[IMGCAP(1)]NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ-Panelists and speakers at PlanSmart New Jersey’s Smart Growth Economy Project Conference agreed that smart growth is the way of the future and is the best method of producing socially, economically and environmentally healthy communities. New Jersey, with its dense population and strong rail lines, could become a smart growth leader if the state puts its mind to it.

“Communities get scared and think that they have to do it all, look at too many things at once,” said Geoff Anderson, president of Smart Growth America, in his keynote address. “Some won’t do anything, but there will be consequences for those who don’t pay attention to the economy or the environment. Those that do will benefit.”

[IMGCAP(2)]To illustrate his point, Anderson contrasted the smart growth area of Arlington, VA with the growth patterns that have become typical in many areas in recent years. Arlington features high-density development surrounding metro stations, with some low-density development nearby to provide housing choices. Most towns in the US have developed with sprawl patterns—shopping in a separate area off of a major road, with housing cut off from retail. This arrangement forced people into cars, resulting in more pollution, traffic and obesity due to a decline in daily exercise.

Smart growth envisions mixed-use environments with a variety of transportation modes, including public transport, bike trails and sidewalks. Demand for this type of community is strong, according to Anderson, research shows that one-third of people want smart growth, and that demand for detached homes on large lots has dropped while demand for attached or small homes on small lots has risen to exceed supply.

Such communities tend to have healthier residents with more disposable income, and they are more environmentally friendly. Densely developed areas tend to be much more efficient than suburbs when it comes to CO2 emissions, according to Anderson, and people who live in walkable communities are 7% less likely to be obese. Those who live near public transportation also spend less overall on transport, giving them more disposable income. High-density development can be a boon for the tax base as well: Anderson explained that Arlington hosts 30-million sf of development on only two square miles of land, and that 33% of the area’s tax revenue comes from only 7.6% of its land.

Dianne Brake, president of PlanSmart NJ, brought the issue closer to home by explaining New Jersey’s current condition and what needs to be done to help it. New Jersey is currently losing jobs, and according to Brake, housing has become too expensive for most workers. For Brake, the main issues of job growth, housing and transportation choice, urban revitalization and global warming are all linked and must be tackled together, partially through better land use and planning.

To this end, PlanSmart has developed a Smart Growth Economy Project to drive growth and therefore provide housing and jobs in the areas that make the most sense. That means dense growth close to jobs, population centers and mass transit. Although the state provides some incentives for this type of growth in the form of Transit Hub Tax Credits and Urban Enterprise Zone designations, it also limits development in many areas, such as the wetlands and coastal zone areas, Brake pointed out. In many cases, the areas that receive growth incentives are also those where development is restricted in some way. Brake called for the state to select growth areas using a land use score and to find ways to pursue affordable housing and land preservation goals without holding back development.

“We’re a very challenged state,” said Gil Medina, executive managing director of Cushman & Wakefield in his response to Brake’s talk. “If we don’t start looking at some of our issues, we’ll continue to have major challenges in the future.” New Jersey, said Medina, needs to start enticing businesses into the state and create jobs.

“We need to stop the evaporation of growth and find ways to make a difference,” agreed Dave Fisher of Matzel and Mumford. He called on the state to reform regulations so that agencies would stop getting in each others’ and developers’ way.

“We’re at a crucial point in New Jersey and I hope we can forge a better relationship with state and government officials to achieve our goals,” he said.

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