Like many kids who grew up in South Jersey, my parents took me down the shore every year. It was nothing particularly fancy; we went wherever we could afford for a week. I was probably less than ten years old when I got my first taste of the beach, the amusements, and the wonders of the New Jersey shore town boardwalk. Pretty much since that first visit, I was hooked, and I’ve been back every year since. To say that I, along with so many other tourists, take the shore for granted seems like an understatement. We’re so used to the ice cream shops, the pizza places, the arcades, that we sometimes think of as a separate, perfect place, apart from the wider world at large.
Or at least I did until someone on Twitter brought the shore town I’ve gone to for a decade and a half crashing into my every day world view. On June 28th, well into the vacation season, Baltimore walkability advocate PedestrianError tweeted:
“I’ve often wondered why so many people choose walkable vacations spots year after year, but choose to buy homes in sprawl.”
This really stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been a proponent of urban, walkable environments for years, but I never stopped to think about how the shore towns I grew up visiting play directly into this passion. When I really started thinking about it, it all made sense.
One of the first things you’ll notice when you get off the parkway (or the train) and into a shore town’s downtown area is just how many people you see walking around. At the height of the season, tourists clog the sidewalks, spill out onto the roadway, make their way down the boardwalk, and walk to and from the beach. Think about the intersection of JFK and Landis Avenues in Sea Isle City, 96th Street in Stone Harbor, Washington Street in Cape May (one of the only successful pedestrian-only streets I’ve seen in the United States), or the boardwalk in Ocean City. These are areas of extreme walkability, where you can park your car for the day, or walk from your hotel or rental, and explore shops, restaurants, and attractions for hours on foot.
And why are they so walkable? Because they essentially have the same dynamic as dense city cores. They are very densely packed with things to do and see, often in a mixed-use environment with apartments or condos on top of shops and restaurants. Storefronts are right up against one another, with no setback from the sidewalk, meaning you can hop from one to the other effortlessly. There are very few parking lots, because the land is too valuable to merely let empty boxes sit on it all day. So parking is tight and always metered, forcing high turnover to maximize how many people can visit an area in a day and to incentivize arriving by foot or other means. Basically, the commercial districts in shore towns are the opposite of the suburbs, where single-use zoning prevails and shops are far apart, forcing you to drive to get around. And what do people do in the face of this extreme shift in their built environment? They go crazy for it, every year, for generations.
If you look at the numbers, this all makes sense. The summertime populations of these shore towns turn them into microcosms of urbanity. Take Sea Isle City, for instance, whose population increases from a few thousand in the off season to around 40,000 from June through August. This brings the town’s population density to around 15,800 per square mile, putting it more on par with Patterson or Jersey City than a sleepy barrier island town. It’s a similar story with Cape May, which hits around 18,000 people per square mile, or Ocean City, with around 12,000 people per square mile. These towns swell to densities far above those of most of the states towns.
With this urban density comes the kinds of things we’re only just now seeing in cities in the US but which have been a part of the shore for decades. When I started thinking about how shore towns adhere to many of the principles of new urbanism, I thought immediately of the sharing economy. Think, for instance, about how such a high percentage of people who go down the shore rent their places for a week instead of buying, since the price of a shore home and the maintenance thereof is insanely prohibitively expensive in both time and money. This results in a massive sharing of physical spaces for a week at a time. Or think about renting a bike to get around. While bike share programs have only just begun to pop up in American cities, renting a bike has been a part of the shore for as long as I can remember. There are huge common spaces throughout the shore towns in the form of squares showing outdoor films in the evening, soccer and baseball fields, basketball courts, and of course, public beaches for everyone to use.
Maybe this is why, when I got older, I fell in love with urban spaces. When our week was done at the shore and we made the traffic-clogged drive back to our suburban town, I immediately felt the lack of liveliness, of exciting things to do, of places I could go near my house. Going to the shore served as a window into what’s possible when you put a bunch of people somewhere they really want to be. I’ve never lost that love, and it might be in no small part thanks to a few islands off the coast of New Jersey.