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Mapping Tool Takes Regional View of New York City Tri-State Area

The Metro Region Explorer has revealed shifts in demographics, housing and workforce, which could impact the region's transit needs and overall economy.

by / June 7, 2018
Courtesy New York Department of City Planning

Suburban housing in the New York City metro region has been transitioning away from the Long Island and Westchester areas to New Jersey.

This is one trend to surface since the development of the New York City Metro Region Explorer, an interactive online map of the tri-state region that works as a simple point-and-click tool for policy-makers, elected officials, real estate developers or ordinary citizens to dive into demographic, housing, worker and other data.

“We wanted to supplement what we’re already doing in the city by providing that information to our own public, so that they could see it at that broader scale,” said Carolyn Grossman Meagher, director of regional planning for the Department of City Planning in New York. “That’s why we focused so much on making it user-friendly, to be able to have the interactive-ness of a story guided map, and to really give a tool that has all of that functionality.”

The Metro Region Explorer is the result of years of data-gathering by the planning department, which uses sources like the U.S. Census Building Permits Survey, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census. Developing the actual Web architecture took about a month, said Meagher.

“The data work has been ongoing for several years,” she explained. “That has been a long process.
“The tool itself, actually was quite a quick-build,” said Meagher, adding the development team relied on open-source street maps, and other readily available data.

“This is all open-source architecture. So if any other city or any other region wanted to do this, they could take what we’ve done and replicate it,” said Meagher. “They would have to feed in their new data, but the system is built so that somebody else could basically pick it up and rebuild it.”

The tri-state region includes nearly 900 municipalities and is home to about 23 million residents. Making the mapping tool easy to use was a priority for New York City officials, in their aim to invite more communities to gain a deeper understanding of development not just in their own backyards, but the backyards of their neighbors.

“We have a city like Jersey City, just across the river from us, with 300,000 people, that we never talk to,” remarked Meagher.

“We know that we are part of a regional system. But our planning really wasn’t set up to look at how we were related to the rest of the region, or to talk to other people in the region, let alone affect change at a scale that was larger than the city,” she added. “Our economy, our housing market and our population uses the tri-state area very seamlessly.”

“While we are focused on the future of New Haven, it is helpful to see how other similar cities are making decisions,” said Matthew Nemerson, economic development administrator for New Haven, Conn., in a press release issued by NYC Planning. “New York City is helping us link what we are experiencing to what’s happening in our region more broadly and also benchmarking our efforts at gaining jobs and people.”

One trend officials have explored is the growth of New Jersey bedroom communities for commuters in New York. The prevailing opinion was that suburban areas around New York all functioned in similar patterns.

“But when you see the data it really helps you to understand how differently they’re performing relative to one another.”

Building permit data related to the construction of new homes from 2010 to 2016 showed that the inner New Jersey sub-region accounted for 29 percent of the new homes, while housing development in Connecticut, Long Island and the Hudson River valley sub-region accounted for only 17 percent of new homes.

“We were really surprised when we saw that most of the housing being created in the region are centralized either in New York City or inner New Jersey,” said Meagher.

At the same time, downtowns along rail corridors have been performing well in adding housing and attracting population and workforce, the data shows. 

“But because other parts of the suburbs are really aging-in-place, we’re seeing that our regional housing market is really changing shape, and really moving westward, rather than north and east. And as a result that workforce relationship is strengthening,” said Meagher.

This is the kind of data policy-makers across the region will need to develop strategies for transit, housing and other pieces of urban decision-making.

“To think regionally, you have to understand the region, and your place in the region,” said Meagher. “And so we think that’s our value added. By creating a common language about how the region is changing and adapting.”

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Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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