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Objective. New Jersey's state land-use plan, designed to preserve open space by directing growth to urban centers, rests on the assumption that nature (the “environment”) and the urban constitute separate objective spheres, such that nature can be preserved as an end in itself. Through a spatial transformation that de-populated the cities and suburbanized the countryside, however, the urban and the environmental have become overlapping discursive categories, each expressing the absence of the other, and raising serious dilemmas for environmental planning.

Methods. This article uses Census data to document the extent of New Jersey's urban and racial transformation over more than half a century, and examines county and municipal reviews of the state's proposed land-use plan to document the resulting contradictory interpretations of nature articulated in political debate over state-plan implementation.

Results. The attempt to forge a statewide consensus on environmental and open-space preservation has been stymied by the contradictory perspectives of urban and suburban constituencies, whose responses focus on the urban rather than the environmental implications of proposed land-use controls. State planners seeking political support for environmental protection find themselves embroiled in often vitriolic debates about urban and suburban lifestyles, with implicit racial subtexts, and about the legitimacy of state intervention perceived as supporting antithetical values.

Conclusions. Contrary to the state's attempt to separate the urban and the environmental, the route to environmental protection in New Jersey may lie through urban revitalization.