How does Camden grow?

A statue of Walt Whitman presides over the Camden Children's Garden.
A statue of Walt Whitman presides over the Camden Children's Garden. (ED HILLE / Staff)
Posted: February 22, 2013

By Mike Weilbacher

The Camden Children's Garden, the jewel on the waterfront tucked between the Adventure Aquarium and Wiggins Park, has been told by its landlord, the state of New Jersey, to remove its exhibits from three of its four acres by March 31. While not quite an eviction notice, the garden would be forced to destroy its signature attractions. Goodbye butterfly house, dinosaur garden, giant teacups, train ride, and more.

But the garden's not going down without a fight, and founder Mike Devlin and friends are busy testifying, lining up their political ducks, organizing a Facebook page, and threatening lawsuits.

While no one has yet said to what use the state would put the land removed from the garden, everyone's guess is the aquarium wants to expand its footprint. That's fine.

But if the state is interested in the good people of Camden - the ones who supposedly benefit from the crowds lured to the riverside - the state would take a completely different path.

It would help the children's garden expand.

A mountain of evidence has emerged in the last 20 years revolutionizing how we see the relationship between cities and nature. Greenery - nature, parks, gardens, even waste spaces like vacant lots - makes people calmer, smarter, healthier, saner, even less violent. And few cities need the calming benefits of nature more than Camden, recently named by the FBI as America's most violent city.

In a 2001 study of Chicago public housing, for example, psychologist Frances Kuo and landscape architect William Sullivan, both of the University of Illinois, found that people living in units with views of or access to nature - in some cases, simply seeing trees outside their windows - reported fewer aggressive and violent conflicts with partners and children than residents without such a view or access. That same team also discovered that residents of public housing in units with views of nature committed fewer crimes. (Memo to police, welfare, and housing departments: Plant trees.)

Other findings in the burgeoning field of eco-psychology are equally astonishing: Senior citizens tend to live longer if they have access to parks or green space. College students do better on cognitive tests when their dorm windows look out at trees and nature. Teens taught in outdoor education programs have markedly lower rates of absenteeism. Students do better on standardized testing if they are taught the subject matter in the outdoors. For children with ADHD, time in nature calms them as effectively as drugs.

Which brings us back to the Camden Children's Garden.

Few children in America are more at risk - and more in need of healing doses of nature - than those living in Camden. Few places bring Camden children closer to nature than the garden, which has diligently attracted thousands of children while making sure it serves the needs of Camden's people. Devlin hires Camden teens, makes seedlings available to more than 120 community gardens (in one of America's worst "food deserts," by the way), and offers workshops on nutrition and healthy eating in Camden schools.

If New Jersey wants to make Camden less violent and its citizens safer, it can start here: Grow the Camden Children's Garden. Make it bigger - not smaller - so it can better serve city residents, among the neediest for the balm that is nature.


Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia. E-mail him at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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