Breathing New Life into the Delaware River Shoreline

Breathing New Life into the Delaware River Shoreline
In Camden, N.J., a team of landscape architects, envi­ron­men­tal scientists, and engineers have completed one of the most ambitious landfill-to-park revi­tal­iza­tion projects to date. 

Camden’s waterfront once hosted some of the world’s most iconic manu­fac­tur­ers: RCA Victor, Campbell’s Soup, and the World War II-era New York Ship­build­ing Corporation, but the surging metropolis eventually slowed to a halt. Due to leftover steel and concrete from this industrial era, proximate residents of the Cramer Hill neigh­bor­hood never had a proper access point to the Delaware River. But today, channeling Walt Whitman's description of Camden as "a city invincible," state and local agencies have transformed the city’s Harrison Avenue Landfill into a destination community asset, Cramer Hill Waterfront Park.

acres of project site
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cubic yards of redis­trib­uted solid waste and soil
feet of new living shoreline

A Diamond in the Rough

Once dubbed “the dumps” by locals, Camden’s Harrison Avenue Landfill operated as a municipal landfill from 1952-1971. Since it was never decom­mis­sioned, unau­tho­rized waste disposal continued throughout subsequent decades.

The site of an abandoned landfill may not seem like fertile grounds for revi­tal­iza­tion, but perceptive landscape architects like CDM Smith’s Steven Fusco were able to spot untapped potential amid the brush, construc­tion and demolition debris, concrete, bricks, tires, and scrap metal.  

Landfills are usually the largest open spaces available to us. And due to their size, they’re some of the last oppor­tu­ni­ties left to create open pastoral landscapes that can also house programmed recre­ational amenities in order to serve as community anchors.” 
Steven Fusco, Landscape Architect
Image of waterfront park with Philadelphia skyline Image courtesy of NJDEP

Before designs to beautify the site could begin, the city knew it had to peek beneath the dirt and debris. After operation, the landfill was never capped, a process now mandated under federal law. Landfill capping isolates and contains cont­a­m­i­nated solid waste and soil to prevent harmful chemical compounds from leaking into the environment. With funding secured from the state’s Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund (HDSRF), the New Jersey Department of Envi­ron­men­tal Protection (NJDEP) began remedial inves­ti­ga­tions in 2006. 

Soil studies mostly yielded groundwater and leachate typical for a city dump, but a parcel of land in the southeast section did reveal some cont­a­m­i­na­tion from two chemical solvents—chloroben­zene and dichloroben­zene—which required immediate attention. CDM Smith joined the project team to perform a pre-design inves­ti­ga­tion through which scientists and engineers could identify the extent of the cont­a­m­i­na­tion plume. A closure plan followed, and NJDEP had everything it needed to launch the Harrison Avenue Landfill trans­for­ma­tion.

Developing a Design Strategy

The goals were two-fold. First, the project team needed to return the site to its prein­dus­trial state by applying design elements that mimicked natural processes. Second, they had to replace a formerly blighted urban landfill with a vibrant outdoor destination.

For Fusco and the design team, that meant tackling a series of landscape challenges, like sculpting a timeless park with public amenities and universal access, creating tidal wetland systems, and integrating green infra­struc­ture and areas of refor­esta­tion. They settled on a four-pronged strategy:

  • Restore Natural Resources—Instead of the gray, barren and uninviting dumping grounds, the Cramer Hill Waterfront Park now showcases seven acres of new tidal freshwater wetlands, a tidally-influenced fishing pond, and 20 acres of reforested vegetative communities. The paved trails lead to scenic overlooks and a pedestrian bridge that allow locals to enjoy the flora and fauna safely and respect­fully. Nearly 2.5 acres of pollinator meadows have been planted. The fishing pond was designed with constructed habitats to facilitate the estab­lish­ment of local species.    
  • Protect the Shoreline—An obvious challenge of the Harrison Avenue site revi­tal­iza­tion is tied to its former life as a landfill. More than 3,000 feet of unstable, steep shoreline slopes created an uninviting perimeter. Engineers and scientists stabilized the shoreline to prevent erosion and leachate seeps utilizing bioengi­neered slope stabi­liza­tion techniques and “living shorelines”—a term used to describe a natural infra­struc­ture solution that creates a protected, stabilized tidal shoreline made of natural materials such as vegetation, sand, or rock. Addi­tion­ally, CDM Smith envi­ron­men­tal scientists performed an in-depth tree survey along the shoreline and identified contiguous areas of priority eagle-habitat, which were isolated in the constructed wetland design and preserved as conser­va­tion islands to provide eagles and other wildlife suitable habitat while the park habitats establish and mature.   
  • Close and Cap the Landfill—As part of the landfill capping process, project teams have excavated and redis­trib­uted over 300,000 cubic yards of solid waste and soil. A passive gas venting system was also installed with vents hidden from the public eye by integrating them into light poles, along with a semi-permeable cap of clean fill material and vegetation.
  • Build the Park—Completed in 2021, the waterfront park includes an amphithe­ater, entry plaza, a universal playground, exercise stations, a 2-acre pond and fishing plaza, 3.5 miles of hiking and biking trails, inter­pre­tive signage, a kayak launch, picnic area, sensory garden, shoreline observation areas, and a summit vista with panoramic views of the Philadel­phia skyline and Delaware River Waterfront. 

"Today, this greenspace rivals any park in the state and represents the kind of investment and change that Camden deserves,” said Camden County Commissioner Jeff Nash at the park's ribbon-cutting on November 30th, 2021. "I grew up in Cramer Hill and I could never have imagined the transformation of this former landfill into such a beautiful community asset,” said Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen. “The park is not only a $48 million investment in our neighborhoods, it’s an investment in the quality of life for all of our residents and a symbol of revitalization for the community."

Steven Fusco Steven Fusco
This multidisci­pli­nary team came together to develop a landfill closure, ecological restoration, and urban park design to transform a landfill into a recreational destination.

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