Members of our state’s Legislature and administration are currently discussing New Jersey’s open space, recreational areas and parkland and whether there is an appropriate opportunity for us to invite the “private for-profit and non-profit sector in reducing maintenance and capital investment backlog and environmental remediation at state parks in order to facilitate enhanced cultural, recreational and local economic opportunities for New Jersey residents through appropriate means including leaseholds.” This is a critical item in our budget deliberations, considering that even before COVID-19 devastated our economy, New Jersey’s parks were already operating at a deficit hundreds of millions of dollars below their capital improvement funding requests.
It is even more crucial from the perspective of environmental justice, which is inseparable from economic and social justice, now in laser focus across our nation. Despite repeated surveys and studies, New Jersey’s minority communities have suffered from inadequate access to parks and recreational facilities for decades. COVID-19 has brought much of this injustice to the foreground and in light of its toll on communities of color, our lack of park and recreational facilities for urban residents is unacceptable.
Our beautiful Garden State deserves every enhancement possible to allow the outdoors to be enjoyed by the full spectrum of our population. Nature has a restorative power that revitalizes our bodies, refreshes our minds and rejuvenates our souls. Good stewardship of the land demands a reverence for environmental concerns and the wisdom to delegate land use in accordance with the recreational needs of our people.
Preserving open space is our responsibility to future generations and the rebalancing of our environment. But just as important is finding ways to create areas for outdoor sports and exercise for our most neglected people – the non-affluent, non-suburban residents whose parks have atrophied from systematic neglect and whose school playgrounds, once the heartbeat of urban communities, have been reclaimed as faculty parking lots. Our parks must serve all people by encouraging a balance of active, passive, structured and unstructured recreational activities.
Nature is for everyone – not just the rich – and it needs to be especially accessible to those without backyard patios and manicured lawns. The use of our state parks is not a black and white issue, or an open-shut case dictated by one group of us. There are many voices in our state and they all need to be heard.
As I’ve written publicly and in letters to the governor and my legislative colleagues, the coronavirus pandemic has uprooted decades of growth, and life itself, in every sector in our beautiful Garden State. Today, as we survey the expanse of our state laid bare, we realize that this is our chance to get it right, to come as close to Eden as is humanly possible. Now is the time to choose what seeds will sprout into the best environment for all of us. This is our chance to choose who will do the planning and the planting and how the fruits of our efforts will be distributed.
The underprivileged and disadvantaged in New Jersey deserve to reap the benefit of wise land use with prudent development that yields a higher quality of life. The use of our state parkland is as fundamental an issue as there is – and it requires a steady hand on the plow. As we move forward, I encourage a robust dialog to explore the option of inviting investors to help us provide the full scope of outdoor recreational venues for the enjoyment of our citizens. This time, as we stand at the crossroads of our future, let’s not leave anyone behind.