Public Opinion on Sprawl and Smart Growth in Southern New Jersey

by Ted Goertzel and Jason Leonardis
Sociology Department
Rutgers University
Camden, NJ 08102

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    Many Americans are concerned that "urban sprawl" is destroying the American countryside and degrading the American way of life.  They are critical of dispersed, auto-dependent suburban development, and urge a return to more compact communities and a greater reliance on public transportation, a vision which they call "smart growth."(1)  This concern is widely shared, but there are skeptics who doubt how willing Americans are to act on these beliefs.  Greg Esterbrook of the New Republic argues that "sprawl is caused by affluence and population growth, and which of these, exactly, do we propose to prohibit?"  Most of the critics focus on the alleged hypocrisy of Americans who are eager to move to suburban communities, but favor measure to keep others from joining them.

    Advocacy groups have used sample surveys as a means of documenting the strength of support for "smart growth" policies, both in the United States as a whole, and in New Jersey.  These surveys show strong support for "smart growth" policies, as one might expect.  There is a danger of bias in question wording when a survey in sponsored by a group with a strong point of view, but these surveys appear to have been done well and we have gotten similar results when we replicate them with different wording.  On the level of attitudes, most Americans do seem to support measures to curb urban sprawl.  On the level of behavior, however, Americans continue to be moving to the suburbs at a very rapid rate.

    This report has two goals:  1) to explore the issue of public opinion on sprawl and smart growth issues in more depth than previous reports and, 2) to look specifically at the case of Southern New Jersey.  By its nature, sprawl is a regional issue.  But where do you draw the boundaries between regions?  The most populated parts of South Jersey are part of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, and often the "Delaware Valley" has been analyzed as a region.  But this is more relevant to the past than the future.  Fewer and fewer South Jersey residents commute to Philadelphia.  Culturally, it is interesting to think of South Jersey as a distinct region centering on the Pine Barrens.  This approach may help to develop a sense of pride and identity in South Jersey.

What Do Residents Like Most About South Jersey?

   We began our researches with an open-ended survey of 444 residents of the portion of South Jersey area adjacent to Philadelphia.  These interviews were done by students in the Methods and Techniques of Social Research class in the fall of 2000.  Because of the response rate, the sample was biased toward the younger and better educated segments of the population.  The findings showed that what residents liked best was the proximity to Philadelphia and New York.  They also appreciated the shore, the open space, convenient shopping and the region's friendly atmosphere.  South Jersey's distinctive attractions ranked fairly low on the list.  The things residents liked most were the following:

What Do Residents Not Like About South Jersey?

When asked what they did not like about South Jersey, most cited overdevelopment and congestion.  There was also concern about high taxes and taxes.  Some felt that the region was boring, that there wasn't enough to do.  The things the residents disliked about South Jersey were the following:

Sampling Information

   Our preliminary survey was used to develop a closed-response survey instrument that was administered to a sample of 515 adult residents of Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties in March, 2001 by students in the Methods and Techniques of Social Research class.  The survey instrument was revised and administered sample of 900 adult residents of South Jersey was interviewed by Reed Haldy MacIntosh & Associates in June, 2001.   This survey included 300 residents of each of three regions:  The Shore (Atlantic and Cape May counties), Down Jersey Counties (Cumberland and Salem Counties) and Suburban Philadelphia (Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties).  Many of the items on the survey were taken or adapted from the survey instrument used by the New Jersey Futures organization in a statewide survey in April and May of 2000.

    The survey items and the responses are reproduced in an Appendix to this report.  If you are reading this report online, you may wish to open this Appendix in a separate window so you can check the percentages as we go along.  It is in Microsoft Word format at: In this text, I will refer to items from the Appendix.  The Appendix gives percentages for each of the three regions, for the student survey and for the New Jersey Futures statewide survey.  The Student Survey is best compared to the "Suburban" responses.  In general, the results from the student interviews were close to those from the professional sample.  The student survey was biased in having an overrepresentation of younger respondents, apparently because the student interviewers had better rapport, and a better response rate, with people close to their own age.

Survey Responses.

