Camden, New Jersey, the poorest town in America, was once a manufacturing hub, home to RCA Victor and the New York Shipbuilding Co. Today it joins Detroit on the fiscal brink, struggling to provide basic services and pockmarked with vacant properties.
In this essay published by the The Star Ledger in New Jersey, Lavea Brachman and Alan Mallach, co-authors of Regenerating America's Legacy Cities, advise that Camden should resist the temptation to lunge for a silver bullet. Large projects can become an important asset, but it is not a strategy for change in itself, unless it is integrated into larger schemes to make a meaningful contribution to the city’s future. The gleaming facilities along Camden’s waterfront have done little to enhance the city’s downtown or its neighborhoods, Brachman and Mallach write.
They advise a more incremental approach built on collaboration and partnerships, combined with a fresh appreciation of existing assets -- beginning with the physical urban form of the city. In the case of Camden, the downtown has enormous potential. The physical fabric of the central core — with density, a walkable, urban texture and proximity to Rutgers University at one end and Cooper University Hospital at the other — can become a powerful attraction for young single people and couples, and a strong basis for residential redevelopment.
The authors propose setting a friendly regulatory environment for infill redevelopment, aiming to reinvent public spaces and encourage private market reuse of older buildings, and targeting strategies to fill the market gap currently discouraging private developers.
Camden is also fortunate to have a strong network of community development corporations working in the city’s neighborhoods; areas such as Parkside, East Camden and Cramer Hill can become places where city/CDC partnerships can implement multifaceted neighborhood strategies that draw demand, rebuild housing markets and address destabilizing elements, including crime, foreclosure and property abandonment.
Smaller pieces can come together in what Brachman and Mallach call "strategic incrementalism," to make metropolitan areas such as Camden thriving centers once again.