From Dismal Swamp To Vibrant Greenway

How one sleepy bedroom community is using its existing assets to build a greener borough.
December 9, 2009
Gerry DeSeve
By Gerry DeSeve  |  Contributor
Gerry DeSeve is a GOVERNING contributor. He is a consultant with ICF International and a professor in the Masters of Sustainable Design Program at Philadelphia University.

The United States will soon have a new national treasure - the East Coast Greenway. When it is complete, the greenway will create a single route from Maine to Key West, Florida, by linking trails, country roads and wildlife preserves. A broad spectrum of government executives, nature lovers and planners are fully embracing this project. Their vision is that some day we will be able to walk non-stop through some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, all the way from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico.

Metuchen, New Jersey, is not the kind of place that springs to mind when you think of green. About 30 miles south of New York City by train, Metuchen is a sedate bedroom borough. It is surrounded by a sprawling mass of suburbs to the west and a wall of train tracks and highways to the east. As a result, one of Metuchen's most prominent features is a giant blacktopped parking lot in the heart of town. Chain stores form a ring around the lot: Blockbuster, Carvel Ice Cream, A&P Liquor Warehouse - an axis of comfort designed to soothe the nerves of cube dwellers coming home.

But all of this autumn Metuchen has been buzzing about green, due largely to the town's plans for connecting their community to the East Cost Greenway, which runs through a neighboring county. Metuchen residents have been meeting regularly to brainstorm with borough executives about how best to take advantage of their geographic good fortune.

The borough, for instance, has obtained the rights to a spur of old coal train tracks running out of town to the east. Soon the tracks will undergo a rails-to-trails conversion and become Metuchen's contribution to the greenway.

And that's not all. A satellite view of the Metuchen parking lot shows a striking gray/green, yin and yang contrast between the paved-over town center and a huge expanse of untouched wilderness immediately to the west, the 1,240-acre Dismal Swamp. While it might have been dismal to the colonial-era pioneers who named it, the swamp is an absolute windfall to residents today, who have lovingly nicknamed it "the Diz". The western spur of the tracks used for Metuchen's rails-to-trails-to-Greenway plan directly links Metuchen with the Diz.

The rails-to-trails endeavor and linking to the Diz are key elements of a broader, community-led vision for creating a highly sustainable "linear park". This vision incorporates sculptures, butterfly habitats, raised-bed community gardens built over brownfields, paved walking paths and rough-hewn mountainbiking trails.

The opportunities presented by the greenway plan have ignited the imagination of Jim Constantine, Metuchen's town planner for a quarter-century. During one community brainstorming session that we attended, Constantine was so wound up that you'd have thought he was backed by a choir. After one spike in enthusiasm he exclaimed, "I ask no pardons for my passion about this project!" The rapt audience of seniors, Manhattan banker-types and guys in trucker caps didn't mind a bit.

He described to them how the greenway plan can green Metuchen's center. Trailhead Park, for instance, lies in the middle of the rails-to-trails project, and is a stone's throw from the giant parking lot. Constantine explained how redeveloping the lot into a tree-lined plaza square, and unifying it with Trailhead Park and the greenway, would dovetail perfectly with economic development efforts going on nearby, including a six-acre, mixed-use commercial/residential site and several other infill projects. He also talked about how some simple, strategic planting and traffic routing would create a prettier - and significantly calmer - town center.

This would have sounded like pipe dreaming if Constantine hadn't already provided a pre-meeting walking tour of Metuchen On the tour he described the town's not-too-distant past when stores were closed and no one wanted to live anywhere near the town center. As his walking turned into a light jog, he proudly highlighted the borough's recent, pragmatic and highly sustainable development work. He didn't need to say a lot to back up his case: it was obvious from the bustling activity around us that downtown real estate values had improved, pedestrian safety had increased and residents had returned to the town center to eat, shop and live.

Thankfully, Constantine has provided a useful summary of how to create sustainable development - rehab, reinvest, redevelop, in-fill and add on:

Rehab. Make the best use possible of existing structures and the overall built environment.

Reinvest. As with Metuchen's rails-to-trails program, apply resources to areas that already have appealing natural features and/or man-made infrastructure.

Redevelop. Metuchen's plan to redevelop its parking lot into a plaza square illustrates this concept - don't abandon areas simply because they appear to be outdated or were built a certain way. Instead, examine the intrinsic rationale for the original work and use it as part of the new project.

In-fill. Metuchen's planners are filling in vacant lots and other "empty" spots on the map to eliminate blight and put people closer to community resources, stores and transportation.

Add on. Much of Metuchen's town center comprised single-story buildings but many of those, including a low-rise appliance store stock room, have expanded to include second and third stories.

It should go without saying that the East Coast Greenway and projects like it can provide a significant catalyst for community creativity and action.