    There was general agreement across the region and between growth areas.  Our South Jersey respondents also generally agreed with New Jersey Future's statewide sample.  To briefly summarize the detailed statistics in the Appendix, our respondents:

    This last result is perhaps our most surprising finding, since South Jersey (and all of New Jersey for that matter) is generally thought to have a strong preference for "local control."  It would be good to do a follow-up survey to find out whether people favor also delegating authority to a regional body for South Jersey as a whole and/or to state government.  It would seem that people recognize that local control simply cannot deal with preserving open space and farmland.

    We began by asking people to rank the importance of several issues.  In general, respondents thought that all of the issues were "very important" or at least "somewhat important."  Reducing crime was the highest priority, followed by reducing taxes and insurance rates.  Preserving open space and farmland was almost as high as these, with reducing traffic congestion slightly lower in priority.  Interestingly, residents of the Down Jersey area were somewhat less concerned with preserving open space, perhaps because they have more of it, or because their economic conditions are more urgent.

Towns or Suburbs?

    Although "sprawl" is a negative term, its meaning is ambiguous.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines sprawl as:  "the straggling  expansion of an urban or industrial area into the surrounding countryside."  But what if it isn't "straggling" but well planned and nicely landscaped?  Americans love the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, a developer who believed that you should always go as far from the city as you think feasible, then double the distance.  Tens of thousands visit Falling Water every year, a beautiful vacation home on a stream in the mountains.  Few would call it "sprawl."   Many people like living in a "dispersed" community with lots of space around them.  Broadacre City was Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of a decentralized, yet urban America.  Wright anticipated America's love affair with the automobile and suburbia, and argued that strong architectural and land use controls could make the best of it.  Other visionaries who promoted similar views included landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, home designer Gustav Stickley and the Craftsman movement, sometimes known as the Bungalow or Arts and Crafts Style.  These visionaries designed homes and communities that enhanced the natural environment.  They often preferred to build in attractive, natural areas far from cities.   Critics say that contemporary suburbia is a "bastardized" version of Wright's ideas and related "Garden City" ideas.(2)

To capture this issue , we wrote a survey item which asked:
13. If you had to choose, would you prefer to live in a community where:
    (a)       People lived in and around a town center surrounded by open space; or
    (b)       People lived in a suburban development with lots that are at least one third (1/3) of an acre.

We found that opinion was split, but about 55% preferred the town center surrounded by open space, while 45% preferred suburban living on larger lots.  If we had phrased the first option "on small lots in an around a town center," to balance things better, the results might have been more even.  (This analysis combined our professional and student survey data sets.)  There was no significant difference between the three regions on this issue.

Opinion in High Growth Areas vs. Low or No Growth Areas

We used the respondents' zip codes to sort according to whether they lived in a region that had grown significantly between 1990 and 2000, or in a region with little or no growth.  We found that the people in the fastest growing zip codes were slightly more likely to prefer the suburban development.  This difference, however, was not statistically significant, so it is best to conclude that preferences on this issue are pretty well divided throughout the region.

                                 Preference for Town vs. Suburb by Growth Area

                                            Growth of  Zip Code Area from 1990-2000

                                            Decline      0 to 10%       10 to 20%         Over 20%
             Town                        54%            53%               54%                  47%

             Suburb                     46%            47%                47%                 53%

               N =                        509             431                  198                  153

                                          chi square =  2.37    p = .50

    The only statistically significant difference we found between the high growth and the low or not growth areas was on the question:
16. Considering the community where you live, would you favor:
    (1)   Allowing new stores and offices to be built to stabilize local property taxes; or
    (2)  Restricting commercial development to preserve the character of the community.

    Residents of high growth zip codes were most likely to favor restricting new commercial development.  We also found that residents of the Shore area were more opposed to new commercial development than those in the other two regions.  It is striking, however, that even residents of areas that had lost housing units were likely to be opposed to new commercial development.  Many of these communities are established suburbs, others are older cities that clearly lack shopping.

