State of sprawl: Urbanization of New Jersey continues at significant pace, researchers say

Though its population has increased only slightly, urban development in New Jersey continued--and even gained momentum--over a 21-year span ending in 2007, according to a new study by researchers at Rowan and Rutgers universities.

Though its population has increased only slightly, urban development in New Jersey continued--and even gained momentum--over a 21-year span ending in 2007, according to a new study by researchers at Rowan and Rutgers universities.

In fact, the Garden State has just completed its "two most sprawling decades in history," according to researchers John Hasse of Rowan and Richard Lathrop of Rutgers.

"Changing Landscapes in the Garden State: Urban Growth and Open Space Loss in New Jersey, 1986-2007," the latest study on urban growth and land use change by the researchers, shows that, during the years 2002-07, New Jersey experienced a 7-percent increase in development per year compared with the earlier development rate experienced from 1985-2002.

During this most recent period, the state saw 16,061 acres of urbanization each year. Altogether, the data show that, since 1986, a massive 324,256 acres of land (506 square miles) have been urbanized in the state.

New Jersey's total urban footprint now accounts for more than 30 percent of the state's five million acres, according to the researchers.

"The magnitude of development over the last two decades is remarkable considering that population growth has slowed considerably," says Hasse, a professor of geography in Rowan's College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and director of the University's Geospatial Research Lab.

"But we are more concerned about the location and spatial pattern of urbanization since some development has much greater impacts on the environment than others."

Hasse and Lathrop, director of the Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis at Rutgers, analyzed the 2007 Land Use/Land Cover dataset released in June by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

According to their study, most of the state's development--56.9 percent--is attributed to residential housing. However, New Jersey's population grew only by 1.2 percent over the past five years. During that same period, urbanization occurred at over four times the growth rate of population, according to Hasse and Lathrop.

Most impacting, the researchers say, is the prevalence of residential housing units on lots of one to two or more acres of land. Those units consume large amounts of New Jersey's remaining farmland, forest and wetlands, according to Hasse and Lathrop.

"In spite of many mechanisms put in place in New Jersey to encourage more efficient compact development over the past two decades, two thirds of the acres developed into residential housing were the large-lot, land consumptive units that have encroached on rural landscapes throughout the state," the researchers note in their study.

State forests have been particularly hard hit, according to Hasse and Lathrop. The state lost 42,452 net acres of forest--and 38,823 acres was attributable to urbanization--just from 2002-'07.

"Forest loss has been so significant during this time period that by 2007 urban land surpassed forest land as the most prominent land type covering the state," the researchers note in their study.

"As of 2007, the Garden State had more acres of subdivisions and shopping centers than it had upland forests, including forests in the Pinelands and all New Jersey's parks and reserves combined."

The loss of forest areas has important ecological repercussions, Hasse and Lathrop maintain.

"Habitat areas and movement corridors are diminished and disrupted when forest stands are broken into smaller and non-connecting sections," they say in their report. "Many species that rely on large blocks of uninterrupted forest core for habitat may be adversely affected by its reduction."

The landscape also has been impacted by the increase in impervious surfaces--asphalt, concrete, etc.--created by development.

"The creation of impervious surface changes the natural hydrologic cycle by impeding precipitation infiltration to groundwater while increasing the amount of surface runoff," the researchers note in their study.

Those changes have significant environmental consequences, particularly on water quality, the researchers maintain.

In analyzing data on a county-by county basis, the state's "urban growth and open space loss hotspots" include Burlington and Gloucester counties in South Jersey, the coastal counties of Atlantic, Monmouth and Ocean, and the central Jersey county of Middlesex, according to the researchers.

Gloucester, Burlington and Atlantic counties also stand out as being hotspots of agricultural land loss, upland forest loss, and wetland loss. Other hotspots of upland forest loss include Monmouth, Morris and Ocean counties, while Middlesex and Monmouth counties also are hotspots of wetland loss, according to the researchers.

"The data show us that land use management in New Jersey has a difficult time steering development patterns away from sprawl and toward smart growth," Hasse says. "While some smart growth has taken place, such as the redevelopment of some of New Jersey's older towns, the majority of development that has occurred in recent decades still has the characteristics of sprawl."

To read the full study and to view animated maps of urban growth and environmental impacts over the past two decades, visit