A century after Camden County began planning its parks, the system's urban core is being reimagined and expanded to enable people on foot, bicycles, or watercraft to enjoy the Cooper and Delaware Rivers.
Gateway Park, created for the 2000 Republican National Convention and locked in limbo ever since, is finally set to debut along the Cooper on the south side of Admiral Wilson Boulevard.
"We intend to open the park this spring," Freeholder Jeff Nash said, adding that title transfers and environmental remediation of all but two parcels of land have been completed.
Meanwhile, Riverfront State Prison, long a hulking barrier between much of North Camden and the Delaware, has been replaced by the new Cooper's Point Park.
This new county park will be connected to the fast-redeveloping downtown waterfront by an extension of the handsome brick-paved promenade that starts a mile downriver at the Battleship New Jersey. The promenade eventually will link Cooper's Point Park to the refurbished county park at Pyne Point a few blocks north.
East and north of Pyne Point in the city's Cramer Hill section, a $25 million state project announced by the Department of Environmental Protection in 2017 will transform the long-abandoned Harrison Avenue landfill into a 62-acre waterfront park.
And a bit farther north, Petty's Island is on track for conversion into a more than 400-acre urban nature preserve within the next five years. The last of some 20 massive aboveground oil storage tanks was dismantled just before Christmas.
"People are going to get their waterfront back," said Michael Catania, chairman of the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust, which will own and maintain the storied island, where unusual flora and fauna (including bald eagles) flourish, and visitors will have memorable views of the river and the Philadelphia skyline.
The preserve will be among "a string of parks that will be connected by trails. It will be a critical mass of recreational and natural spaces, with amenities to attract people to travel from one to another," said Brian DuVall, president of the Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium on Camden's downtown waterfront.
"We've rediscovered something, and we're talking about a 'return to the river' campaign," said Maggie McCann Johns, director of the Camden County Parks Department.
Said Nash: "The county is making a concerted effort to revitalize all of its parks, and park revitalization also is part of the city's overall revitalization."
DuVall credited the Clean Water Act of 1972 with transforming the Delaware from "basically dead to a resource people can use."
As water quality has improved, public, private, nonprofit, educational, faith-based, and grassroots entities have begun collaborating to build or repurpose pieces of infrastructure. Planning and other support from the William Penn Foundation have been invaluable, said DuVall.
The Center for Aquatic Sciences and other groups seek to educate the public and encourage people to discover the water. The county is eyeing construction of new boat launches and wants to connect new or existing trails to an emerging regional system that eventually will include the proposed Cross Camden County Trail between the city and Winslow Township.
Cyclists, hikers, joggers, kayakers, canoeists, and anglers have become influential constituencies in recent years, as have young urbanists who want to live, work, and play in and around traditional city and town centers.
"There's been a reawakening," said Johns.
Students from Camden, Pennsauken, and other nearby communities also have been discovering the Cooper at paddling events promoted by Friends of Cooper River Park West, and learning to navigate the Delaware's back channel along Petty's Island as part of the Urban BoatWorks program of Urban Promise Ministries.
"There is so much momentum right now," said Jim Cummings, director of experiential learning at Urban Promise. He estimates that 1,000 local youngsters have been out on the water since the boat-building and paddling programs launched nine years ago.
"At first some of the kids told me, 'We never go near that river.' But when you take kids out on the water, you hear words like peaceful and serene," Cummings added. "Those are words I never heard Camden kids say about their city."
As a longtime resident of Camden County's inner-ring suburbs who's also a fan of the park system, I, too, treasure ready access to peaceful, serene places to walk through the woods or along the water.
I believe the county has generally done a commendable job stewarding the 2,000-acre system. But the infrastructure is aging, complicated, labor-intensive, and expensive to maintain, as the imminent $20 million-plus Newton Lake Park dredging project attests.
Collaborations with other public agencies, such as the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority and the Cooper's Ferry Partnership, and with nonprofits such as the New Jersey Conservation Foundation — which will maintain Gateway Park — have evolved naturally and so far seem to be working well as a way to share costs, expertise, and ideas.
"There's a realization that if we do this collectively, we'll get a lot more done," Johns said.
There's also a precedent in the history of the park system, which was conceived by Republican business and political leaders early in the 20th century as part of a strategy to make Camden a major metropolis on the order of Philadelphia.
But much of the system's infrastructure, including the dredging of the Cooper River to form the centerpiece that is Cooper Lake, was built through Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps.
I admit sometimes finding this vintage example of bipartisanship enjoyable to consider as I savor my walks around Haddon Lake Park in Audubon.
But why bother thinking about politics when there are more wonderful things to contemplate?
How about Nash's notion of a "floating bridge" to connect the new Gateway Park with Farnham Park along Kaighns Avenue in Camden, where a dam breach during a 1972 hurricane has left behind a lagoon where a landscaped water garden and picnic pavilion once stood?
Or modifying the nearby Cooper River dam to enable canoeists, kayakers, and fish to travel between Cooper Lake and the waterway's scenic confluence with the Delaware in North Camden?
"That's my dream," Johns said.