Changing Landscapes in the Garden State: Land Use Change in New Jersey, 1986–2015

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Funding for this project was provided by the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch program. The authors would like to acknowledge the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) for the Land Use Land Cover (LULC) data, as the primary data set analyzed in this report.


A team of researchers from Rutgers and Rowan Universities have recently completed a study examining New Jersey’s urban growth and land use change over the past three decades. The research team led by Richard Lathrop (Rutgers University) and John Hasse (Rowan University) have collaborated on a number of studies tracking New Jersey’s changing landscape. The team relies heavily on the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s Land Use/Land Cover Change (NJLULCC) data set.

The most recent data available (between the year 2012 and 2015) reveals that New Jersey has expanded the amount of urban land at a rate of 3,464 acres of new urban development per year. This rate represents a continuation of the trend of decreasing urban development initiated during the Great Recession of 2008.  Not only was there a dramatic slowdown statewide in overall acres developed, the residential footprint shrank in relative proportion when compared to other urban land uses.

The most recent land use data also reveals a major departure from the sprawling trends of the previous decades in favor of delineated smart growth zones.  While sprawling large-lot development was not completely defunct, consuming more than half of the residential land developed, it became a smaller piece of the residential development pie. Higher-density residential types significantly increased their proportion of land development acres as well as their proportion of population housed. More units were built on less land, signaling a significant shift toward denser residential development.  

The report notes that the conversion of green space to new urban development in New Jersey has continued to slow from its historic high pace of new urban development in the 1990’s and 2000’s. While the rate of farmland converted to urban land uses has decreased quite dramatically in recent years, the conversion of upland and wetland forests has shown an uptick. This loss of forestlands is concerning as these ecosystems play a critical role in removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in wood and forest soils.

New Jersey has also lost thousands of acres of coastal salt marsh over the past three decades due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. These marshes are important fish and wildlife habitat and serve as important buffers against coastal storms.

To access  the full report go to

The source GIS data set is available through the NJDEP Bureau of GIS Open Data website and the NJ Geographic Information Network (NJGIN) website. This project updates our earlier work on this same topic that examined urban growth and associated land use change from 1986 to 2012 time periods.


Chris Butrico of the Rutgers Center for Remote Sensing & Spatial Analysis and Katrina McCarthy of the Rowan Geospatial Research Lab were instrumental in assisting in the analysis and graphics production.

The authors would like to acknowledge the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) for the Land Use Land Cover (LULC) data, as the primary data set analyzed in this report. The data set production and quality assurance was managed by the NJDEP, Office of Information Resources Management, Bureau of Geographic Information and Analysis, co-production managers Craig Coutros and John M. Tyrawski.


While efforts have been made to ensure that these data are accurate and reliable within the state of the art, Rowan University and Rutgers University cannot assume liability for any damages, or misrepresentations, caused by any inaccuracies in the data, or as a result of the data to be used on a particular system. Rowan University and Rutgers University make no warranty, expressed or implied, nor does the fact of distribution constitute such a warranty.  Any maps, publications, reports or any other type of document produced as a result of an associated project utilizing Rowan University and Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis (CRSSA), Rutgers University, data will credit the original author(s) as listed in the report and web site.