It has been more than a decade and a half since Friends of West Windsor Open Space (FOWWOS) was founded. One of the objectives of that organization, of course, was to limit the future development of West Windsor’s fast disappearing open space. Since its founding FOWWOS has helped the township promote the saving of more than 8,000 acres of open land. That is 48 percent of the entire township area.
Theoretically that land will remain open and never be developed for housing or commercial use. Today it comprises a combination of township, county, and state land, as well as that under the jurisdiction of homeowners’ associations.
Sometimes it’s easy to take matters involving open space and people for granted. It’s also easy to consider extremes to get a feel for where we could be going if we aren’t careful to keep watch on one of our most valuable assets. About the most extreme case like this I can think of goes like this. Suppose the entire state of New Jersey were to be divided up into small land parcels just big enough physically to hold one person. How many people could it hold — literally?
Well, suppose we allow each person to have a space on the ground that measures 4 feet by 4 feet, that is an area of 16 square feet. Now the area of New Jersey is 8,721 square miles. So at 16 square feet per person, how many could fit into the state? There are 5,280 × 5,280 square feet in a square mile, so there are 5,280 × 5,280 × 8,721 square feet in New Jersey. That comes out to be 243 billion square feet in the state. Thus at 16 square feet per person there’s room for about 15 billion people in the state, which is about twice the population of the whole world. You think we’re crowded now? Hmmm.
So let’s leave as much of the state free of people as long as we can. Save the areas like the Pine Barrens and the other wooded areas and the open space as long as possible. We’ll all be better off. And if you think attracting more people by building more houses is a good idea, go somewhere else — or try another business.
Now let’s approach this subject from the other direction. Let’s look at what we already have in New Jersey — people, that is. The last official census estimate of July 1, 2014, said there were 8,938,175. How much room does each person have? The answer is a little more than 27,000 square feet. That is a square 164 feet or 55 yards on a side. In more familiar terms, that comes to about two people on every football field. That doesn’t seem so crowded, except when you realize that it means everywhere, including the forests, the fields, the mountains, the beaches, and the roads would be covered with football fields.
A major problem with this approach is that it assumes an even distribution of people throughout the state. Obviously that isn’t realistic. What is realistic is what we really have. Suppose we look at a couple of our largest cities, Newark and Camden, for example. How big are they, what are their populations, and how many square feet does each person have?
For Newark the area is 26.11 square miles. With a population of 280,579 that gives each person 2,594 square feet or about 0.06 acres. That is an area about 51 feet on a side. At that rate, about three people would fit on a baseball diamond. For Camden, the corresponding figures are 10.34 square miles in area and a population of 77,332. That gives each person about 3,728 square feet, or about .09 acres. That’s only two people on a diamond.
Now let’s get closer to home. The most recent census estimate in 2014 for West Windsor was 28,465, and for Plainsboro 23,429. Thus each person in West Windsor has 25,730 square feet to lounge around in. That’s a square 160 feet on a side, or about 0.59 acre, an area similar to that of many building lots. In Plainsboro the comparable numbers are 14,525 square feet per person, or a square 120 feet on a side. That’s about 0.33 acre.
So what’s the point of all this talk about how much land or space people take up? For me the point is that talking about it gives me greater appreciation for what we do have instead of what we don’t have. When it comes to open space such as that “saved” through the efforts of FOWWOS, it makes me feel good to know that an organized effort has been made through the years to control the way our land is being used.
A couple of decades ago when people started to talk seriously about putting limits on how much land should be developed for housing in formerly rural areas there was a lot of skepticism as to what the point was of having any limits. One main attitude was typically based on “need,” that is if people wanted to live in a certain formerly rural area they “needed” to have adequate housing. If that meant building 5,000 houses and using all the available land in the process, so be it.
If the area was “attractive” (good shopping, schools, businesses, roads, institutions, etc), people would come, and if you were in the real estate business, people would buy what you had to sell. But many who believed that if we made a serious effort to save open space, we would also save money in the process because the cost of an open space tax would be far less than that of the new schools we would need for all the new families that came to occupy the new residential development.
It may be that some of those who have lived here for a long time are satisfied that the area has enough people now. All the aspects of a community that people seem to care the most about are in a good state of development, and there is a seemingly high degree of satisfaction, at least if the low attendance at televised West Windsor Township Council meetings is any indicator.
And just last year I read a newspaper story about people in the very attractive suburbs actually moving back to the cities. I haven’t noticed that around here, but I haven’t been looking. I came from the city, anyway, so I’m staying put right here.