and on both ends by local streets,  Bromley Park provides the most glaring example of how bad design, bad siting, and lack of safety and security can turn Hamilton’s neighborhood parks from potential neighborhood assets into real neighborhood liabilities.

Despite prominent signs proclaiming that the park is only open during daylight hours, and that it is under 24/7 surveillance by the Hamilton Township Police Department, Bromley residents constantly complain that, night after night, this wide flat expanse becomes a hotbed of drug deals, gang fights and public sex.  Local police seem powerless to enforce the municipal ordinances and state laws intended to control this kind of activity.

This has been going on for decades.

Look around Bromley Park and its deficiencies jump out.  From a siting and design perspective, nothing about the park makes it a neighborhood asset instead of a neighborhood liability.  Easy and uncontrolled access to an area only partially visible from either entrance, and at any time of the day or night, makes local residents shun the park after dark.  A basketball court at its least visible end makes it an attractive hangout for out-of-area teens, including gang members.  A small playground adjacent to the basketball court, with one bench, is the park’s only other attraction.

An urban park succeeds when local residents perceive it as a psychological extension of their backyards and front porches. A successful park comes to be seen as a shared safe place, for conversation, relaxation, simple games, and family gatherings. It appeals to all age groups, not only parents of young children, or teenagers looking for a place to play group sports or hang out, away from the prying eyes of parents or the police.

Its location enhances its appeal, acting as a visual connector between homes and businesses.  And its design enhances the appeal of the surrounding homes and businesses as well.

For a park like Bromley Park to turn into an asset, local residents need to envision what it could be and also decide that what it could be matters to them as much as what it is.  This sense that the condition of a local urban park has a major impact on the safety and security of our families, and on the value of our homes, needs to be matched by a shared conviction that “We Own This Park”.

Instead of depending on local government action that will likely never happen, a Friends of Bromley Park group can start the process.  The history of parks improvement shows that, when committed residents lead, government soon starts to follow.

How walkable is your neighborhood?

According to WalkScore, a “walkable” community has

  • A center: Walkable neighborhoods have a discernable center, whether it’s a shopping district, a main street, or a public space.
  • Density: The neighborhood is compact enough for local businesses to flourish and for public transportation to run frequently.
  • Mixed income, mixed use: Housing is provided for everyone who works in the neighborhood: young and old, singles and families, rich and poor. Businesses and residences are located near each other.
  • Parks and public space: There are plenty of public places to gather and play.
  • Pedestrian-centric design: Buildings are placed close to the street to cater to foot traffic, with parking lots relegated to the back.
  • Nearby schools and workplaces: Schools and workplaces are close enough that most residents can walk from their homes.

Using WalkScore, you can see how your neighborhood, even your house, rates for walkability.

Pretty neat.

Letting the Township know what you think about YOUR neighborhood park.

Hamilton Township’s government website has an online Parks and Recreation survey form where you can let the Mayor know what you want – and may not be getting – from your neighborhood park.

This is a fairly good survey form, but I like this one. from Dublin, GA, better.

Rate Your Neighborhood Park

Nothing makes a community more livable than a network of well-kept, family-friendly neighborhood parks.   Here’s how Wikipedia describes neighborhood parks.  A truly family-friendly neighborhood park includes a lot of amenities.  According to Wikipedia, the essentials include

  1. Park Signage (park name and relevant code signage)
  2. Turf area
  3. Perennial beds
  4. Benches
  5. Paths
  6. Dog bag dispensary and signage
  7. Trash can
  8. Trees
  9. Opportunity for at least one active use

An IDEAL park includes

  1. Flower beds
  2. Lighting
  3. Informational kiosk
  4. Bathrooms
  5. Barbecue grills and picnic area
  6. Drinking Fountain
  7. Trash receptacles, including recycling bins
  8. Lighting
  9. Bicycle parking
  10. Public art
  11. Recreation Center
  12. Clubhouse
  13. Swimming pool
  14. Children’s play area
  15. Athletic fields and courts
  16. Trails
  17. Undeveloped open space

In The Public Value of Urban Parks (2004), The Urban Institute and the Wallace Foundation reviewed how neighborhood parks can either add to or detract from the overall quality of community life.   Go to the Parks and Recreation page on Hamilton Township’s website, and you will find a map with 34 separate evergreen icons.  Except for Veterans Park and Kuser Farm, each icon identifies a small-to-medium sized neighborhood park.  

