By Michele S. Byers
DOES THE PROSPECT of paying $5 per gallon for gasoline make you wish you could walk instead? If so, a recent Monmouth University poll shows you’re not alone. People all across this state we’re in are looking for more “walkable” communities.
Neighborhoods within walking distance of shopping, services and mass transit are termed “sustainable communities” in the Monmouth poll. Two-thirds of New Jerseyans said that the Garden State needs more walkable communities, and three-quarters said they would help the state’s economic development.
Sustainable communities aren’t a revolutionary concept. In fact, New Jersey has long tried to adopt these principles by steering growth toward areas that already have infrastructure like roads, mass transit and sewers. But without strong leadership and targeted incentives, development in New Jersey has continued to sprawl across our farms and forests.
The Monmouth University poll demonstrates that it’s not just open space advocates and “tree-huggers” who are disenchanted with sprawl. Over 70 percent of those surveyed felt the past 20 years of development have made New Jersey LESS affordable, and over half feel it’s now harder to get around.
What makes these numbers even more interesting is their historic context, coming on the heels of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The Monmouth poll asked respondents about 10 state priorities. Not surprisingly, the number of people saying it was “very important” to attract new business and create jobs rose significantly, from 50 percent in 2000 to 88 percent in 2011. Conversely, those who felt slowing the rate of development was very important fell from 51 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2011.
At the same time, though, there was general agreement that the highest priority is still protecting our drinking water supply – 91 percent of respondents, across all party lines, felt this was very important.
So how do we interpret these seemingly contrary trends? Here’s my take: New Jerseyans are savvy; they want economic growth done right, and they understand that sustainable communities are part of the solution.
Other surveys find the desire for walkable communities particularly strong among younger adults. A survey by real estate advisor Robert Charles Lesser & Co. found that 77 percent of “Millennials” (the 20-something generation) say they want to live where they are “close to each other, to services… and to work, and they would rather walk than drive.”
As the “Baby Boomer” generation morphs into empty-nesters and retirees, many of them will no longer need or want large homes in auto-dependent suburbs.
New Jersey’s diverse cities, towns and villages can easily capitalize on these trends – with walkable downtowns, rail hubs and mass transit connections to major cities like New York and Philadelphia.
You can download the Monmouth university study and find out more about sustainable communities at the New Jersey Future website (www.njfuture.org/2011/10/11/monmouth-poll-nj-development).
And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the NJ Conservation Foundation