Thriving Ecosystem Rising on Vacant Camden Lot Could Represent New Model for Environmental Sustainability

By Ed Moorhouse

Rutgers-Camden senior biology major Aisha Dorley (left) and master's student Timnit Kefela stand on a vacant lot in Camden where they are working to invigorate the soil and create an ecosystem complete with wildflowers that attract pollinator insects.

Rutgers-Camden senior biology major Aisha Dorley (left) and master’s student Timnit Kefela stand on a vacant lot in Camden where they are working to invigorate the soil and create an ecosystem complete with wildflowers that attract pollinator insects.

An old sneaker lies on the ground on a fenced-in vacant lot between two buildings on Market Street in Camden. Not far from the sneaker, a plastic bag tries to break free from the metal fence, and empty plastic drink bottles hide among the weeds.

In the middle of the lot is an isolated area with freshly tilled soil sowed with the seeds of a variety of plants and flowers. Free of litter, it’s an oasis in an urban landscape.

“There’s land here that you can make beautiful. It doesn’t have to be an eyesore,” says Timnit Kefela, a graduate student at Rutgers University–Camden.

Kefela, a Camden resident who earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Rutgers–Camden, is working on a project that marries science and art in an attempt to create thriving ecosystems filled with wildflowers and pollinator insects in place of polluted vacant lots.

Working under the supervision of Simeon Kotchoni, an assistant professor of biology at Rutgers–Camden, Kefela has spent the past three years extensively studying the interactions of plants and naturally occurring microorganisms found in soil. She hopes to utilize the knowledge gained from this work for the development of innovative approaches for environmental sustainability.

Kefela is working with Aisha Dorley, a senior biology major at Rutgers–Camden, in an effort to foster biodiversity and attract pollinator insects like bees and butterflies to help the new plants thrive on the Market Street lot.

“We’re culturing bacteria that are ubiquitous to this environment and using it as a fertilizer for the soil in order for it to support pollinator species of plants,” Kefela says. “It’s nature helping nature. This is an area considered incapable of such a thing, but we’re trying to disprove that.”

Dorley, an Atlantic City resident, adds, “The idea was to try and find a way to clean the soil naturally, to remediate it and create this new environment. It makes the urban landscape more beautiful and growing plants or vegetables helps people feel better about their community and inspires them to take care of it.”

The vacant lot has a private owner who is allowing the students to use it for the project. Kefela and Dorley say that if it is successful, they’ll plant more species in a wider area on the lot and encourage similar projects on vacant spaces around the city.

As the plants grow, Kefela and Dorley will analyze the microorganisms that enrich the soil, as well as the pollinator insects attracted to the plants. This knowledge will help them better understand what is required to create a sustainable area for plants in the urban landscape.

“In an urban area like Camden, we lack an understanding of what biodiversity means to the people and the community,” Kotchoni says. “We’re using this area as a pilot civic engagement project to show that plants and other species can live and thrive in an urban environment and improve the community.”

The project is being done in partnership between Kotchoni’s lab and Rutgers–Camden’s Art and Urban Stability course, taught by Elizabeth Demaray, an associate professor of art at Rutgers University–Camden. Dorley, an art minor, was a student in Demaray’s class in the spring 2015 semester when the project came to fruition. Students in the class joined Kefela and Dorley in preparing the lot for planting.

“The kinds of issues we as a culture are now encountering, with massive species die-off, and the vastly unpredictable environmental consequences of climate change, are the kinds of painful realities that art allows us to address,” says Demaray, whose own artwork concerns the interface between built and natural environments.

“Because art is not tied to a utilitarian purpose, artists are able to consider what might, could, or would be,” she says. “So, an artist may look at the abandoned lots in Camden and envision thriving indigenous ecosystems filled with wildflowers and pollinator insects such as bees and butterflies.”

Soon, artists, scientists, and Camden residents alike won’t have to leave such an environment up to the imagination. Thanks in part to the contributions of dedicated Rutgers–Camden students, Camden is a city in full bloom.

 

View a short video about Art and Urban Sustainability class featuring the Pollinator Project below. The video was created by Jennifer Jakimiak CCAS ’14 for the Association of Environmental Science Studies (AESS). Jakimiak is also making a video about the Pollinator Project which will be finished after the flowers bloom and the project reaches completion.

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