Why South Orange is a model downtown

Posted on January 14, 2012 at 9:48 AM

It's easy to brag about South Orange, but this time it isn't just based on love for my hometown, the great experiences growing up here, or the amazing people who live here. It's actually based on the accumulating professional and scientific evidence expounding the benefits of certain types of downtown development and urban/suburban planning.

A recent article entitled "Ditch Your Car Step 1: Move to a Mixed Use Neighborhood" by Kaid Benfield in Sustainable Cities Collective talks about the difference between older suburbs that are generally constructed around walkable downtown cores and newer ones generally connected by highways or large arterial roads: 

New research from Southern California has found that residents of neighborhoods with a central core of shops and services – a pattern typically found in older, traditional communities – walk nearly three times more often than do residents of neighborhoods whose nearest shops and services lie along a major arterial roadway – a pattern typically found in newer suburban development.  Residents of traditionally styled and centered neighborhoods also drive less than their counterparts residing in the newer pattern.

In an age where there is so much focus on not only reducing one's carbon footprint but also living healthier lives involving more walking, these concepts couldn't be more salient. South Orange is what some, like the New Jersey Regional Coalition, call a 'First Suburb.' Encouraging development in these first suburbs, often where transit oriented development potential is high, like South Orange (which has two train stations on the New Jersey Transit line), is extremely important. That's why it is one of Governor Christie'e top priorities in the State's Strategic Plan, which asks New Jersey to encourage, among other things:

Direct investment to priority areas, such as innovation corridors, major cities, transit-served communities and ports, to capitalize on existing infrastructure and deliver jobs
Between living longer and healthier (see article below), the creation of unique and diverse communities, and reducing our own environmental impact, there are clearly many personal benefits to living in this type of town. But there are broader benefits to this type of living as well, like reducing the significant environmental impact that development has when done on open space, what is most commonly known as sprawl. But trends in planning these days focus much more on in-filling dense suburban neighborhoods rather than taking new land to turn into a residential or commercial use. This means that towns like South Orange are prime spaces for development. And it means that our area is a sought-after destination for people looking to either move out of the city into a more suburban neighborhood or people looking to move out of rural areas and get closer to the city.

There can even be financial benefits. In an economy where everyone is trying to tighten their belt, living in a town where you can give up your second, or maybe even first car, and walk instead can make a big difference. For example, when South Orange residents ask about how we will cut back taxes, I try to reframe that question into how the Village can save residents money, in total. Although there are a number of ways we can stabilize property taxes through technological efficiency improvements, creative shared service initiatives and bringing in more commercial rateables, allowing a resident to trade in their car, which can easily cost upwards of $6,000 to $8,000 a year all in, is a real savings. In fact, the average American typically spends more on their car than they do healthcare, clothing and entertainment combined. And Americans spend a lot on each of those. After housing, travel, primarily through personal cars, is the second largest expense most people will face. But giving up a car in exchange for our Jitney service, which can take you down to the train, and hopefully car sharing options in the future, can really bring some financial relief in a time of need. And it is up to governments, especially at the local level, to create these financial incentives for people to use more public transit and give up that personal car use. It won't work for everyone, but for many people, inexpensive public transit is a great alternative.

Now here comes the shameless plug for South Orange. Our downtown already provides an incredible number of resources that in many other areas you would have to drive to, but here you can simply walk. For example, (And I'm going to try and not leave anyone/anything out!)4478448687_de0c26bf30_o.jpg

✓ Train station(s) on the NJ Transit line

✓ Movie theater & performing arts center

✓ Grocery store

✓ Services like dry cleaning, hair salons and barbershops, banks, and more

✓ Diverse shopping opportunities like clothes and fashion, home/kitchen supplies, art, cell phones, pharmacies and electronics and more

✓ Residential living

✓ Municipal Buildings, including Village Hall, the public library, fire, police, EMS, public works and recreation

✓ Multiple parks and green spaces

✓ Great restaurants, eating establishments (from bagels to sushi) and bars

✓ Seton Hall University

And we aren't done! New mixed-used residential/retail developments are slated to begin in the near future, and as always, we're looking at more ways we can use or downtown space most effectively to encourage sustainable, healthy, and diverse living. Go South Orange!

More reading: