How Will the Garden State Grow?

Peter Kasabach | December 27, 2011 | Opinion
Nearly 80 percent of NJ's land area is already spoken for, and we seem determined to exhaust the remaining supply as rapidly as possible

While NJ Spotlight is on winter hiatus, we’ve asked some of the state’s thought leaders to share their opinions and expertise with our community. We’ll be back, rested and ready, next week.

In the 25 years that have passed since New Jersey adopted the State Planning Act, which calls for growth and development to be directed toward regions of the state where infrastructure already exists and away from areas that are environmentally sensitive, one fact of life has become abundantly clear:

It is easy to talk about doing the right thing. It is far more difficult to actually do it.

For the most part, New Jersey has grown and developed during the past quarter-century in much the same way as it did during the half-century that preceded it — ever outward, from established places where infrastructure already exists to sprawling suburbs that encroach on environmentally sensitive areas.

Between 1986 and 2002, New Jersey averaged about 15,000 acres (roughly the size of Manhattan) of new land development each year, or a total of nearly 230,000 acres. Between 1995 and 2002 alone, 36,000 acres of agricultural land and 58,000 acres of forest were given over to development, a total area about equal to the size of Union and Hudson counties combined.

As of 2007, developed land covered 32 percent of New Jersey, surpassing forest land as the dominant land-use type in the state. (We now have more acres of buildings, parking lots, and lawns than we have of upland forests — including the Pinelands and all the state’s parks and reserves.) Another 47 percent of our land has either been set aside for preservation or contains physical and environmental constraints that render it undevelopable.

This means that nearly 80 percent of New Jersey’s land area is already spoken for. And we seem increasingly determined to exhaust the remaining supply of land as rapidly as possible. A recent report by Rowan University concludes that the land-use pattern in New Jersey today is substantially more sprawling than it was in 1970, with recent growth using up much more land per capita than older development. This is a luxury that the most developed state in the country simply cannot afford.

How did we get here? And how do we turn things around to get where we need to go?

How we got here is simple enough. We allowed our quintessentially American preoccupation with the next new frontier — at the expense of what we had already built — to compromise our long-term sustainability.

It was easier and cheaper to run a new sewer line out to the suburbs than it was to fix the crumbling lines in the cities.

It was easier and cheaper to develop new homes on suburban cul-de-sacs, and build new highways to get to them, than it was to redevelop older properties in the cities and maintain and repair the streets and sidewalks that served them.

And as the first-ring suburbs aged, it was easier to keep extending outward, turning land that once earned New Jersey the title of the Garden State into acre upon acre of housing subdivisions and strip malls.

Much of this outward movement was driven by government incentives and a thriving market for single-family homes on suburban lots, where Baby Boomers who grew up in the cities could acquire green lawns and driveways, trade in their bus and rail passes for an automobile (or two), raise their children, and enjoy a lifestyle that fulfilled the latest version of the American Dream. At the same time, many businesses were relocating from high-rise office buildings in downtown Newark, Elizabeth, and Camden to low-rise corporate campuses in Parsippany, Woodbridge, and Cherry Hill — with nice big parking lots to accommodate all the cars.

Today, we are experiencing some of the unintended consequences of this unabated sprawl development.

Many of those sewer lines and highways we built to support growth, while we deferred maintenance and repair on older infrastructure, are now in need of maintenance and repair themselves, putting increased pressure on taxpayers.

Deterioration, abandonment, and blight — the fate that befell many urban factories, commercial sites, and industrial properties in the mid to late 20th century — has become an all-too-familiar 21st century sight in suburban office parks and strip malls across the state.

And getting to and from many of the jobs that moved out to the suburbs (but not necessarily the same suburbs where the people who filled them live) now requires a daily commute by car that keeps getting longer and more frustrating for drivers and more unproductive for the companies that employ them.

How can we turn things around to get where we need to go? Part of the answer lies in letting market forces undo in the next generation what they did in the last one.

Unlike the Baby Boomers, who fled the cities for large-lot suburban split-levels, the emerging cohort of homebuyers and renters—Generation Y and Millennials — are showing a clear preference for apartments and townhouses, located in tight-knit, pedestrian-friendly communities. So are the Baby Boomers themselves, rapidly morphing into Empty Nesters who have no need for three bedrooms and no desire to go looking for their car keys every time they want to leave home.

This trend should encourage a shift in public investment, away from new infrastructure that supports sprawl and toward the kind of redevelopment that has been occurring in places like Cranford, Morristown, Hoboken, and Jersey City — repairing and replacing long-neglected streets and sidewalks, revitalizing underutilized properties, converting abandoned factories and warehouses into vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods served by parks, shops, and easy access to transit.

State government can also play a major role in planning for and supporting the kind of growth and development that will sustain New Jersey in the future. Underpinning the new State Strategic Plan unveiled in October by the Christie administration is a set of “Garden State Values” that promote development and redevelopment “in a manner consistent with sound planning where infrastructure can be provided at private expense or with reasonable expenditure of public funds.”

These values reflect the kind of smart-growth principles that can, and should, sustain New Jersey for years to come:

  • concentrating development in areas that are compact, preserve land, and offer services and amenities within walking distance;
  • prioritizing redevelopment, promoting infill, and upgrading existing infrastructure;
  • increasing job and business opportunities in priority growth investment areas by addressing the land-use and infrastructure needs of targeted industries and areas;
  • creating high-quality, livable places;
  • providing transportation choice and efficient mobility of goods;
  • advancing equity;
  • diversifying housing opportunities;
  • providing for healthy communities through environmental protection and enhancement;
  • protecting, restoring, and enhancing agricultural, recreational, and heritage lands; and
  • making decisions within a regional framework.
  • Adherence to these principles by state agencies that have a direct impact on growth and development, either through regulatory authority or discretionary financing, will go a long way toward reversing the unsustainable development patterns of the past, and making redevelopment of our cities, older suburbs, and small towns the growth strategy of the future. Adoption of these same principles by municipal planning boards and governing bodies will allow us to emerge from the Great Recession with a common resolve to renew, revitalize, re-use, and redevelop our way to a prosperous future.