Building Community in Trenton
At Capital City Farm, the first commercial urban farm in Trenton, New Jersey, more than 37 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers grow on two formerly abandoned city-owned acres. The farm, run by the D&R Greenway Land Trust, is a financially self-sufficient operation that donates 30 percent of its produce to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and sells the rest to nearby markets. A local community development and environmental nonprofit runs a well-established youth gardening program at the farm, which has won several awards since its founding in 2016.
There’s no question that Capital City Farm is a success story on many levels, from repurposing a trash-strewn lot to involving the local community in its development and operations. Now the city is hoping to emulate that success, working closely with local residents as it sets out to convert additional vacant lots into community gardens. The effort is part of a recently launched plan called Fight the Blight, which will include property demolition and redevelopment.
Trenton, population 83,000, has a disproportionate number of neglected and vacant properties: 1,500 of them in a city that covers just 7.5 square miles. As the city embarks on addressing this issue, officials are sensitive to the fact that, for residents in neglected urban neighborhoods, municipal improvement efforts can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, fixing up vacant lots and tearing down condemned buildings yields major quality of life improvements, including improving public safety and increasing community morale. But on the other hand, the sudden arrival of plans and projects developed without local input can be an unwelcome signal to residents that the future of the neighborhood is out of their hands and might not include them.
“Trenton . . . has historically been behind the eight ball” on securing local input in revitalization efforts, said the city’s principal planner, Stephani Register. “The way we’re approaching it now is this idea of ‘let’s give the people back their power.’ If we do that, we as an administration get better participation from residents. The question is, how do you do that for communities of color who have been disenfranchised for so long because they didn’t have the right information, and the tools that are out there have been used against them.”
An interdisciplinary team from Trenton is exploring these issues through its participation in the Lincoln Institute’s Legacy Cities Communities of Practice project. Over the past year, teams from three legacy cities (Trenton; Akron, Ohio; and Dearborn, Mich.) have met regularly to facilitate peer learning, gain insights from expert faculty on issues ranging from racial equity to fiscal health, and access resources and support to tackle entrenched citywide policy issues with place-based project approaches. Trenton’s team includes Register, mayoral aide Rick Kavin, Jamilah Harris, an analyst from the state Department of Environmental Protection, and Caitlin Fair, executive director of the nonprofit East Trenton Collaborative (ETC).
Legacy cities like Trenton are places that have experienced population and economic decline that has left them with common infrastructure and demographic challenges. Many of them have vast areas once full of people and industry that have now been abandoned and neglected. Smaller legacy cities have many of the same challenges as larger legacy cities like Detroit or Baltimore, said Jessie Grogan, associate director of Reduced Poverty and Spatial Inequality at the Lincoln Institute. But they tend not to draw the same national attention from think tanks or large philanthropic funders, and they tend to have smaller municipal staffs and budgets.
“These cities are kind of left to solve really complex problems on their own,” she said. “These smaller cities are in a tough spot where they have enough capacity to know what the problems are, but not enough to know what the potential solutions are or what their peer cities are doing that’s working.” The Legacy Cities Community of Practice gives them an opportunity to compare notes, get new ideas, and support each other’s work.
Trenton, for example, is now working to engage the community in its Fight the Blight program using strategies employed in Syracuse, N.Y., and Flint, Mich., and detailed in the Lincoln Institute’s Policy Focus Report Revitalizing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities. Rather than the city taking the lead in projects like the effort to expand its community gardens, officials have turned to community organizations. Kavin said Capital City Farm has been advising the city on the youth apprenticeship aspect of the proposed community garden project. And Fair says the ETC would like to see community gardens become year-round, accessible neighborhood resources that support workforce development and a healthy community.
“The idea is to marry [the gardens] with our youth employment program and for the city to create an opportunity for kids in the community to have a paid apprenticeship,” she said. “A goal of this initiative is to create a very public, community-oriented space that is open to everyone to use.”
The vision is for Trenton’s new community gardens to be financially self-sustaining, providing a steady source of local jobs and local food thanks to greenhouses and hydroponic gardening that make cultivation possible during the winter months. Allowing year-round structures such as greenhouses on lots operated as community gardens required a zoning code change, which the Trenton team collaborated on and achieved by mid-2021. In the fall of 2021, the ETC began working on deciding which vacant lots in East Trenton they want to turn into community farms.
Ultimately, the Trenton team sees the community farm project as just one way to start breaking down barriers between local government and residents and approach planning from a more holistic perspective. To that end, the city has also launched “how-to” informational sessions aimed at increasing small business owners’ access to capital and city contracts. Other sessions help homeowners figure out how to access grant money or loans to fix up their historic homes. And last year, Trenton launched an “Adopt a Lot” program that gives residents temporary access to vacant lots for their own gardens or other greenspace use.
“With all of these programs, we’re trying to foster an environment where all local residents can have a say,” Kavin said. “Not just in their city’s planning, but also in their own future.”
Liz Farmer is a fiscal policy expert and journalist whose areas of expertise include budgets, fiscal distress, and tax policy. She is currently a research fellow at the Rockefeller Institute’s Future of Labor Research Center.
Image: Volunteers plant seeds at Capital City Farm in Trenton, New Jersey. Credit: Capital City Farm.