For decades, baby boomers flocked to New Jersey's suburbs and exurbs, driving a surge in development that saw farms being sold off so houses could be built. But new population estimates clearly show a full reversal of that trend.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday that fewer people were living last year in every municipality in Sussex, Cape May, and Cumberland counties and in nearly all communities in Warren, Hunterdon, and Salem than at the last official Census in 2010. The figures are estimates conducted at the midpoint between official counts.
Virtually all the population growth has occurred in northeast and central Jersey, particularly in Hudson, Union, and Middlesex counties. Four of the 10 towns with the largest percentage increases in population -- all growing by more than 10 percent in five years -- were in Hudson: Secaucus, Harrison, Weehawken, and East Newark. So was the town with the largest numerical population growth: Jersey City added nearly 17,000 people between 2010 and 2015, bringing its total to more than 264,000 and inching it ever closer to the state's biggest city, Newark, which had almost 282,000 people last year.
James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said it's unique to New York and a few other cities across the country and a seismic shift from what had been happening in New Jersey for decades.
"The boomburbs are still doing well in the South and West," Hughes said, referring to fast-growing suburban areas in states like Texas. But in the 35-county New York metropolitan area, post-recession, "that sort of tidal wave of metropolitan expansion ever outward completely stopped."
He said 12 counties on the fringes of the New York metro area, including Sussex, Warren, and Hunterdon in New Jersey, all lost population.
"It is in those outer-edge suburban counties that people were fleeing to in the '80s and '90s that growth stopped dead in its tracks," Hughes said.
It's not that people are abandoning the suburbs; the loss comes as children grow up and move away.
One reason is the lack of job growth. Hughes said counties like Bergen, Hudson, and Middlesex that are separated from New York City by just a river are experiencing population increases because of the employment opportunities in the city.
Between 2004 and 2015, New Jersey as a whole had "minimal job growth," Hughes said, while New York added 650,000 jobs. That was "the best 11-year period in New York history in terms of absolute numbers."
That is, again, a turnaround. In the 1980s and 1990s, New Jersey was the locomotive of the region's economy, he said, and the suburban growth corridors became home to countless office parks. Today, "corporate America wants to be urban."
So do more and more New Jerseyans, with millennials leading the charge. Tim Evans, research director at New Jersey Future, said the latest population estimates show "the continuation of the trend that started in the wake of the Great Recession, with people rediscovering in-town living and deciding that the 'drive 'til you qualify' strategy of living out on the exurban fringe isn't really worth it."
Evans' analysis of the data found "the state's population growth being led by places that are already mostly built-out -- the opposite of what had been happening for the prior five decades. Redevelopment is the new normal."
The other driver of the population growth in urban areas is immigration. Hughes noted that more native-born citizens move out of New Jersey than move in, and so immigrants are driving the population growth. Very few are choosing to settle in the state's nine most western and southern counties.
Eleven of the 20 municipalities with the biggest percentage declines in population were in Sussex County. Three of the top four -- Mantoloking, Union Beach, and Avon-by-the-Sea -- all suffered heavy damage from superstorm Sandy.
While Census officials try to use data and scientific methods to create the best estimates they can, the numbers don't always tell the whole story.
The municipality that gained the most people as a percentage of population was Lebanon Borough in Hunterdon County. The numbers show this small borough grew by more than 300 people, a 23 percent increase, between 2010 and 2015. Borough clerk Karen Romano, who also serves as secretary to the planning board and registrar, said the opening of one condo-apartment complex, the completion of another, and the turnover of some homes probably accounts for half the increase, but the rest is likely the bureau correcting what the borough believed was an undercount of about 160 people in 2010. That year, the census put the borough's population at 1,358. The 2015 estimate was 1,671.
"In the last census in 2010, we thought we were a little low," said Romano. "Our tax has not changed at all: the actual number of dwellings has not changed, except for that complex they completed."