Meet New Jersey’s Rising Star City Planner

by Peter Candia

City planning—or urban planning—is a diverse field focused on arranging zoning and development patterns within the built environment and designing urban spaces to build practical, sustainable, and visually appealing communities. It involves envisioning, creating, and overseeing the physical, social, and economic aspects of cities and towns to improve residents’ quality of life while providing a competitive edge for the municipality. In densely populated regions like New Jersey, effective urban planning is crucial for economic prosperity and creating a desirable place to live for NJ residents.

Meet Alexander Dougherty, Principal of Dougherty Planning & Development. The determined city planner is passionate about designing city fabrics that will benefit its citizens, while working alongside communities to outline a plan for the future. Despite its relatively small size, New Jersey’s population is not shrinking—growing by an average of half a percent each year over the last decade. This means that well-planned cities and communities are more important than ever. Through his work with local municipalities and private sector development, Dougherty is committed to working on behalf of the people to build a better tomorrow.

Dougherty began his passion for urban planning at Rutgers University, obtaining a Master’s in City and Regional Planning. He extensively studied urban planning and public policy, primarily focusing on crafting development and redevelopment strategies—exploring a diverse array of research and planning methodologies. His dedication led him to attain an academic certification in public policy. Beyond this, Dougherty boasts a Licensed Professional Planner (PP) certification in New Jersey, alongside his distinction as a Professional Planner within the esteemed American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). The AICP, in particular, is the sole nationwide and independent validation of planners’ qualifications.

These qualifications led him to open his own practice, working in the public and private sectors. “The real push to open my own practice and to do more in the planning field came from my cancer diagnosis back in 2020,” Dougherty told me. “Life is short, and the planning practice is extremely fulfilling. Your entire job, at face value, is set on improving the lives of all those around you; people in communities you may never know. Planning at its core from the public sector is to design and plan for utopia and safeguard the public interest by reviewing development applications imposed upon communities.”

Dougherty’s expertise in land use allows him to easily navigate ordinances each municipality might have in place. “It is very fulfilling to get to work with great development applications and assist with approvals despite local ordinance and zoning constraints. I get to travel the state and visit different municipalities and read their town’s development and land use ordinances,” Dougherty said. This often difficult language is easily decipherable for Dougherty, who described reading town ordinances as creating a “picture book” in his head. His understanding of these complex development applications allows him to plan within the limits set by each municipality properly—of course, keeping the citizen’s well-being at the forefront of each outline.

A majority of Dougherty’s work in the public sector takes place in the township of Dover, NJ, where his work aims to sculpt the community into a safe, livable and vibrant space that is sought after by residents and outsiders alike. It may sound hyperbolic, but it is Dougherty’s vision when working with cities. Using community input, Dougherty is able to envision, alongside residents, the community beyond the built-in environment as it stands today. But, it all comes down to a vote on the vision in the end. “I tee up the stand so that town officials can hit grand slams,” he told me.

This vision has led him to obtain a grant from Morris Arts for Dover’s first-ever asphalt mural—it is the first time Morris Arts has given a municipality grant funding in 50 years. Spanning over 1,100 feet and covering over five thousand square feet of painted asphalt, it’ll be one of the largest of its kind in all of New Jersey. On August 24 and 25, more than 20 artists will begin painting the mural. On August 26, Dougherty organized the action into a full-scale event, with the assistance from fellow colleagues Yahahra Mejorada from Dover and Liz Terzic Smith.

the owner and operator of Levitate Creative Services, who is overseeing the art installment piece, to include, live musical performances, DJs, vendors, face painting, a car show and much more. Planned and coordinated with Dougherty and his team, the mural has become a full-blown community event for the residents of Dover and Morris County.

It isn’t always just about what Dougherty and the community envision together, though. Oftentimes, the market has a strong influence in a city’s development and land use plan, “We as planners on the public side may come up with a utopian plan based on local input and community meetings. However, the markets really drive the future of communities.” For example, Hudson County was made up of single-family housing less than a century ago. Today, it is a densely populated metropolis, serving as a de-facto borough of Manhattan, complete with skyscrapers and large apartment communities. In fact, it’s rare to see a single-family detached dwelling nowadays in this part of the state. The market demanded high-density housing, and thus, the city followed.

In the private sector, Dougherty attends Municipal Planning and Zoning Board meetings on behalf of development applicants.. These projects range from small homeowner applications to large commercial and residential developments. His qualifications allow him to align development applications with one or more of the purposes of the Municipal Land Use Law. By creating a parallel between the law and the application, Dougherty can effectively make a case for why a proposed change isn’t just right for an area but legally sound planning that will advance land use law.

At just 34 years old, Dougherty has already appeared and successfully argued before hundreds of boards. Later this year, he is set to appear as a panelist for a seminar at the League of Municipalities—a non-partisan, non-profit voluntary association that includes all 564 of New Jersey’s municipalities. Dougherty plans to discuss various topics encompassing community needs and the board approval process for resolution and compliance.

Beyond the legal jargon, Dougherty’s true passion is to make better communities for people to live in, plain and simple. Too often in the US, communities are built around cars, forgetting the people who live there and neglecting public transportation altogether and existing infrastructure . Dougherty cited the famous Joni Mitchell “Yellow Taxi” song as a diagnosis of America’s obsession with cars: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum and charged the people a dollar and a half to see them.” 

When designing a city, everything comes into play. That means bike lanes, parks, open space, signage, walkways, accessibility and more, requiring those with an eye like Dougherty’s to spearhead the change. The challenge becomes sculpting the infrastructure that already exists that will promote the goals and vision for the stakeholders. “In most communities, the downtown is suffering from a lack of economic development and competitive edge. Affordability is a rising issue, yet great transportation options remain underutilized in most of our communities,” Dougherty told me. “Walkable, safe streets add a sense of vibrancy and social interaction—it leads to a healthier community. Reducing VMTs or vehicles’ miles traveled is a core goal in the planning profession. Regardless of environmental agendas, it’s for the betterment of the communities we serve,” he continued. Increasing density in our starving downtown corridors aids in the success of our commercial and retail amenities while capitalizing on existing infrastructure such as robust sidewalks, mass transit and employment opportunities. Most notably, it preserves low-lying residential zones and reduces the demand for vehicle dependency in our downtowns.

Dougherty remains a dedicated advocate for the creation of vibrant and functional cityscapes. With a comprehensive academic foundation and a wealth of experience, Dougherty masterfully navigates the middle ground between regulations and community aspirations. His ability to immerse himself within the built environment and to  understand the language of municipal ordinances allows him to decode their complexities and envision dynamic possibilities within their constraints. In the pursuit of enhancing lives, he employs his expertise to shape municipalities that emphasize walkability, safety, and social engagement. In a landscape where market pressures often shape urban trajectories, Dougherty’s dedication remains a beacon of hope for the restructuring of urban fabrics that stand the test of time.

About the Author/s

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Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.

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