Suburbs and Sprawl

Jesse Fried • Jun 15, 2017

A Fundamentally Suburban State

New Jersey is a very diverse land with big cities and open countryside, but we can nevertheless consider our state generally suburban in character. The suburbs are our cultural center of gravity.

The same claim could be made about contemporary America, with some degree of truth to it. Many and varied subdivisions of single-family homes, from weathered rust belt boxes to exploding sunbelt McMansions, articulate the booms and busts of capitalism across our landscape. New Jersey, however, has a deep historical current of suburban characteristics that transcend any single building boom or economic epoch.

The Jersey phenomenon of closely spaced, moderate density municipalities dates back centuries, a consequence of history and geography. Our many navigable rivers, fertile lowlands, moderate climate and rich timber and mineral resources made our land especially attractive to farmers, miners and merchants among Dutch and British colonists. The influence of neighboring New England can be felt in the trend of small agrarian village settlements. New Jersey was an industrial pioneer, due to the the proximity of major port areas, urban centers, and water power in our mildly rugged uplands. Under the booming 19th century capitalist economy, new mill towns were founded, existing cities diversified, and canals and railroads conquered many of our natural obstacles.

By the 20th century, the region was a leading modern, industrialized, globally integrated metropolis. Towns and cities swelled to house workers, immigrants and commuters. The extensive rail network, the automobile, and modern utilities started a pattern of real estate developers buying up the cropland, pasture, forests, hills and swamps surrounding many of our towns. Late in the century, after several building booms, considerable portions of North and Central Jersey had become vast, uninterrupted stretches of neighborhoods and towns. Office parks, shopping areas, interstate highways, and easy commuting access to major cities allowed NJ to thrive in the corporate white-collar economy.

Recently, New Jersey has struggled to maintain our leading position in an increasingly complex, globalized society. Worldwide industrialization and suburbanization, in turn, have cost us our edge, while making the rest of the world look more like New Jersey. As our region ages, our problems become harder to ignore: overtaxed infrastructure, catastrophic environmental damage, post-industrial urban neglect, and more lead to a foreboding feeling about our state's continued prosperity. Still, life and growth go on, and as our society matures, NJ, with its rich history of development, will be a bellwether of capitalism's future.

If our state has reached developmental middle-age, the time has come for us to do some serious self-reflection. We should seek a mature, stable, positive sense of identity that will allow us to make the tough choices before us with confidence and lucidity. If you care about New Jersey, please help our state gain much-needed self-awareness. Explore, think critically about, and contribute to this body of observations about our suburban heart and soul.


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