BTW, I have not been able to find any information about most of our parks on the internet, and have started a photographic inventory of my own.  Also, although we have a Parks & Recreation Advisory Commission, we don’t have any township-wide organization, and few neighborhood-based groups, dedicated to the care and maintenance of our parks – and it shows.

Think about what makes a neighborhood park either beneficial or detrimental to a neighborhood.  Then pick YOUR park from the following list and and rate it.

  1. Anchor Thread Park
  2. Apollo Park
  3. Bernard Foley
  4. Brook Lane
  5. Cedar Lawn
  6. Connecticut
  7. D’Arcy
  8. Deutzville
  9. Drialo Park
  10. Eagle Park
  11. Farmingdale
  12. Franciamore
  13. George Dick Field
  14. Gropp’s Lake
  15. Hamilton Square Park
  16. Highland
  17. Highland Tot
  18. Homedell
  19. Kuser Farm
  20. Limewood Drive
  21. McClellen
  22. Municipal Park
  23. Murray
  24. Papps Village
  25. Periwinkle Park
  26. Ray Dwier Center
  27. Sayen Gardens
  28. Sayen Park
  29. Shadybrook
  30. Sharps Lane
  31. Sunnybrae
  32. Sunset Manor
  33. Switlik Park
  34. Van Horn
  35. Veterans Park
  36. Warwick Park
  37. West Acres
  38. Whitehead

The Project for Public Spaces has a page dedicated to parks, squares, and other public spaces.   If we want our parks to really add value to our neighborhoods, or at least not detract from them, we need to use these resources and ideas.  

Finally, I think the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission needs to take on more than a “planning and advisory” role.  It needs to be more visible and active in promoting them.  The Commission meets at 6 PM, on the second Monday of each month in the Legal Conference Room at the Municipal Building.  I plan to attend the next meeting and would love some company.

Is Hamilton a Sustainable Community??

What makes a community “sustainable”?

According to Sustainable Jersey, a working group of the New Jersey Mayors Committee for a Green Future,

“Sustainability,” or “sustainable development,” means protecting the resources and systems that support us today so that they will be available to future generations. In short, it means preserving our civilization and the things we hold dear in perpetuity while enhancing our quality of life.

In a sustainable community, the local economy, society and the environment co-exist in a healthy balance.   Sustainable Hamilton believes that Hamilton’s economy, society, and environment DON’T co-exist in a healthy balance.

A sustainable community depends on more than high median incomes, affordable homes, and high employment.  Any “bedroom community” can claim those qualities.  But if a community is to be more than a place to eat and sleep while we live most of our waking lives somewhere else, it needs more.  It needs a strong and diversified local economy, a tight-knit social and cultural fabric, a healthy environment, and the ability of people to access most of what they need without depending on automobiles for transportation.

Sustainable Hamilton supports the framework for sustainable community capital developed by Mark Roseland in his book “Toward Sustainable Communities“.   The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has developed a set of architectural principles for sustainable communities that tie into this framework.

Here are the AIA’s ten architectural principles that help a sustainable community to develop and thrive:

  1. Design on a Human Scale: Compact, pedestrian-friendly communities allow residents to walk to shops, services, cultural resources, and jobs and can reduce traffic congestion and benefit people’s health.
  2. Provide Choices: People want variety in housing, shopping, recreation, transportation, and employment. Variety creates lively neighborhoods and accommodates residents in different stages of their lives.
  3. Encourage Mixed-Use Development: Integrating different land uses and varied building types creates vibrant, pedestrian-friendly and diverse communities.
  4. Preserve Urban Centers: Restoring, revitalizing, and infilling urban centers takes advantage of existing streets, services and buildings and avoids the need for new infrastructure. This helps to curb sprawl and promote stability for city neighborhoods.
  5. Vary Transportation Options: Giving people the option of walking, biking and using public transit, in addition to driving, reduces traffic congestion, protects the environment and encourages physical activity.
  6. Build Vibrant Public Spaces: Citizens need welcoming, well-defined public places to stimulate face-to-face interaction, collectively celebrate and mourn, encourage civic participation, admire public art, and gather for public events.
  7. Create a Neighborhood Identity: A ”sense of place” gives neighborhoods a unique character, enhances the walking environment, and creates pride in the community.
  8. Protect Environmental Resources: A well-designed balance of nature and development preserves natural systems, protects waterways from pollution, reduces air pollution, and protects property values.
  9. Conserve Landscapes: Open space, farms, and wildlife habitat are essential for environmental, recreational, and cultural reasons.
  10. Design Matters: Design excellence is the foundation of successful and healthy communities.

So how does Hamilton stack up?