Seeing their city in a new way


Seeing their city in a new way

Yasiria Lugo is a high school senior who grew up in Camden, N.J. Most of this city is sandwiched between two rivers: the Delaware River, and one of its tributaries, the Cooper River. Despite living in close proximity to the rivers, Yasiria says she and her family – including her grandfather, who has lived in Camden all his life – didn’t know they had the option to experience them first-hand.

There’s good reason for that: after suffering widespread industrial and stormwater pollution, the Delaware and Cooper Rivers were unpleasant and unsafe to be around for decades. In addition, the effects of receding industry along Camden’s waterfront - and the infrastructure left behind - have lingered, physically cutting off neighborhoods from the water’s edge.

Yet today, the rivers are experiencing a major rebound thanks to the Clean Water Act and the work of local NGOs. Wildlife, including bald eagles, osprey, and mussels are returning. New parks are beginning to line the Camden waterfront. And for the first time in decades, it’s possible to paddle these rivers and touch the water many days of the year – particularly during dry periods – without major health risks.

But the newfound opportunities for people to enjoy these cleaner rivers in Camden are not yet widely available, known, or accepted. This is reflected in comments from Yasiria and her peers (below), whom we interviewed this summer as they provided boat tours for other students through an Urban BoatWorks program, which is run through UrbanPromise, a youth development and education organization in Camden. The program teaches middle and high school students to build wooden boats and to lead city residents in paddling trips using those boats that focus on the history and ecology of Camden’s rivers.


"I never knew you could get out on the water. I used to have a fear of water and swimming, but this experience is different."  -Natali, 11th grade

"I pass the Cooper River every day, and I never realized it was this healthy. I love sharing this with other kids and hearing how their perspective of the water changed after they went out on our tours."  -Kyara, 11th grade

"This is a chance to give kids and adults a different perspective of Camden - the good, not the bad."  -Yasiria, 12th grade



The William Penn Foundation believes that the first step to reconnecting people with our region’s rivers is to increase access to them. To do this, we invest in the Circuit Trails (many of which trace the region’s waterfronts) and public access points for small boats like kayaks and canoes. We also support hands-on, engaging experiences as a means of increasing opportunities to connect with the outdoors and believe these experiences play an important role in building affinity for the watershed in the long term. 

The Urban BoatWorks program is emblematic of the approaches we support. It’s this very program that opened Yasiria’s eyes to the rivers that traverse her city. Not only do students hand-build wooden boats (under close supervision) over the course of the schoolyear, they also lead their peers and city residents in paddling tours of rivers that many – like Yasiria and her grandfather – didn’t realize were theirs to enjoy. In fact, the majority of people who join an Urban BoatWorks tour are paddling the tidal Cooper River for the first time. Trips are accessible to local residents free of cost.



We believe that immersive programs like Urban BoatWorks can make a meaningful first impression and have a lasting impact. We are proud to support several other organizations alongside UrbanPromise through the Riverways collaborative, which works to increase safe access to the region’s waterways through boat-building and on-water programs for families and youth across Camden and Philadelphia. Many of these programs are open to the public to enjoy, so anyone in the region can visit and experience our shared rivers in a new way. Be sure to check out for details.

Watch the video below to learn more about Urban BoatWorks and how it is reconnecting a city with its rivers.




Video produced by Circa for UrbanPromise.

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