                                     Allowing New Commercial Development by Growth Area

                                            Growth of  Zip Code Area from 1990-2000

                                            Decline      0 to 10%       10 to 20%         Over 20%

   Allow Development              48%           44%              39%                   26%

   Stop Development                52%           56%              61%                   74%

               N =                              508            406               196                     154

                                       chi square = 27.1             p = .00001

    Perhaps the more striking finding is that this was the only issue on which residents of growth areas differed from residents of low or no growth areas.  In general, there was more agreement than disagreement among our respondents.

Demographic Differences

    When there is such wide agreement on an opinion issue, it is difficult to analyze variation.  We can do better if we use several items to measure a single attitudinal dimension.  Three of the items, numbers 8, 12 and 27 in the Appendix, are very similar and can be used as measures of support for Preserving Open Space.  Answers to these items were reasonably well intercorrelated, as can be seen in the following table.  (For this analysis, we used the professional sample survey because it included all three items, and because the sampling procedures were better.)

                                           Items Measuring  Support for Anti-Sprawl Measures
                                                  Inter item Correlation Coefficients (N = 900)

                                                                              Q8                  Q12            Q27

Q8.    "Preserving Open Space                                 -                     .38              .36

Q12.  "Preserving Farmland"                                 .37                    -                .35

Q27  "Preserving Open Space and Farmland"         .36                 .35                -

    We used these three items to computer a scale of support for Preserving Open Space.  The scale was computed simply by adding up the points on the three items.  Since there were two four point items and one three point item, the potential scores ranged from 3 to 11.  The actual scores were highly in favor of Preserving Open Space, with 46% of the respondents receiving a perfect score of 11.  This simply means that they gave the most pro-preservation answer on all three items.  Only one respondent had the extreme anti-preservationist answer on all three items.  The distribution of responses is as follows:

                                 Scores on Scale of Support for Preserving Open Space
                                                        Valid     Cum
Value Label                 Value  Frequency  Percent  Percent  Percent

                             3.00         1       .1       .1       .1
                             4.00         2       .2       .2       .3
                             5.00         4       .4       .5       .8
                             6.00        17      1.9      2.0      2.8
                             7.00        34      3.8      3.9      6.7
                             8.00        85      9.4      9.8     16.6
                             9.00       120     13.3     13.9     30.4
                            10.00       188     20.9     21.8     52.2
                            11.00       413     45.9     47.8    100.0
                              .          36      4.0   Missing
                                     -------  -------  -------
                            Total       900    100.0    100.0

Valid cases     864      Missing cases     36

    Since scores on the scale were to skewed, it seemed advisable to recode them into three categories of Support for Preservation of Open Space, as follows:

OPSPACE   Support for Protecting Open Space

                                                        Valid     Cum
Value Label                       Value  Frequency  Percent  Percent  Percent

weak (3 to 9 before recoding)     1.00       263     29.2     30.4     30.4
moderate (10)                     2.00       188     20.9     21.8     52.2
strong (11)                       3.00       413     45.9     47.8    100.0
                                   .          36      4.0   Missing
                                     -------  -------  -------
                            Total       900    100.0    100.0

Valid cases     864      Missing cases     36

    Using this scale, we can cross-tabulate scores on Support for Protecting Open Space with demographics in the sample.  There are no significant differences, other than a tendency for black respondents to be somewhat weaker in their support for these items than white respondents.  This is marginally statistically significant, it would be significant if we included our student sample respondents in the analysis.  However, it is a small difference in the strength of support for protecting open space.  All groups support the concept.

                                                                                 Support for Protecting Open Space
                                                                                 Weak          Moderate        Strong

Under 30 years of age                                               38%               19%                43%
    30 to 44                                                                 28%               23%                49%
     45 to 59                                                                 27%               24%                49%
     60 or older                                                            31%               19%                 50%

 White                                                                        29%               21%                 50%
 Black  (p=.068)                                                         37%               24%                 39%

High School or Less Education                                  28%               19%                  52%
Some College or Technical School                              31%               26%                  44%
College Graduate                                                       32%               22%                  46%

Registered Voter                                                        31%               22%                  37%
Not Registered                                                           31%               20%                  49%

