Like many other U.S. cities that have experienced significant industrial decline, high rates of poverty and racial and ethnic segregation, Camden is often presented as a virtual “lost cause.” Negative coverage of the city has only intensified since it was forced to lay off nearly half of its police officers and a third of its firefighters in January. It’s certainly true that crime in much of the city is high and job prospects for many residents are low. Moreover, many residents have reported a general fear for their personal safety and a lack of basic services in their neighborhoods.
But many organizations and groups of motivated local people believe in Camden, are working hard to improve it, and are succeeding. These groups are diverse in their specific missions, but what quite a few of them share is a clear understanding of the role that transportation and quality public spaces can play in producing a viable city. Area community development corporations, faith-based groups, local developers and government officials have been actively working to improve Camden’s streets, with the aim of creating safe places for residents to shop, gather, commute and open businesses.
Streetscape Projects Getting Results
One such group, the Cramer Hill Community Development Corporation (CHCDC), worked in conjunction with Cooper’s Ferry Development Corporation to implement streetscape improvements on River Road, a significant commercial corridor in the Cramer Hill section of Camden. These improvements were focused on making River Road accessible for disabled residents, decreasing truck traffic and attracting additional commercial investment. The larger project is ongoing, but much of the work has already been completed, including significant widening of the sidewalks, narrowing of the road to discourage truck traffic and the installation of ramps that can accommodate wheelchairs.
The streetscape improvements almost instantly had a positive effect upon the neighborhood by affording residents a vastly improved shopping and walking experience. Manny Delgado, Executive Director of CHCDC, told MTR that “within weeks of these improvements, three new tenants moved into formerly vacant commercial spaces, including a pharmacy, which area residents had been asking for.”
A number of other projects currently being undertaken could produce similar results, including a $5.8 million federally funded plan to improve conditions for cyclists and pedestrians between the Ben Franklin Bridge and Cooper River Park. This project will employ “complete streets” design elements on a number of local roads, with the aim of making thoroughfares more attractive while accommodating all road users. Additionally, a generous grant from the William Penn Foundation to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) will promote active transportation throughout Camden and the Delaware Valley, by aiming to “fill-in” many of the remaining gaps in the regional trail network. These improvements, in combination with other projects, such as the existing Wiggins Park waterfront promenade, the re-construction of Boyd and Morse Streets in East Camden and the planned Haddon Avenue Transit Village, provide great potential for revitalization in neighborhoods throughout the city, benefiting current and future residents alike.
Eyes on the Street
Roads and neighborhoods that are designed for people of all ages and physical abilities and which allow residents to travel, shop and interact with one another are extremely effective at fostering public safety. As planners have known since the days of Jane Jacobs, and many residents know intuitively, would-be thieves and burglars have fewer opportunities to commit crimes when streets are active and host a wide range of activities. It also follows that violent crimes are less likely to occur in this type of environment. In a number of documented cases, formerly auto-centric thoroughfares saw dramatic decreases in crime after being redesigned for a wider array of road users. Oftentimes, re-designed streets come to serve as public spaces as residents start to see them as places to relax and interact, rather than places to avoid.
It must be clearly stated that slowing vehicle traffic, planting trees and adding bike lanes will not end crime in the city of Camden. There are many wider social and economic issues which simply cannot be addressed through physical roadway design. That said, these types of investments clearly improve residents’ health, safety, and quality of life.
Recently, Camden was able to rehire 86 of the public safety workers laid off in January—surely positive news for residents and visitors alike. These women and men are essential in the effort to make Camden a safer place. But, just as important are the countless local groups that have a vision of a better Camden and are working everyday to see their plans implemented. Better roads and access to transportation will surely aid in almost all of their efforts.
Photos: Before – Delaware Valley Rhythm & Blues Society; After – Matthew Norris/TSTC.