Working for Smart Growth:
More Livable Places and Open Spaces

 

Plan for population growth in our cities rather than suburban, rural towns

Daily Record, November 16, 2011

By Peter KasabachNew Jersey Future Op-Ed Button

When it comes to planning and redevelopment, New Jersey is friendlier to the environment than many states.

After decades of uninterrupted suburban sprawl, we have come to recognize that our small, densely populated state cannot sustain this sort of growth any longer without doing grave damage to our environment, our economy and our quality of life.

We have created unique regional planning entities in the Meadowlands, Pinelands and Highlands to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems from over-development.

We have adopted a State Development and Redevelopment Plan that, while not mandatory, encourages growth in areas where infrastructure already exists and discourages it elsewhere.

We are blessed with an extensive transit network that offers a convenient alternative to automobile use for hundreds of thousands of daily commuters.

All levels of government — state, county and local — have purchased large parcels of open space and protected them from development.

Our air and water are measurably cleaner than they were a generation ago, many of the unsightly and odiferous landfills that once dotted the New Jersey landscape have been closed, capped and sealed and some of the nation’s worst toxic waste sites have been cleaned up and put to productive re-use.

Part of being environmentally friendly is figuring out the best way to accommodate the constant population growth that is experienced in New Jersey. Scores of communities, large and small, have adopted smart-growth principles and plans, revitalizing their downtowns, converting abandoned industrial properties into thriving mixed-use developments and taking advantage of their location along one of New Jersey’s commuter rail lines to catch the new wave of transit-oriented development.

Some of these activities have been hampered in recent years by the financial crisis and its unfortunate aftermath. The ailing economy has stalled building activity, including many redevelopment plans that have been proposed or approved but now sit in abeyance for lack of funding.

Still, there are encouraging signs. Since 2008, there have been significantly more building permits issued in the state’s “centers” — cities, towns and boroughs — than in suburban and rural townships. In fact, some of these centers issued twice as many building permits per year from 2008 to 2010 as they did from 2000 to 2007, suggesting that, from a development standpoint, they have weathered the recession better than their suburban counterparts.

The state’s Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program provides incentives for transit-oriented development, and other incentive programs, although not as well-funded as any of us would like, continue to encourage towns to develop in ways that create more compact, walkable communities with a mix of residential, commercial and cultural amenities and a widening range of options for getting around.

The State Development and Redevelopment Plan has not enjoyed particular prominence in recent years, nor has it commanded sufficient attention on the part of state agencies to develop a coordinated, coherent state approach to planning for a sustainable future. One very encouraging sign, therefore, is the Christie administration’s preparation of a new state strategic plan that could set the stage for cooperative, predictable state agency activities and actions designed to promote economic growth in the right places.

The great challenge, in these difficult economic times, is to spur this economic activity without in any way reducing our strong commitment to environmental preservation and protection. The governor’s decision to pull New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) was disappointing to environmentalists and smart-growth advocates, who questioned this administration’s commitment to reducing the state’s carbon footprint and aligning transportation and land-use policy to reduce our dependency on driving. It remains to be seen whether the governor’s assertion that New Jersey can meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals without participation in RGGI will be reinforced or undermined by the new state strategic plan.

New Jersey’s future depends on a strong, robust economy and a healthy, sustainable environment. It isn’t a matter of choosing between the two, because any diminution in one will inevitably diminish the other. Our state’s demographic trends suggest that market forces will help us embrace and adopt smart-growth policies:

  • There will be more renters and fewer homebuyers.
  • There will be smaller families with fewer schoolchildren.
  • There will be increased demand for apartments, townhouses and condominiums in compact, walkable neighborhoods.
  • There will be renewed interest by a generation that grew up in the suburbs to move to cities.
  • There will be higher gasoline prices that encourage commuters to use transit.

New Jersey is well-positioned to enter a period of vigorous economic growth built around redevelopment of our cities and towns, taking maximum advantage of our superior location, our skilled workforce, our comprehensive transit network and our commitment to a healthy, sustainable environment.

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