Traffic Patterns

What if New Jersey is the secret key to cracking the code of the modern metropolis? So asks one of the contributors to a new, limited edition magazine dedicated to the urbanism of our thickly settled neighbor to the west. As with the mysteriously alluring maple syrup smells that wafted over the Hudson for the first decades of the 21st century, so were we intrigued when we recently caught wind of the aptly named Dense. The first issue of the “unlikely design magazine” seduces with its expansive, and unusual, perspective on the history and possible futures of a complex shared geography. Each of the magazine’s ten print issues will center on, and radiate out from, a historical New Jersey event. The opening day of the New Jersey Turnpike on November 5, 1951 invites explorations of the road’s past, present and future — and even a scratch and sniff map. We asked cofounders Petia Morozov and Lune Ames to share an excerpt from the debut issue and a preview of their search for new patterns for living in the Garden State.

How do we make space for difference? As the most densely populated state in the US, New Jersey reflects the challenges of a changing world, from climate crises and forced migrations, to threatened cultural memories and unfair labor practices. These aren’t just isolated conditions overlaid on top of one another. They compound and create new complexities inseparable from the histories and experiences of that place. New Jersey’s compact situation — which includes the most Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites in the US, the country’s largest urban population, and the most diverse ecoregions relative to a state’s size — not only make it impossible to ignore these differences, but they provide an opportunity to design with them.

The fields of architecture, design, and planning have assumed a major role in the erasure of difference, often by codifying certain conventions and recording them in the form of a pattern book. Historically, the purpose of a pattern book was to document building details of a particular style — think Dutch Colonial or Georgian — so that those details could migrate to other places. Still used today by many preservationists, the pattern book reinforces historical remnants, propagating colonial or capitalist frameworks and marginalizing details that don’t fit into any generalities. In the process, pattern books end up producing sameness across scales, worldviews, and geographies, akin to a Babylonian Flat Earth map.

Dense is reimagining the pattern book. As the magazine’s centerfold, it serves as a tool to help us unlearn what we think we know about our surroundings, and offer readers ways to visually connect with a wide range of themes and contributions. We see this as a methodology of noticing, rather than of reproducing. the patterns themselves. They can help us to see and understand the connectedness of rapidly changing complexities across a variety of global conditions, rather than prescribing a homogenous framework or lens.

For Issue 1, we invited architect Brian McGrath and urban designer Tommy CheeMou Yang to conceive and produce the “Turnpike Pattern Book,” documenting the visual language of 18 Turnpike exits and their ecologies — where the Jerseyism “What exit?” takes on a more nuanced set of conditions, from geology and industry to mobility and habitats. Taking readers from the Delaware River to the Hudson River, it examines nine ecological domains along the way.
– Lune Ames and Petia Morozov

Crossing the Delaware

The Turnpike Pattern Book maps a journey and a history across the Lunaape territory of New Jersey — a landscape between two rivers. This terminal moraine, or a mass of rocks and sediment left behind from the end of a glacier, was colonized by a network of trading and farming settlements, then transformed into industrial centers that connected coal mines to ports via canals and railroads. The construction of the Turnpike ushered in a galactical system that supports our consumer, mail-order, pandemic-stricken society, which is dependent on essential workers. Exits are the stops on the journey; ecologies, the layers one encounters at these stops; and domains, the landscapes that we imagine can reterritorialize the Turnpike.

Jersey Watersheds

New Jersey’s transition from the Pleistocene geological epoch to the Anthropocene began with the retreat of the late Wisconsin Glacier 12,000 years ago when the Lunaape people inhabited the landform that the glacier created between the Delaware (Lenapewihittuk) and Hudson (Shatemuc) Rivers. The gradated habitat between the mountainous terminal moraine passes the Raritan River, then flattens at the Pine Barrens before the long north-south lagoon and barrier island protecting the shore.


The Wisconsin Glacier left the ingredients for rich soil and moisture supply for food, forage, fiber, and oilseed crops. From up to their fall lines in Albany, New Brunswick, and a few miles north of Philadelphia, the Hudson, Raritan, and Delaware rivers were the sites that European colonists traded with the Lunaape and seized and bartered land for farming. Today, the Garden State is one of the top ten producers of blueberries, cranberries, peaches, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, apples, spinach, squash, and asparagus, located mainly in the Delaware watershed.

Rise and Fall of Industry

Following the creation of a new unified nation of states, the Pennsylvania coal fields were connected to the ports of New York, Perth Amboy, and Philadelphia by a network of inland-reaching canals and rail lines. These created bustling cities that drew both foreign immigrants and territorial migrants fleeing slavery and the Jim Crow South.

Social Divide

The Turnpike became essential not just for national defense in a Cold War nuclear attack, but in the transition to container shipping and the off-shoring of labor-intensive manufacturing to low-wage countries, especially China after 1979. Container ports in Philadelphia and Newark/Elizabeth are directly connected by the Turnpike, and the ring roads of I-295 and I-287 mark the galactic orbits for trucks.

Oil Economy

Between the preserved lands of the Highlands to the north, and the Pine Barrens, coastal beaches, and wetlands to the south, a sacrifice zone of brownfields, superfund sites, and new logistical platforms for fulfillment centers are linked to Turnpike exits. Hudson-Raritan Estuary ports receive oil shipped domestically and from abroad.

Atlantic Flyway

Patterns reveal a unitary state defined by a social-natural history of interconnection between headwater and backwater, forest and farm, maker and consumer, which has been divided by a cultural east, west, north, and south. These land divisions are bypassed by the international and domestic arrivals from all points.

Black Bears Return

The Pattern Book examines the reconnection of the domains of skies, forests, streams, farmlands, and urban neighborhoods that have been cut by the Turnpike. Building bridges and tunnels allow for slow ecological crossings over and under varying flows of the hydrological, soil, vegetative, animal, and human, along with virtual domains, which are tied to the unusual collection of commemorative service areas.

Crossing the Hudson

We come not to praise but to reform the Turnpike through bottom-up activism of human and non-human life forces that are based in the rich array of domains broken by the Turnpike’s relentlessness. We propose this pattern language as a way to reterritorialize the Turnpike and New Jersey for the future.

Lune Ames is a writer and editor from Indiana now based in New Jersey. They work across the arts, humanities, and sciences in hybrid genres and alternative research methods with focuses on cultural and embodied memory, urban ecologies and systems, and agricultural and medicinal lore.

Petia Morozov deploys design as a social tool to ignite curiosity, equity and meaningful engagement with the world. Her experiences in architecture, writing, systems thinking, and placekeeping aspire to bring social, cultural and environmental worth in every endeavor.

Brian McGrath is an architect and Professor of Urban Design at The New School. He lived in Newark for twenty years where he volunteered for the East Coast Greenway to find a safe bike trail to Jersey City crossing Exit 15E.

Tommy CheeMou Yang is a Hmong designer and Ann Kalla Professor of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon. His earliest memory is meandering around the NJ Turnpike visiting the Field Dinosaurs of Leonia and capturing the food landscapes of Palisades Koreatown.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.