Elizabeth, New Jersey is a densely populated river city founded in 1664. By the mid-19th century, it had industrialized, but the 1980’s manufacturing exodus left only hollow, hulking structures behind—brownfields. The waters of Elizabeth River, which once irrigated farms, now frequently overflowed her banks. The Army Corps of Engineers channelized the river, building walls and berms to protect the city. Though flooding ceased, the channel choked off traditional activities like fishing and swimming. Natural habitats likewise shriveled. Soon, the connection between Elizabeth City, its people and their namesake river was gone. Urban blight followed.
Funding Action Plan
In 2002, efforts began to address blight and to re-establish recreation along the river. The non-profit Groundwork Elizabeth became part of a national network of independent organizations called “Groundwork Trusts” partnering with EPA’s Brownfields and Land Revitalization program, and the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) Program.
The nonprofit and its federal partners sought to bring the population of Elizabeth closer to its “urban waters” with a river trail. The Elizabeth River Trail Project began in 2003, becoming the only Groundwork Trust in the State of New Jersey. The organization works with community volunteers and public and private partners, including EPA’s Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization, the National Park Service, the City of Elizabeth, and Union County. These partnerships are key to funding sources. With money from the EPA Urban Waters program, Groundwork Elizabeth expanded its Green Team to a year-round program and built a new nature center.
Federal partners, including the National Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers, pitched in to develop plans to sow beneficial native plants along the river’s berms. New Jersey Senators and Congressional delegation earmarked $340,000 from the Federal Transportation Act of 2006 for the project. The Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders leveraged another $500,000 toward design and construction of the trail.
The trail received construction funds to demonstrate the historical significance of the river and the city through the NJDEP’s Green Acres Program, created in 1961 to address New Jersey’s growing recreation and conservation needs.
NPS’s National Recreational Trails Program sponsored local artists to design and install historic slides adjacent to the trail, linking the river and its communities once again. Some slides pay tribute to two signers of the Declaration of Independence from Elizabeth. Others portray the manufacturing legacy that once thrived on the river’s banks. Another popular slide honors Frederic Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park, who also designed most of Union County’s parks in the early 1900s, including the future home of the River Trail.
Success Builds Upon Success
In the most densely populated region of the country, the Elizabeth River Trail succeeds in connecting its residents with their natural environment. Some 10,000 people use the Elizabeth River Trail each month, connecting lower- to middle-income neighborhoods, and serving diverse populations that are 65 percent Hispanic and 20 percent African American. The Trail connects businesses and residential districts and provides access to two shopping areas. Thousands of students at Elizabeth High School use the trail to get to and from school.
Additional partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service will establish green infrastructure projects along the riverbanks to reduce water pooling and serve as a learning laboratory for the public. Next steps include more water quality testing, addressing pollution sources, and connecting the River Trail with a pristine wooded area near Elizabeth. And, as climate change comes to communities like Elizabeth City, these efforts will prove to be vital to risk mitigation strategies.