Fighting Sprawl with Smart Growth The New Suburbia

While more space, cleaner air, and a more relaxed lifestyle may be upsides to suburban living, the ‘burbs are also often synonymous with sprawl—mile after mile of strip-malls, big-box stores, identical office parks, chain restaurants, and parking lots to house the cars needed to access it all.

According to Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy for New Jersey Future, an organization dedicated to smart growth and development, “Sprawl is low-density development that’s scattered across the landscape, often in areas where basic infrastructure like sewer, water and transportation services don’t exist. Residential development is usually separated from commercial, retail, and office uses, leaving residents dependent on the automobile to get almost anywhere.”

As far as how sprawl develops, “Some of it revolves around the lifestyle and policy choices that we’ve made over the last 50 years,” says Ben Spinelli, executive director of the New Jersey Office of Smart Growth. “Some of it is driven by the property tax issue in New Jersey. Some of it is people wanting a certain type of living arrangement that may not be available in an urban area.”

According to Sturm, the way land development is managed in New Jersey predisposes it to sprawl. “[Development] is determined primarily through local zoning, which specifies what kind of development is permitted in different parts of the community,” she says. “Many municipalities create sprawl zoning because they believe it will have the least negative impact on their local budget—especially the school budget. A strip mall along a highway will produce new commercial property-tax ratables without adding any new children to the school population. Large, single-family residential lots suitable for ‘McMansions’ will produce high property-tax payments relative to the number of additional schoolchildren.”

The Impact of Sprawl

Sprawl may not be pretty, you say, but what’s the big deal? Where else will that new haute couture dress shop or chic emporium go, if not on that big undeveloped acreage outside of town? According to Spinelli, unchecked sprawl creates a number of problems. “Because New Jersey is a resource-limited and land-limited state,” says Spinelli, “it becomes an issue. It causes problems on a social basis, an economic basis and an environmental basis, and we have to deal with it.”

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