In Camden, a project to tell residents where it's safe to walk

The small group of teenagers making their way through the streets of North Camden were on a mission: Map out the best places in the city to walk and get others moving, too.

In a city where some residents may believe there are no places to walk or their neighborhoods are too dangerous, youth involved in this new project — a part of Hopeworks ‘N Camden, a tech-job training nonprofit based in North Camden — are trying to change lifestyles and perceptions. They are mapping trails and paths to educate residents about places to get out and exercise.

On a hot afternoon this week, the team made its way to Pyne Poynt Park, a lush, 15-acre secluded site adjacent to the Delaware River, to gather research for the project, which includes an interactive map, videos, and an aggressive student-run social media campaign. The park has a bike trail and a walking trail.

The four teens — Christian Romero, Angie Muniz, Jahmir Coleman, and Naji Land — are spending the summer discovering nature in the nine-square-mile city and documenting their work. As part of the project, they are interviewing residents to help find ways to spread the word about the Camden GreenWay trails.

“I just want to let everybody know about the trails and how beautiful they are, even in Camden,” said Coleman, 15. “You might not think it’s our city.”

The Camden GreenWay Trail is a network that spreads through Camden and connects to surrounding suburbs and Philadelphia. It includes over 128 miles of bicycle and walking trails, including the Cooper River Park Trail, Schuylkill River Trail, and the East Coast Greenway.

Using mapping data, the Hopeworks youth plan to develop a searchable web tool that residents can use to find attractions in Camden, map possible exercise routes in their own neighborhoods, and create exercise plans. The project also calls for building a website on how and where to exercise.

Camera icon David Swanson
Christian Romero holds a map on his phone. Using maps and websites, Hopeworks ‘N Camden, a nonprofit trying to change lifestyles in the city, is mapping healthy, safe places to exercise and walk. Last year, a team used similar tools to develop a “Food Hunger” map in Camden to target more nutritional resources.

The project is only the latest brainchild of Hopeworks ‘N Camden. Founded by Camden Lutheran and Catholic churches in March 2000, Hopeworks oversees several projects from its offices in a converted rowhouse on State Street in North Camden. The nonprofit seeks to encourage youth to stay in school, get a diploma, and continue on to college.

On the first floor of Hopeworks’ offices, a group of youngsters learn the basics of webpage design and development. Another group, the GIS team — geographic information systems — works with New Jersey American Water to assist in the electronic mapping of hydrants, pipes, pumps, valves and other components of the utility’s system in the Cramer Hill section of the city.

It has assisted thousands of youths, ages 14 to 23, with job training and other programs. It also operates a small residential home, and works with other local organizations on treating some of the social problems Camden residents face.

Last year, Hopeworks used similar interactive tools to develop a “Food Hunger” map in Camden to provide more nutritional resources in areas where residents had little access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. But it discovered that some residents were making more healthy eating choices, without changing their physical lifestyles, said Dan Rhoton, the group’s executive director.

“The other part of healthy eating is exercise,” Rhoton said.

Bordered on three sides by rivers, Camden has miles of “exceptional natural trails” and public places that have been largely underutilized, Rhoton said. Hopeworks wants to better inform residents and outsiders about Camden and help overcome barriers that may keep them from exploring the trails. A biker can traverse Pyne Poynt, for example, which connects to South Camden, without touching a city street, he said.

“Camden has incredible resources for biking, hiking and exercise,” Rhoton said. “But that’s not the narrative you hear about Camden.”

Camera icon Hopeworks 'N Camden
A map shows biking and walking trails throughout Camden that connect the city with the suburbs and Philadelphia.

The four teenagers, accompanied by Jeniya Webbs, an academic success coach at Hopeworks, approached several people in Pyne Poynt Park this week. Each teen was given an assignment. Land was the interviewer, Muniz recorded video, Romero took notes on his cellphone, and Coleman handed out promotional materials.

Camera icon David Swanson
(From left) Jahmir Coleman, Christian Romero, Angie Muniz, Jeniya Webbs (academic success coach), and Naji Land, interview Aaron Streater and Nathalia Pratt in Pyne Poynt Park. Using maps and websites, Hopeworks ‘N Camden is mapping healthy, safe places to exercise and walk in the city.

“Are you familiar with the Camden Greenway trails?” Land, 15, a rising sophomore at Camden Academy Charter High, politely asked two young people sitting at a picnic table. George Santiago, 15, said he was familiar with the trails, but said the city should do know more to let residents know about them.

The team was pleasantly surprised when a couple enjoying the park with their two sons gave the same answer. “The main thing is exercising. Kids need to be out here,” said Aaron Streater, 40, as his sons, Joedi and Ethan, rode off on their bikes.

“We usually get a lot of the same responses,” said Webbs, who oversees the team. “A lot of people who are on the trails don’t know the trails exist.”

The team works two hours a day, typically conducting interviews two or three times a week. The project began four weeks ago, funded by grants from the Horizon Foundation and Aetna. The teens, who are paid, also have taken day field trips that included visits to the Pinelands, hiking, and kayaking.

Because of his involvement in the project, Land, an aspiring aerospace engineer, said he now regularly takes his younger siblings, ages 7, 10, and 14, on nature walks at the Camden waterfront.

“They actually enjoy the walks,” said Land. “It’s a bonding experience, too. They’ll remember that.”