A NJ Transit light rail train passes along Essex Street in Bayonne, NJ. Photo by Flickr user Flodigrip’s world.
In March, LOCUS President Chris Leinberger delivered the keynote address at the New Jersey Redevelopment Forum, an event hosted by Smart Growth America’s coalition partner New Jersey Future. The following is crossposted from New Jersey Future’s blog Future Facts.
Many in the luncheon crowd at New Jersey Future’s seventh-annual Redevelopment Forum were still digesting their cold cuts and salads when keynote speaker Leinberger stepped to the microphone and delivered an opening shot to their state’s midsection:
“New Jersey is the poster child for sprawl.”
A renowned urbanist, president of LOCUS; Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Leinberger did not mince words when he described how New Jersey, like the rest of America, latched onto a drivable suburban lifestyle in the 1950s—and didn’t let go for the next half-century.
“Transportation drives development,” he noted. Modifying a well-known quote from Winston Churchill (“First we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us”), he said, “We first build our transportation system, and then it molds our metro regions.” Investment in highways leads to drivable suburban development, he explained, while investment in rail, bus, bike lanes and sidewalks leads to walkable urban development.
Higher transportation costs are not the only price Americans have paid for this increased suburbanization, Leinberger observed. As the drivable suburbs have experienced more and more development, the quality of life has declined—more traffic congestion, more crowded malls, longer lines at the supermarket and shrinking open space. As each new development gobbled up open space and increased the pressure for services, existing residents organized to try to prevent growth.
On the other hand, as more and more gets redeveloped in a walkable urban environment, the quality of life improves: The neighborhood becomes more vibrant, the streets become livelier and, perhaps most important, the value of existing assets goes up. As each new development is advanced, it can be embraced and supported by existing residents because of the net benefits of growth.