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Building a Better Park

Camden County leads the way in sustainable practices

Camden County’s freeholders are not afraid to get dirty. They can often be found re-potting seedlings, wielding hoses or tending to greenery at the county’s 10-acre Lakeland Complex in Gloucester Township.

The environmental park boasts three greenhouses, a children’s sensory garden and outdoor classroom, a bicycle sharing program and a tool lending library. A repurposed building on the property houses the county’s office of sustainability—the first of its kind in the state.

Though it’s now a haven of sustainability, the park had much humbler beginnings. In 2012, there was just one 100-foot-long greenhouse and the century-old Regan Building on the property, both shuttered and unused. The building was used over the years as a psychiatric facility, a civil defense office and a youth detention center, but was abandoned in the 1990s. The state continued to run a youth program at the greenhouse, but packed up the operation in 2012.

Then-Freeholder Michelle Gentek-Mayer was elected that same year, and soon put a plan in action to rehabilitate the property. The first initiative she undertook was filling the greenhouse with plants destined for the landscaping plots around the county’s public buildings and parks. Through a partnership with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Master Gardner’s program, the greenhouse produced 8,000 plants that first year. The following growing season, production more than doubled, and a second greenhouse was erected. Growing the plants took just a few hundred dollars in supplies, but resulted in the county saving thousands.

“In the two greenhouses that are on the complex now, we grow about 15,000 plants —both annuals and perennials—that end up in our parks,” Freeholder Jonathan Young says. “It saves us about $10,000 a year that we’d otherwise spend buying those plants, not to mention it’s saving energy and saving the fuel that would be used transporting the plants here.”

The success of the growing program sparked county-wide interest in the sustainability department, which expanded quickly, requiring an office of its own. The renovations to the Regan Building were completed using surplus materials from other county facilities and donations from community members.  

“We had this building right next to the greenhouses, and we wanted to have somewhere to house our sustainability unit,” Young says. “We renovated the 100-year-old Regan Building, and transformed one floor into our sustainability department for the county. We also use the building to house a lot of our programs, and there are classrooms where we teach preschool and grade school classes about recycling and sustainability.”

Also housed in the Regan Building is the county’s first tool lending library, where residents can check out wrenches and screwdrivers, rakes and shovels or power drills and chainsaws, and simply bring them back when they’re finished.

“It’s the epitome of a ‘reuse, repurpose’ program,” Young says. “If you’re cleaning out your garage, basement or attic, instead of throwing these tools away and having them end up in our landfills, we ask residents to donate them. We get them into good working order and then any resident can come down and borrow them on the honor system. It’s going really well, and it means there’s all this machinery that won’t just get buried underground at a landfill in the county.”

This spring, a third greenhouse recently constructed on the grounds will house a hydroponic growing system designed to produce a harvest of fruits and vegetables. The produce will then be sold to residents and, potentially, to local restaurants, to offset the cost of hiring homeless and formerly homeless veterans to tend the crops.

“We have an abundance of homeless vets we’re working to find housing for,” Young says. “They’ll start to come down and work in the greenhouse, and it’ll be a success on both fronts. They’re making an income and helping the community, and we’re ending up with produce we can sell. Not only are we being sustainable, growing with a hydroponic system, but we’re also trying to get people to eat healthier, and eat local.”

Another highlight of the park is the sensory garden, designed by a local girl scout as her Gold Award project and built using donations from local hardware stores. The garden includes plants with pleasant textures and scents, designed to stimulate the senses of visiting children from the county’s Division of Programs for People with Disabilities.

Young says the county’s future plans for the park include bike paths and a sustainable Christmas tree program. County residents could take home a Christmas tree with its root ball intact, and bring it back after the holidays to be planted.

The complex is open to the public, and Young says those interested in volunteering in the greenhouse are welcome to stop by during business hours.

“We can never get enough volunteers,” he says. “It’s always open to the public, and residents are more than welcome to stop down, sign up and volunteer their time. Right now we have somewhere between 15 and 20 volunteers on a regular basis, but we need more hands, especially when the growing season really gets going.”

Young says the county will continue to develop more programs to encourage and improve sustainability. He sees the initiatives as necessary for the future of not just Camden County, but the whole planet.

“We’re constantly trying to figure out how to change the carbon footprint of Camden County,” he says. “It just makes sense. There’s obviously a need for change—we were wearing short-sleeve shirts in February. If everybody can just do their little part, things start to change over time. The idea is to make sure my grandkids and your grandkids and their grandkids are breathing fresh air. If everyone just does their part, just a little bit, we’ll definitely be a better world for it.”

The Lakeland Complex is located at Lakeland Rd and Woodbury-Turnersville Rd in Blackwood. For more information visit sustainable.camdencounty.com.

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