Tracking New Jersey's changing landscape

Richard Lathrop, John Hasse

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


Sprawling urban growth has become one of the most important issues facing New Jersey at the onset of the new millennium. As befitting its reputation as the most densely populated state in the nation, New Jersey has the highest percentage of its land surface area in developed land, as well as among the highest rates of developed area growth.1 While the urbanization of New Jersey has been an ongoing process for much of the last century, the post-World War II years saw an acceleration of the conversion of farm and forest land to residential and commercial development. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the locus of urban growth moved from the densely settled bedroom communities immediately ringing the major metropolitan areas of New York and Philadelphia, expanding outward along the major commuting corridors. This trend has continued and even accelerated in terms of the "leapfrogging" of development out ahead of the urban/rural interface and the spawning of new growth centers. While present spatial patterns of development in some respects represent a continued evolutionary trend, what has appeared to change is the public's realization and indignation at the associated downsides of urban sprawl. Changes to the landscape are occurring every day, with significant implications for taxation, quality of life, water quality, agricultural viability, wildlife habitat, and social equity.2 While changes to the landscape due to urbanization are evident to most, measuring these landscape changes is a significant challenge. Land use and land cover are two approaches for describing land. Land use is a description of the way humans are utilizing any particular piece of land for one or many purposes. Land cover is the bio-physical material covering the earth's surface at any particular location. For example, an area that has a land cover of grass indicates that grass is the physical covering of the earth at that location. However, in a land use map, that same grass area could be labeled a recreational park or a cemetery or a corporate office park. Together, land use and land cover information provide a good indication of the landscape condition and processes that are occurring at a particular place. Time series of land use/land cover maps tell us how much of the landscape is changing, what changes have occurred, and where the changes are taking place, as well as provide some indication of where future change might occur. One of the most effective ways to map land use/land cover is through the use of remote sensing imagery collected from satellites and aircraft. Remote sensing satellites orbit at hundreds of miles above the earth, continually imaging the surface and transmitting the images back to ground stations for use by the research community. This technology is an excellent medium for monitoring the condition of land throughout the globe. Photography, both analog and digital, employed from airplanes is also useful, especially where greater detail of the land surface is needed. New satellite sensors are now approaching the detail once provided exclusively by aerial photography. Advanced computer processing techniques allow the images to be combined with other environmental datasets to classify and map land cover. Mapping land use requires visual interpretation by experienced image interpreters and though aided by digital image analysis techniques is still a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. The geographer D. Theobald states that most of the current discussions of urbanization and sprawl are limited by the use of coarse scale data aggregated at the state or county level.3 These aggregated data poorly capture the fine-grained pattern of land use change typical of rural and exurban areas. For example, while the Natural Resources Conservation Service's National Resource Inventory provides information on the conversion of farm and forest lands, the data are based on a statistical sample aggregated to a statewide estimate.4 Theobald states that while the fine-scale mapping of developed land use from aerial photographs provides one of the best ways to measure change at the urban fringe, this type of data is rarely available for broader geographical extents, for example, areas larger than a county.5 However, in this respect, New Jersey is blessed to have one of the few comprehensive statewide land use/land cover datasets that go beyond one or two dates of mapping.6 To the best of our knowledge, only the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts have similar land use/land cover change datasets. This paper explores statewide trends in urban growth and land use change occurring between 1986 and 1995 and between 1995 and 2000. Two primary data sources have been employed in this analysis: 1) the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) land use/land cover digital database, which contains detailed land use change information for the period of 1986 to 1995; and 2) the recently released Rutgers University Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis (CRSSA) 2000 developed land use change update. These datasets provide a synoptic perspective on the landscape changes occurring in the Garden State at the end of the twentieth century. Providing information on land use and land cover with the required categorical specificity and spatial detail is only one half of the equation. There is a great need for simplifying and synthesizing land use/land cover change data to provide information useful for land managers and policy makers. Within the environmental management literature, these simple metrics for analyzing, monitoring, and communicating information about change are often known as "environmental indicators."8 For a period in the 1990s, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection adopted a statewide monitoring program that included several indicators dealing directly with land use/cover change (e.g., no net loss of wetlands).9 Hasse and Lathrop expanded this concept and developed a series of five "land resource impact indicators" for New Jersey to measure the "ecological footprint" of urban growth at a municipal scale.10 We continue this earlier work by employing a set of land use change indicators to examine the scope and location of natural resource losses. These indicators included: farmland conversion, forest conversion, and natural wetlands conversion. The geographic information system (GIS)-based analysis maps the spatial patterns of urban growth and identifies hotspots of natural resource lands conversion as a means of assessing the impacts of this urban growth on environmental quality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNew Jersey's Environments
Subtitle of host publicationPast, Present, and Future
PublisherRutgers University Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9780813539225
ISBN (Print)9780813537184
StatePublished - Jan 1 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences(all)


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