Newark’s latest ‘Sustainability Hero’ sees good things to come
The Trust for Public Land met Donna Kirkland at a community meeting back in 1996—she was full of big ideas, and we knew right away that we wanted her on our team. Today, she runs our Parks for People program in Newark, where she’s earned a reputation as a resourceful planner who seems to know just about everyone.
Donna’s also a member of the the Newark Environmental Commission and the Sustainable Jersey Task Force, which recently named her a “Sustainability Hero.” We sat down to chat about the award and her vision for a greener New Jersey.
Q: Congratulations on the award! How did you feel when you heard the news?
A: I was honored, but the award is about so much more than just me. I share it with the park “Friends” groups, the partners that make these things possible, and of course The Trust for Public Land. There’s so more that we can do together.
Q: What does a sustainable New Jersey look like to you?
A: We do more in our parks and playgrounds than just play. Parks are about education, equity, conservation, and job creation, too. It’s about building community: enabling advocates to steward and care for their parks and to report and discourage vandalism. It’s about connecting people to opportunities so that they can grow and support each other. Empowering people with a sense of ownership and responsibility creates sustainable communities—which in turn creates sustainable cities and sustainable states, as well.
Q: If the Parks for People program in Newark achieves its goals, how will the city be different in ten years?
A: Newark will be a model city! It’s on the verge—we’re already changing people’s mindsets. If we’re successful, Newark will look the way it did when I was a kid: green and leafy and not just a concrete jungle. Every person in Newark will live within a ten-minute walk of a park or playground, so that even if they don’t have a backyard, they’ll have a place to play. Parks and playgrounds will be the foundation of our community.
Q: Why is it so important for people to have access to nature?
A: Seeing nature, living and touching and being a part of it—that’s good for everyone. For children especially, outdoor play and a connection to nature is so important for wellbeing and healthy development. But it’s not just about physical activity—it’s about creating the next generation of stewards and environmentalists. You have to experience nature in order to become passionate about it and want to protect it for the future.
Q: How does the work you’re doing with Parks for People help encourage that passion?
A: When we involve children in the participatory design process for a park, they learn about much more than playground equipment. They learn about stormwater and green infrastructure, landscape design and other green jobs. Kids in our Summer Ranger program learn horticulture and park maintenance, but they also get exposed to new career paths and conservation strategies. We want to introduce people to places they have never been and paths they haven’t yet imagined.
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