Kimberly Ross, of Marion Gardens in Jersey City, with one of the trees planted in the public housing project. Photo by Christopher Lane.

By Aliya S. King

Making communities more livable for people of all ages does not depend on large, expensive projects. “Livable” can mean sidewalk improvements on street corners, or tables and chairs along with painted walls to spruce up an unused alleyway.

In Jersey City, the idea of livable can be as simple as $3,000 for a row of hardy red maple and birch trees planted at a public housing project parking area.

In the city of Garfield, livable is a pop-up wellness center, which received a $10,000 grant.

The projects began with an application last year by each of the cities for the first-ever AARP Community Challenge grants. Throughout the country, 1,200 communities applied for a total of $780,000 in funds designated to improve quality of life, social connections and community involvement.

The goal: projects with immediate impact. Cities had less than two months to get their plans completed.

In Jersey City, it was a beautification process for Marion Gardens, a working-class neighborhood with residents invested in their surroundings but lacking resources.

Kimberly Ross, vice president of the Residents Council, has lived her entire life in Marion Gardens. She worked closely on the plans to remove debris and to plant trees, shrubs and flowers with the challenge grant.

“To be honest, I wasn’t so sure people would come out to help at all,” said Ross, 56. “But on the day of the tree planting, we had over 50 people come out—of all ages. And now people are interested in tree maintenance and doing similar projects in other areas.”

For Ross, it demonstrated what can be done in her community, even with minimal resources.

Community involvement
Stephanie Hunsinger, state director of AARP New Jersey, said the Marion Gardens project is about more than foliage.

“This is the part of the program that is so essential,” she said. “It taps into the residents and builds civic engagement. That remains long after the project is finished.”

Hunsinger also points to Garfield as a city able to quickly bring about change. Public health is a concern, so the city decided to create a weekly pop-up wellness center, which also served as a way to get residents’ input on a new community center.

Weekly clinics were at capacity, said Darleen Reveille of the Garfield Health Department, who directed the project: “We were able to share important wellness information with Garfield residents. And, more importantly, they were able to share important information with us. We have a sense of what our community needs for our future center.”

What’s more, the grant process teaches community members how to use the levers of local government.

“We learned things like how to move quickly with departments like public works and sanitation,” said Alma Hidalgo, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer who worked on the Jersey City project with colleague Jillian Baumann. “That’s the kind of knowledge that trickles down to residents and helps them advocate for themselves,” Hidalgo said.

AARP begins accepting applications this month for the 2018 challenge grants at aarp.org/communitychallenge. There are no minimum or maximum dollar amounts for the awards.

Nonprofits and government entities may apply.

Aliya S. King is a writer living in Bloomfield, N.J.