Camden native gets job of altering city landscape

Olivia Glenn (left) explains plans for Gateway Park to Luis Sanchez. Glenn is metro regional manager for the N.J. Conservation Foundation, which preserves land and other resources.
Olivia Glenn (left) explains plans for Gateway Park to Luis Sanchez. Glenn is metro regional manager for the N.J. Conservation Foundation, which preserves land and other resources. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 26, 2014

Growing up in Camden, Olivia Glenn vividly recalls being enchanted on a childhood visit to Farnham Park in her Parkside neighborhood.

It not only changed her view of the world, but also shaped her destiny. She has made it her mission to protect the environment she loves.

"It absolutely stuck with me," she said. "It gave me an appreciation for the beauty of nature."

Glenn, 35, returned to Camden this month as the metro regional manager for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit group that preserves land and other natural resources in the state.

"It's my passion to cultivate environmental stewardship in urban areas and in people of color," Glenn, 35, said in a recent interview.

She will be responsible for acquiring and developing parks and greenways in the 9-square-mile city and surrounding areas. Top of her list: Gateway Park, along the Admiral Wilson Boulevard and the Cooper River, at present a lush expanse of grass that has remained mostly inaccessible to the public since it was created in 2000.

Changing the Camden landscape will be no walk in the park.

The city of 77,000 has only 3.7 acres of open space per 1,000 people, and fewer than one-third of its residents live within walking distance of a usable park.

By comparison, New York has 19.6 acres of parkland per 1,000 people, Philadelphia 12.6, and Newark, N.J., 5.4, according to CamConnect, an independent research group that analyzes data about Camden.

"There aren't enough parks, that's for sure," said Chris Jage, the conservation foundation's assistant director for South Jersey. "Camden falls below the line of what it should have."

A referendum proposed for the November ballot would restore funding to the state's depleted open-space program by dedicating a portion of revenue from the corporation business tax to preserving land. If approved, it would generate about $150 million annually.

Besides Farnham Park, Camden has Cooper River, Pyne Poynt, New Camden, and Wiggins parks, the last a popular attraction on the Delaware River.

Gateway Park was developed by the Delaware River Port Authority during former Gov. Christie Whitman's controversial rush cleanup of Admiral Wilson Boulevard, weeding out seedy motels and go-go bars in advance of her Republican Party's convention in Philadelphia in 2000.

The 25-acre park sits along the Cooper River west of Route 130 and on the south side of the boulevard. The bucolic view, however, is fenced in and blocked to the public and is inaccessible from the boulevard.

"It's a tremendous waste of a wonderful resource," said community activist Thomas Knoche, of the Friends of Cooper River Park West. "It's got huge potential."

Glenn has made getting the park open to the public her highest priority. Community groups, too, are anxious to see plans for a new park come to fruition, they hope by next spring.

Plans announced earlier this year call for incorporating Gateway Park into a 4.3-mile loop around the Cooper River between Kaighns Avenue and the Campbell Soup Co. headquarters near downtown.

The new park would allow better access to the public and would connect with adjacent parks. It also would link to an emerging regional network of hiking and biking trails.

Under the ambitious plan, the park would have picnic areas; biking and walking paths; playing fields; and canoe and kayak launches. Wetlands and wildlife habitats would be preserved.

The county has not committed funding for the project, but community groups hope that it will invest in the site as it has in a $23 million project at Cooper River Park between Route 130 and Cuthbert Boulevard.

Knoche said the area has a "naturalness" that would surprise the public. "You can totally be in another world that doesn't feel like Camden at all."

The Delaware River Port Authority, which owns the land, is finalizing plans to convey the park to the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority. Once it is renovated, the park will be managed by the conservation foundation.

Glenn hopes to eventually transform the park into a regional destination. She envisions nature walks, festivals, concerts, and movies in the park.

"I would like to see the park realize the full meaning of its name as a gateway," she said. "There are lots of good things happening in Camden. I'm just hoping that this is going to build upon it."

Married and the mother of two, Glenn said she wants to instill in children the same "sense of wonder" in the environment that she developed as a child "to connect them to a place so that they become environmental stewards."

Ironically, Glenn was barred by her mother, Doris, from spending too much time at Farnham Park as a child. She was restricted to playing in front of her house because of safety concerns.

"I recall as a child wanting to go back," she said.

Glenn, who moved to nearby Pennsauken as a teenager, maintains close ties to Camden. She still attends Parkside United Methodist Church in her old neighborhood and has family in the city.

A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale University, Glenn considered pursuing a career as an astronomer or chemist. She said her interests in the environment and social justice converged, allowing her to give back to the community.

She previously worked at the D.U.E. Season Charter School in Camden as a development manager. She has also been a special assistant to the state Department of Environmental Protection and worked for the state Division of Parks and Forests.

Glenn started the conservation job two weeks ago and is based in the foundation's Camden office.

"It's always been a dream of mine to restore an urban park. I'm delighted to . . . have the opportunity to do just that," Glenn said.

856-779-3814 @mlburney

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