Does New Jersey Have Room to Grow?
January 26th, 2012 by Tim Evans
- Of New Jersey’s 566 municipalities, more than half (328) had fewer residents as of the 2010 Census than they had at some time in the past, even though the state’s overall population is the largest that it has ever been.
- If the population of each of these 328 municipalities were to return to its historical maximum, an additional 760,000 people could be absorbed.
- About 40 percent of this absorption number, or 302,000 people, could be accommodated in just six cities designated as “urban centers” by the State Plan: Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Trenton, Camden, and Atlantic City. The land in these cities is already fully developed, so restoring them to their peak populations would involve redeveloping vacant and underutilized sites, rather than building on virgin land. (The other two urban centers identified in the State Plan, Elizabeth and New Brunswick, actually have more residents today than at any earlier time, so they do not contribute to the shortfall.)
- More generally, two-thirds (217 out of 328) of the municipalities that presently have fewer residents than at their peak are primarily “built out,” meaning that, based on 2007 data, at least 90 percent of their land area was already developed. These places lost population but retained their developed land, so they could be repopulated simply be refilling that land to its prior capacity.
Absorbing New Population Through Redevelopment
Extrapolating population projections from the Census Bureau and the New Jersey Department of Labor indicates New Jersey will gain about another 1 million residents by approximately 2042, 30 years from now. The question is, where will we put them?
One possible answer involves the standard “greenfield” model – that is, continuing to build on our undeveloped lands until everything is either developed, permanently preserved as open space, or undevelopable because of environmental constraints. As of 2007, New Jersey had just under a million (992,000) acres of developable land remaining. If recent land development trends continue – between 2002 and 2007, New Jersey developed 873 acres for every 1,000 net new residents – then accommodating a million new people will entail developing an additional 873,000 acres. This is nearly the entirety of the state’s remaining supply of developable land. We’ll be very close to full build-out.
But what if we put the old model aside and instead considered an alternative? What if we seek to accommodate as much new growth as possible without having to develop any new land at all?
It turns out we could get three quarters of the way toward absorbing the next million residents simply by repopulating to their historical peak populations all of New Jersey’s municipalities that currently have fewer residents than at some point in the past. In principle, this would not have to involve any additional land development at all, since these municipalities were all able to house larger populations on the same or fewer developed acres. Substantial population growth can be accommodated through redevelopment: by reconfiguring or repurposing existing buildings, by building on surface parking lots or previously developed but now vacant sites, or by razing obsolete structures and building new ones.
These redevelopment opportunities are almost everywhere, based on empirical evidence. For example, municipalities that were already at least 90 percent built-out as of 2002 accounted for a full one-third of the building permits issued statewide from 2000 to 2009. (See New Jersey Future’s report Built Out but Still Growing for a more complete analysis of this building permit activity.) Between 2000 and 2010, a group of 95 municipalities that were already at least 90 percent built-out in 2002 collectively gained 91,000 residents.
Clearly, the fact that a place has already built on most of its land does not imply that it can no longer increase in population. A strategic focus on redevelopment means that New Jersey can absorb plenty of new growth and still do justice to the “garden” part of its Garden State nickname.
New Jersey Future will focus on effective strategies to redevelop these areas at its annual Redevelopment Forum March 9. Please join us for a day of workshops, learning and networking, all about issues affecting redevelopment efforts in the Garden State.