Here in New Jersey, it's time to anticipate new social and development patterns, reimagine our suburbs, and prepare for a new generation of prosperity.
Start by considering some history, courtesy of the superb new book New Jersey's Postsuburban Economy by Rutgers professors James Hughes and Joseph Seneca. The authors recount how New Jersey successfully evolved from an urban manufacturing-based economy to an economic powerhouse based on suburbanized information and research-driven employment.
But, as they note, "The baby boom will soon be yesterday's workforce. Tomorrow's workforce will be dominated by a new, expansive generation... young creatives...[who] currently do not find the car-culture suburbs in which they grew up an attractive place to live, work and play.”
Their takeaway: "Suddenly, New Jersey's greatest core advantage in the late twentieth century -- a suburban-dominated, automobile dependent economy and lifestyle -- is now regarded as a disadvantage." Sure enough, we’ve seen the welcome rebirth of cities like Jersey City and Newark, propelled by young people looking for places that are fun, exciting, walkable, and bikeable.
But New Jersey’s beautiful suburbs, large swaths of forests and farms and mountains, and gorgeous coastline are still here, beckoning a lifestyle that can be just as much fun, and for many, even healthier. And, of course, communications technology has almost entirely eliminated geographical barriers, promoting distributed innovation, and spurring development of tech hubs even in the “middle of nowhere.”
What, then, should we do? Re-envision and reinvent our suburbs to welcome more of the fun, creativity, and experiential lifestyles valued by new generations. Build on what we already have, sensitive to what makes each community unique, as we evolve our safe and beautiful suburbs to welcome some of the urban spirit and experience people want in their lives.
New transportation solutions such as ridesharing, bikesharing, connected/autonomous transportation, and “smart city” technology will make it significantly easier to get around in the suburbs -- especially if we complement them with needed investments in mass transit and infrastructure. (With the growing use of new devices ranging from scooters and Segways to electric bikes and skateboards, getting around in the suburbs could even become fun.)
One specific way to reinvent our suburbs: support the flexible transformation of yesterday’s corporate campuses and office parks, welcoming more creative mixed uses, from bike paths to entertainment. Where these venues have faded, flexible redevelopment can turn them back into major community assets, offering crucial reinforcement to local tax bases, as well as diverse new employment opportunities.
Communities only keep thriving when they flexibly evolve to serve new generations, creatively reinterpreting the values that originally made them great. In New Jersey, we’ve done that repeatedly. It’s time to do it again. We can -- and I’m convinced we will.
That is why, as New Jersey gets set to elect a new governor, a key part of his or her agenda must be how to transition these fading suburban properties back to taxpaying assets that our tech sector sees the right place to grow businesses and attract employees to live, work and play.