Rambling about Cities and New Jersey: What to Love and What Not to Love



Urban development is a topic that is not too popular in writer’s circles, but it is a great passion and pastime of mine. The impact of a city on its surrounding region and the culture it disseminates says more about who we are than we’d like to admit sometimes. Every region has its city, so much that the people of that region can often say they’re going to the city and others know exactly which one they mean. It is the center of not only the local culture, but also its religion, its history, its economy, even its playground.


That is why cities fascinate me. The day SimCity 2000 came out, I wanted nothing more. I used to draw my own city maps on huge 4-by-4-foot drafting paper when I was a kid. To this day I explore the layout of cities on Google Earth and Google Maps like it’s my job, trying to get the best angle to view the skyline, flying over the downtowns with my mouse. I study the stats of cities like my life depended on it. Which U.S. city is most likely going to be in the 1-million-population club next? Austin. Which U.S. metro area without an NFL team could best support one? Probably Portland, Oregon because it is the metro area over two million that is farthest from any other NFL team.


I haven’t even mentioned my infatuation with other municipalities; townships, boroughs, villages, towns; not to mention census-designated places, unincorporated communities, subdivisions, private communities, and the list goes on. I’ve done extensive research on what it means to be a suburb, where the borders of a metro area really should be, and more. I’ve gone to great lengths to understand the significance of population density.


All of this alludes to my underlying interest to understand the way people live and why. While many great American cities have declined in the past 60 years or so, we are seeing a steady return to many of these same cities and to the love of city life. Newark, New Jersey--for instance--saw a 12.4 percent increase in population in the past 10 years and is now back over 300,000 people, making it bigger than Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati (three cities which I hope to see bounce back in my lifetime as well).


I strongly support cities and urban development, but only in those areas that have already been developed only to be abandoned. It’s a sad story of untapped potential. I also support small towns, rural communities. I don’t like suburbs because they usually just contribute to urban sprawl, but I understand the role they all play in modern society. I have a vision of developers working within the bounds of what’s already been developed. It is not a vision of grandiose urban planning. I believe that, before we build, we need to thoroughly understand what works and what doesn’t based on what has been proven in past urban development.


I also love New Jersey, my home state. There is a great deal of talk about how densely populated it is, so--putting my interests to work--I made my own map illustrating the population density of NJ as I see it. The urban center of the state is in the northeast. In this way, it actually imitates the U.S. which also has its most densely populated corridor in the Northeast. I always think it would be culturally beneficial if New Jerseyans referred to its northeast corridor as one big city and called it New Jersey City. That would merge the names of the two largest cities it would contain--Newark and Jersey City--and it would continue trends set by New York City. Not only would New Jersey City take its name from its state, like NYC does, but it would also be historically reminiscent of what NYC did. New York City used to be five separate cities before the boroughs merged. In fact, Brooklyn still prides itself in having its own distinct identity. For instance, it has its own Roman Catholic diocese and professional basketball team, the Nets (which it stole from NJ … grrr).


Many New Jerseyans probably don’t like the idea of calling northeast New Jersey “New Jersey City”. They may think it mimics NYC too much. Understandably, New Jersey struggles with its identity and it should strive to make itself distinct from NYC. It struggles to do this because all the northeast NJ cities are seen as just gateways to NYC. People even sometimes just call the region “The Gateway”. Calling the region New Jersey City wouldn’t be merely an imitation of NYC. It would raise awareness of the urban center of the state, and compel people to compare it to NYC.


New Jersey City wouldn’t have to be a new municipality. Afterall, New Jersey does love its home rule philosophy; especially in the north--I mean look at all those little towns. New Jersey City could be a cultural reference to the urban area in the northeast of the state--kind of like how San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and that whole region around San Francisco Bay is often called the Bay Area; or how Minneapolis and St. Paul are often called the Twin Cities. Other similar nicknames for urban regions would include Quad Cities in Illinois and Iowa, the Inland Empire in southern California, the Metroplex (Dallas/Fort Worth), and Hampton Roads (eastern Virginia's megalopolis).


Now let’s move south from New Jersey City. Living here most of my life has made me notice that there is a suburban wall stretching from the Raritan Bay to Trenton, separating the beautiful open spaces in North and South Jersey. Towns like Cranbury and Colts Neck have done their part in holding back suburban development, but towns like East Windsor and Freehold failed to hold the line. The map in the collage above shows this suburban wall. It is color-coded to indicate dense urban (red), urban (orange), suburban (yellow), sub-rural (light green) and rural areas.


Speaking of which, I also love rural areas. I love the countryside, horse farms, cornfields, produce stands, rolling hills of orchards and paddocks, farmhouses tucked under a canopy of trees far from the road surrounded by crops of wheat, soy, sod, or whatever else the farmer decides to grow that year. So I am compelled to do my part and defend the countryside however I can.


My hope is that this map conveys the potential NJ has to keep development channeled within the urban channels. I don’t believe any laws should be put into place to prevent development outside the urban regions of the state. But I do believe if we started offering a positive vision of smart development, developers would start looking to the regions that are already developed, seeing the potential there. The number of vacant properties in the land already developed in NJ is staggering. Why not reclaim it and rehab those properties? People may say the land value is low, but that’s only because no one is taking the risk to raise the land value by building something attractive on the vacant land. Camden is full of abandoned warehouses and factories. So is Trenton and many cities in NJ. Smaller towns throughout the state have properties on perfectly fine corridors that just need a little appeal to attract buyers.


In other words, I get excited by the opportunities that come to mind whenever I see a vacant property in this highly populated, diverse state that is teeming with potential. Then I become sad when I notice how unwilling people are to realize that potential. This is true not only for NJ but the rest of the country and world as well. I would support a movement that reclaims and rehabs vacant properties. The more people who supported such an idea the better the world would be for all of us.


Photos of cities and Pine Barrens from Wikipedia. Photo of countryside by Nicholas A. Tonelli from PX Here.