Working for Smart Growth:
More Livable Places and Open Spaces


Suburbanization of New Jersey Picks Up Pace Since 2002

Report points to urgent need for state land use planning

July 28, 2010

Contacts: Chris Sturm, Senior Director of State Policy, New JerseyFuture (609) 393-0008 ext. 114
John Hasse, Geospatial Research Lab, Rowan University (856) 256-4500 x3977 
Richard Lathrop, Center for Remote Sensing & Spatial Analysis, Rutgers University (732) 932-1580

Where are we building in New Jersey? A report released today shows New Jersey has just completed its two most sprawling decades in history. Rather than building where there are roads, rails and infrastructure, New Jersey has been gobbling up its remaining open spaces at an alarming rate. For the first time since this data has been collected, New Jersey has more developed land than forests.

A joint Rowan-Rutgers report released today shows that New Jersey is losing open space at an increasing pace. Between 2002 and 2007, 16,061 acres per year, an amount equal to 34 football fields each day, were developed in New Jersey. This is a 7 percent increase from the previous rate of 15,123 acres per year between 1995 through 2002. 

New Jersey has long been the nation’s most developed state, but the data show it is now more developed than anything else: As of 2007, developed land covered 30 percent of the state and surpassed forest land as the dominant land-use type in New Jersey. The Garden State now has more acres of buildings, parking lots and lawns than it has of upland forests – including the Pinelands and all the state’s parks and reserves. 

“By taking a careful look at how land is used in New Jersey, our research offers a glimpse into what the future might hold,” explained President Donald Farish of Rowan University. “If new homes continue to be built on larger lots, our landscape will be dominated by subdivisions and strip malls, even in rural areas like South Jersey. I’m not sure that is what most New Jerseyans want.” 

“This research shows that the cumulative effect of thousands of municipal planning board meetings across the state is poorly planned growth that wastes natural resources, while doing little to improve conditions for residents and businesses,” noted Pete Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future. “The New Jersey State Plan was created over 20 years ago to better coordinate our land use decisions. We applaud the Christie administration’s interest in strengthening state planning to improve our decisions about where and how we grow.” 

The report acknowledges that due to a major recession, a housing bust, and spiking gasoline prices development activity in general after 2007, the year the study data ends, has been down. In response, Dennis Bone, President of Verizon New Jersey, commented that, “New Jersey’s economic growth is inseparable from the continuing development of our cities. Directing investment into these infrastructure-rich urban centers will be the economic stone in the pond that sends ripples of growth and revitalization throughout the state. A sustainable state plan is critical to realizing these economic benefits.”

“New Jersey’s efforts to steer new homes and jobs away from open spaces and farmland are not working very well,” according to Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “What we’ve learned in the Pinelands, though, is that we can protect New Jersey’s special places and promote sustainable development by using a regional plan that guides municipalities, landowners and developers and directs growth to the places that make sense.” 

“The DEP’s core mission always has been and will continue to be the protection of our natural resources,” said Marilyn Lennon, DEP Assistant Commissioner for Land Use Management. “At the same time, we recognize that a healthy environment and a healthy economy go hand in hand, and that haphazard development undermines both. With input from the DEP, other State agencies and stakeholders, the Administration is developing a balanced State Plan that maximizes opportunities to grow the economy while continuing to protect the environment through effective, science-based regulations.” 

The report website offers interactive, animated maps that allow the user to zoom in and see how suburbanization has affected their community over the 21-year study period between 1986 and 2007. “This tool should encourage people to think more about the long term implications of our land use decisions,” explained co-author John Hasse. “For example, new homes are being built on substantially larger lots, on average, than the historical pattern, which is why so much more land was developed despite a slowdown in population growth. Between 2002 and 2007, New Jersey’s population increased by only 1.1 percent, but the amount of developed land increased nearly five times faster.” 

The data analyzed since 1986 confirm the dramatic changes residents have experienced. The amount of farmland, for example, has shrunk by one-quarter – an area larger than Bergen, Mercer, or Cape May County in size. “Even more troubling,” said co-author Rick Lathrop, “is the increase in the rate deforestation over the last twenty-one years. Between 1986 and 1995, the state lost 4,300 acres per year of forestland, but between 2002 and 2007, annual losses of forest lands almost doubled to 8,490 acres, largely due to sprawling residential development.” 

Full report and interactive animated maps

About the reportUsing high-precision aerial photography, the state has created one of the most comprehensive inventories of land composition of any state. The land use mapping initially developed by the NJ DEP in 1986 has just been updated to give a picture of land use patterns and changes in the Garden State up through 2007. The results are described in Changing Landscapes in the Garden State: Urban Growth and Open Space Loss in NJ 1986 thru 2007, by John Hasse, Geospatial Research Lab, Rowan University, and Rick Lathrop, Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis, Rutgers University. 

This report is part of an ongoing series of collaborative studies between Rowan and Rutgers Universities examining New Jersey’s urban growth and land use change. The DEP data set utilized for the analysis represents a detailed mapping of the land use and land cover as depicted in high resolution aerial photography that was acquired in the spring of 2007. The imagery was then classified and mapped (figure 1.1) providing a window into how the Garden State has developed over the past several decades (from 1986 through 2007) and the subsequent consequences to its land base. It views land development patterns from several different angles providing a “report card” on urban growth and open space loss.


© New Jersey Future, 16 W. Lafayette St. • Trenton, NJ 08608 • Phone: 609-393-0008 • Fax: 609-360-8478

Are you receiving our Future Facts newsletter?

  • Latest news on land-use policy issues
  • Research and reports
  • Upcoming events
  • Every two weeks

Click to subscribe