Female                                                                        28%               23%                  49%
Male                                                                            34%               20%                  46%


    Our survey results confirm those of New Jersey Future and Smart Growth America.  Like other Americans, South Jersey residents tell survey interviewers they strongly support measure to preserve open space.   This raises the question of the relationship between attitudes and behavior.  Demographic analyses show that, over the last decade, open space in New Jersey has been filling in rapidly while the older established communities have been losing housing units.  This is true despite the fact South Jersey is already densely populated and could lose all its open space if it were not protected by government.  Of course, this inconsistency between attitudes and behavior is not unique to South Jersey.  Even anti-sprawl environmentalist organizations have a tendency to build their offices in spacious suburban surroundings instead of in established cities. Michelle Cottle suggests that "the strongest anti-sprawl sentiment often comes from those who, having reached the promised land of single-family detached homes with two-car garages, want to keep out new arrivals."  She relates an old joke:  What is the difference between a developer and an environmentalist?  The answer:  the developer wants to build a house in the woods, the environmentalist already has one.

    Are South Jersey respondents simply expressing a desire to preserve the benefits of a dispersed, suburban life style for themselves by denying them to others?  In our 2000 student survey, we asked respondents if they were thinking of moving and, if so, where they would be likely to move.  By and large, respondents did not plan to move very far.  Most South Jersey residents are rooted in their current neighborhoods and do not seek to move to the woods.  Their overwhelming sentiment is against change.  Much of the anti-sprawl sentiment is rooted in the familiar NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) syndrome.  People who are already here enjoy the open space and proximity to urban attractions.  They are concerned that their quality of life will decline as population density and congestion grow.  (Of course, residents of depressed Inner City communities have different concerns.

    This sentiment can be mobilized politically, and people are willing to spend some money to preserve open space.  They are appreciative of what the Office of State Planning has been able to do to preserve farmland and open space.  And they are willing to give more authority to county governments to protect against sprawl.  Indeed, the willingness to support stronger regional planning measures is one of the most striking implications of this research.

    There is also some feeling that South Jersey has a distinct identity as a place.  This is a sentiment that could be encouraged, and that would lead to greater support for protesting South Jersey's unique environmental values.  One of the problems is that South Jersey is not a political entity, and has no official office to promote its values.  There are, of course, the county governments, and some sort of coordinating body of South Jersey county governments might be helpful.  Non-governmental organizations could also play an important role.  A "Friends of South Jersey" organization might play a role similar to that played by 1000 Friends of Oregon.  This organization should not play a purely negative role, opposing "sprawl" and implicitly criticizing the way of life South Jersey residents want.  It should focus on the positives of preserving open space and other environmental values, and building appreciation of South Jersey's attractions.  Such a movement would not have to depend only on an "anti-sprawl" ideology, but could also draw on the values that Frank Lloyd Wright and others saw in dispersed communities.  This would mean imposing design standards on new commercial development, for example, so that it would not dominate the landscape.  Jason Leonardis and I have prepared an on-line presentation on these issues, There's Something About South Jersey, that can be viewed online.
There's Something About
                  South Jersey For a High Resolution file of this map, by Jason Leonardis,  just click on the map.  The high resolution file makes a good full page printout on a color printer.

For a slide presentation on Alternatives for South Jersey, click here


1.  For an up-to-date presentation of New Urbanist ideas on regional planning, see Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton's book, The Regional City (reviewed in the N.Y. Times Book Review). For a sobering discussion of how these ideas have worked out in practice, see Jane Shaw and Ronald Utt, eds., book A Guide to Smart Growth.  For an argument that "evidence on suburbanization and low-density development suggests suburbanization does not significantly threaten the quality of life for most people, and land development can be managed more effectively through real-estate markets than comprehensive land-use planning," see The Sprawling of America: In Defense of the Dynamic City, available free online.

2.  Calthorpe and Fulton, op cit., say "the template that underlies much of our suburban growth was designed in the thirties by Frank Lloyd Wright with his Broadacre Cities plans and Clarence Stein's Greenbelt towns." p. 44.