Projects like NJ MAP Provide Valuable Experience for Grad Students

Rowan’s commitment to experiential learning opportunities extends beyond our undergraduate programs. Many professionals return to school for advanced degrees in the hopes of learning new skills to apply in their current roles or to transition upward. At Rowan, our graduate programs often provide unique opportunities, while pursuing your degree, to put new knowledge to work and collaborate with other grad students and faculty on projects that have meaningful, current, real-world applications - such as NJ MAP. Participation from students in our M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning program is integral to the success of NJ MAP.

NJ MAP: An award-winning web-mapping platform for more informed decision making in the Garden State

New Jersey presents a curious challenge for the field of planning. As a home-rule state, there are 565 distinct municipalities within the fourth smallest state in the country. New Jersey also has the second-highest population density (behind Washington D.C.), several environmentally sensitive planning areas including the Pinelands National Reserve (a UNESCO designated Biosphere of 1.1 million acres) along with its positionality in the epicenter of the Northeast megalopolis. New Jersey is home to the infamous 118-mile New Jersey Turnpike and the second-busiest port in the country. Access to five major cities (Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Wilmington) is but a day’s work when NJ is home base. This makes New Jersey a residential and logistical focal point and an extraordinary puzzle for planners.

Because NJ is a home-rule state, many of the environmental and land-use decisions occur at the local level - often by volunteer members of communities, planning boards, environmental commissions, and land conservation organizations. As we know, accurate information is paramount for effective planning. However, this information is often locked away to data experts or enterprise planning and engineering firms. Fortunately, the faculty and students in Rowan University’s planning program have solved at least part of the puzzle with the creation of NJ MAP.

NJ MAP is an award-winning, internet-based platform for democratizing data to assist New Jersey municipalities, nonprofits and local-level stakeholders better visualize and understand their environment, as well as engage in more effective action. NJ MAP pulls from the power of a vast library of geospatial data created at the federal, state, and local levels and renders it in beautiful map layers –  freely accessible through an easy-to-use interface designed for lay people. 

The NJ MAP platform functions across all 565 municipalities, supporting a comprehensive approach to land management. Providing free, real-time access to information to all planning stakeholders “democratizes” data for planning that would typically require special expertise and financial resources not always equitably available to all communities and stakeholders. The map-based platform is designed to be responsive and up-to-date so that it may be used in the field or during public meetings. This functionality allows for on-the-fly analysis at multiple scales from the parcel-level to regional or statewide scale.

map of Newark, NJ areaNJ MAP educational component

The project plays an important educational role as it provides undergraduate and graduate internship experiences including two students currently enrolled in the M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning program. Many faculty use the site in the classroom for environmental education and to assist in understanding planning issues in NJ. It is also an effective platform to teach students about geography, planning, GIS, and environmental advocacy.

In 2020, the NJ MAP team partnered with the NJ Conservation Foundation (NJCF) to create the Camden Conservation Blueprint (CCB). CCB is a data-driven and resident-informed interactive map that focuses on health equity, open space access, urban heat island effects, illegal dumping, and other environmental justice topics. The CCB team spent six months in the City of Camden collecting information from residents through charrettes, one on one meetings and through community advocacy meetings such as the YMCA and Camden Collaborative Initiative. The team then partnered with the NJ Tree Foundation (NJTF) and the Hispanic Family Center (HFC) in order to put the information to use. Tree canopy data was updated and provided as a reference layer to better inform the NJTF on where plantings are needed. This information guided the spring 2021 tree plantings in the City of Camden. Furthermore, the HFC is now able to use the CCB to research park amenities to create community programming in places and spaces that fill needs and engage residents. The NJ MAP team is continuing this city-wide mapping initiative with a project that is currently underway in Newark, NJ. In this Newark venture, they have partnered with the Nature Conservancy to produce a community asset map that is set to be released in May 2022.

In January 2021, the NJ MAP team won the NJ Planning Award for Outstanding Community Engagement and Education sponsored by the NJ Chapter of the American Planning Association. NJ MAP was honored for providing community planners with the ability to distill data and visualize the impacts of land use scenarios and ultimately, to make informed decisions for their communities. 

NJ MAP helps tell NJ’s story to educate and foster sound planning and coordinated land conservation. Equipped with this education, New Jersey residents, policymakers and community organizations may explore the impact of different environmental planning decisions. These tools directly affect the ability of municipalities to meet the 21st-century challenges of growth and change.

Does NJ MAP sound like the kind of planning project that would provide you with useful knowledge for your career field? Is increasing your knowledge as a community planner - or becoming one - part of your plan to move ahead? Pursuing an M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning might be the right fit for you. Request information, attend an info session, or start your application.

The NJ MAP platform is proudly supported by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the F.M. Kirby Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, among others. NJ MAP would not be possible without the assistance of graduate students in the Rowan University Urban and Regional Planning program.

photo of Katrina McCarthyKatrina McCarthy is a graduate student in the M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning Program at Rowan University. She received her B.A. in Geography in 2009 and has worked in the Geospatial Research Lab in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Sustainability since 2011. Katrina focuses on geospatial project management and grant management. Her research interests include equitable open space conservation, planning for health and resiliency, zero waste policy development, redevelopment strategies, and immersive participatory planning.

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