In the 1990s, New Jersey was turning an average of just under 17,000 acres a year into urban land.

That rate of development has slowed to one fifth of that pace, an average of about 3,500 acres per year as of 2015, but researchers at Rutgers University are unsure how the societal needs brought on by COVID-19 may impact future trends.

"Six months ago, I would have said that we could expect this pattern that we saw over the past decade to keep going through the coming decade, in terms of a continued push toward urban redevelopment," Rick Lathrop, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers, said.

Now Lathrop said he sees several "conflicting events" that may govern the direction in which New Jersey's land use policies may soon go.

"We were actually quite heartened over the past decade in terms of less open space being consumed, more urban redevelopment," he said.

But whether that holds steady will depend on if the state can provide an expanding array of housing opportunities for all income levels, without drastically changing its preservation protocols for areas like the Pinelands and the Highlands, Lathrop said.

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Another concern, according to the "Changing Landscapes in the Garden State" report co-authored by Lathrop, is the conversion of upland and wetland forests.

Aside from being obviously included in the state's open space tabulations, these forests provide a lush wildlife habitat as well as a serene setting for human recreation.

"Forest lands are some of the best systems designed to purify water," Lathrop said. "They also store a lot of carbon; they also keep the landscape cool."

The Rutgers research team is also closely watching erosion in salt marshes. Beach erosion along the Atlantic coastline is not as pressing of an issue, Lathrop said, because of ongoing replenishment efforts.

The biggest, overriding problem remains purely the availability of open space, especially that which is public and easily accessible to New Jerseyans.

"I think the past six months have proven how New Jersey residents treasure their open spaces, because they flocked to them in unbelievable numbers," Lathrop said.

Rutgers has been studying land use change in New Jersey at roughly five-year intervals since 1986, and Lathrop said whatever 2020 has brought, he's interested to see this year's effect on the next update.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email

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