Sandy reveals peril of density

Posted: November 15, 2012

By Silvio Laccetti

New Jersey was the bull's eye of Hurricane Sandy's perfect storm of destruction and desolation, especially the Jersey Shore. Evacuated barrier island communities, familiar resorts for Philadelphians, resembled war-torn lands, and across the state, millions huddled in darkened homes. There simply was no viable backup plan to maintain the workings of civilization.

The ironic futility was symbolized by long lines of people holding little red cans at gas stations. Gas-powered generators were supposed to keep things going in a disaster, but they were useless without fuel!

It will take more than little red cans to address the root causes of this systemic collapse. First among these is the extremely high concentration of people throughout most of the state's urban-suburban complex. Next is the insane overdevelopment of our Atlantic shoreline.

Huge numbers

Population densities tell an interesting tale of two states, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and of two seasons at the Jersey Shore, summer and the offseason.

The Shore has been built to accommodate enormously high densities of summer residents. Ocean City, for example, covers 6.3 square miles of land and has a year-round population of about 11,700, for a density of about 1,900 people per square mile. But summer can bring as many as 120,000 people to town, for a density approaching 20,000 per square mile - a huge number that would place it among the 25 densest municipalities in America. Ocean City is actually built for this density, and Sandy didn't care if the buildings were occupied or not.

Cape May, meanwhile, has a year-round density of about 1,500 per square mile, but a seasonal density of about 19,000. Seaside Heights goes from 4,700 in the offseason to about 96,000 in the summer - higher than almost anywhere in the world! Such concentrations are reminiscent of the favelas of Brazil.

"Current Shore development is not related to the sensitivity of the area, its soil, or its needs for public services, especially in catastrophes," said Carol Thomas, a past president and fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners who has studied residential density for many years. "The whole aspect of Shore development is unstable."

According to Mark Mauriello, a former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the damage to the Jersey Shore is more extensive than any in recorded history. And he believes history will repeat itself, which means all the area's land use should be reexamined.

Northern New Jersey, also among the areas hit hardest by Sandy, has been developed to extreme levels of density, too, though without the seasonal population fluctuations of the Shore. The latest data available suggest northeastern New Jersey is home to seven of the nine most densely populated incorporated areas in America. The largest of them, Union City, has 53,000 people per square mile, ranking second nationally.

Backup plan

In the Philadelphia metropolitan area, by contrast, the densest municipalities are Millbourne, which ranks 48th nationally (at 13,750 per square mile); Woodlynne, 56th; Darby, 61st; and East Lansdowne, 63d. Philadelphia ranks only 94th, at 11,200 per square mile. The region has at least this in its favor in the event of storms like Sandy.

Modern land-use planners tend to focus on "smart growth," energy conservation, mass transit, and reconcentration of population in urban areas as the keys to sustainability. But as Sandy showed, these goals suffer from the problems associated with density in systems under stress.

However this changes, our highest priority should be to protect the power grid. We should use advanced materials and construction to facilitate maintenance and reduce outages. Stilts and platforms could be in order for power substations in areas where major flooding may occur. And there should be long-range plans to put aboveground transmission systems underground. Without electricity, everything else stops.

The postwar "new town movement" envisioned single-family residential living and working in small cities with lower densities, like Columbia, Md. In the distant future, being less tied to physical workplaces, we can have it both ways: density and suburban living. Huge cities can become much smaller in area and population, but not in density. And smaller new cities and towns, with low densities, can lead the way in maintaining America's traditional quality of life. This is civilization's backup plan against the forces of nature.


Silvio Laccetti is a professor emeritus of social sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology. He can be reached at slaccett@stevens.edu.

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