Built Environment, Demographics, Development

How to begin addressing New Jersey’s “millennial problem”

Over the past few days, two articles have come out that speak to a few weaknesses New Jersey is suffering from at the moment. The first is a Wall Street Journal piece about how the state has a “millennial problem”, detailing how younger people don’t want to live, work, or play in the state’s sprawling suburbia, nor could they afford it if they wanted to. The second rightly suggests that our overbuilding of suburban office parks in the 20th century has put has at a disadvantage as younger people today look for work in dynamic urban environments and not the pastoral campuses of the generation before us. Both articles get at something I think about a lot, especially as a millennial that does live in this state. I was inspired to put together some ideas that elected officials and civic leaders would be wise to consider if they want to address the fundamental problems our state has going into the 21st century.

Though New Jersey overplayed its hand in building a sprawling suburban landscape in last decade, there are some remedies that would help to keep it relevant in this one. The first thing it must do is properly invest in its public transportation network. New Jersey’s links to jobs in the very hot New York City and Philadelphia job markets has always been a strength, and with more jobs moving back into central cities, these links must be made even stronger. NJ Transit has been starved of consistent funding for too long, and it shows through increased delays and frequent equipment failures. It needs a reliable and dedicated funding source so it can perform backlogged maintenance and network expansion. In my area of South Jersey, that means bringing the Glassboro-Camden light rail line, which will connect Gloucester County to Camden and Philadelphia, to life, and making the Atlantic City Rail Line more frequent and Philadelphia-focused, with possible new stops along the way.

Simply put, millennials aren’t going to flock to cul-de-sac neighborhoods where everything they want to do outside their homes requires a trip by car on a congested highway. People in my generation are basing our lives around proximity to our jobs and what amenities our communities can provide. In that vein, New Jersey land use policy needs to shift toward supporting zoning that allows denser mixed-use projects to be more easily built. In most post-war suburban towns, there is a strong separation of residential, commercial, and business uses, which mandates that residents need a car to get anywhere. More mixed-use projects, perhaps with retail on the ground floor and housing and/or office space on top, would mean more vibrancy through a diversity of uses and end the requirement that cars are an absolute necessity to live in the state. Given that we’re a generation more averse than any other to the expensive cost of owning a car, anything that can be done to reduce the need for one is going to be a win for the state. And if these mixed-use projects can be built near rail stations into New York or Philadelphia, we’ll start to see how truly synergistic our relationship with those two cities can be.

Finally, lawmakers would do well to increase investment in New Jersey’s own cities like Newark, Jersey City, Camden, or Trenton. The appreciation for a dynamic urban environment isn’t limited to external cities alone. Newark and Jersey City have come alive thanks to recent interest, and cities like Camden and Trenton could see the same if properly invested in. Indeed, EDA tax incentives are bringing hundreds of jobs back to Camden, a city that suffered historic disinvestment in the 20th century. If Camden, Trenton, Passaic, or Elizabeth are nurtured and successfully attract jobs like they once had, every community around them, and especially those suburbs on rail lines connected to them, will greatly benefit.

Just because the craze of suburbanization is nearing an end in the Northeast doesn’t mean that New Jersey has to suffer. With a little imagination and foresight, we can envision a state that successfully adapts to the changing tastes of the 21st century.

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