As the Alexander Street-University Place Task Force nears the conclusion of its deliberations, and at the outset of the strategic planning and 10-year campus planning efforts that Princeton University has lately initiated, it is timely to consider the long-term goals and visions of the University and its neighbor municipalities, and what transportation and growth plans may possibly be of mutual or collective interest.
To be clear about the lens through which I view this matter, by profession and passion I promote the growth of communities that are walkable, bikeable, and as transit-oriented as possible. I am motivated by the conviction that communities with these traits are – compared to more auto-oriented suburbs – healthier, more social, more entertaining, more fiscally efficient, safer, easier on household pocketbooks, environmentally more sound, more economically productive, and more equitable, in that they support greater independence for senior citizens, children, and members of other mobility-challenged and low-income communities.
I am also convinced that the majority of our community enjoys the Princeton area precisely because it offers many of these benefits in an attractive setting. Activities from my own experience and observation that illustrate the idea of sustainable activity in a suburban town setting include:
• Middle school kids riding their bikes to the John Witherspoon School
• Browsing shops along Nassau Street, coffee or ice cream in hand
• Taking drinks in town after a concert at Richardson Auditorium
• Grandparents walking with children to neighborhood school playgrounds
• Senior citizens taking the FreeB for daily errands, or taking shuttles to evening shows at McCarter
• Taking a dog for a walk or run in the Institute Woods (or along the canal or any of the many area trails)
• Teens taking the bus to visit malls or the city
• Grown-ups biking to jobs in town or to the Dinky station
Feel free to add your own iconic experience to this list! But the fact that so many can do so much so easily in an attractive setting is something I think we all want to preserve.
As is so often the case, however, disagreements over the character of our community’s future have less to do with divergent objectives of planning and more to do with conflicts over the means envisioned to achieve commonly held goals.
A key premise for this and subsequent essays is that preserving the best of Princeton’s character may require an embrace of change. This will be a counter-intuitive idea for some. But since Princeton’s geography places it within surrounding development, whether one desires change or not, Princeton’s famous beauty – the community’s and the University’s alike – are being affected and, arguably, undermined.
As development surrounding Princeton continues, and as driving throughout the region increases, efforts to preserve community character through a local policy of stasis will only guarantee that Princeton becomes harder to get to, harder to leave, more hemmed in, more beset by traffic, and less attractive. Instead, active engagement is needed to preserve community character and quality. Growth oriented around an extension of the municipality’s historic qualities of walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible, and active places is the only way to achieve the preservation of character and quality that is so broadly desired within the community.
Another premise is that Princeton University possesses both the long-term perspective and the resources to promote desirable change. An alliance among Princeton-area communities and the University is the only way to achieve mutually-supporting growth goals, by channeling future growth into walkable, bikeable, transit-served places. The University is uniquely positioned to use its land-holdings, long-range strategic view, regional connections, political strength, and intellectual and creative resources to support growth that simultaneously meets the University’s own strategic objectives and also improves the character and strength of surrounding communities.
A third and final premise is that defining and working towards objectives of mutual interest can reduce tensions and create a more hospitable environment for the exchange of growth-related information, and for more coordinated, and more effective, planning. This stands in contrast to the oppositional atmosphere that results when “preservation” is believed to be in conflict with change. Instead, opportunities for cooperative problem-solving will build a stronger town and engaged citizens, and a better coordinated Greater Princeton area.
The “moral high ground” of sustainable growth in this country is currently held by cities in general, and in particular by cities such as Portland, Boston, Washington, DC, New York, and Chicago that have had success in growing urban populations while leveraging transit investments and innovating in areas like car and bike sharing. There is, however, another model, one that would take advantage of the suburbs as a continuing locus of economic activity and growth, and that is rooted in the many attractions that suburban settings continue to offer. This model, which has potentially increasing importance in the 21st century, is one in which suburban towns are easily walkable, bikeable, and interconnected with one other and with metropolitan areas by accessible transit service. Towns such as Princeton and its neighbors have all the tools to support sustainable growth that preserves historic character, particularly when those towns have the regional accessibility that this area enjoys. The specific innovations needed for this vision to succeed in the suburbs are only now emerging, just as the innovations that have supported the revival of city living were not evident a decade or two ago. But believing in a vision of sustainable suburban growth and change is a necessary pre-condition for considering and adopting needed innovations.
An alignment of planning between and among Princeton, West Windsor, Plainsboro, and Princeton University could achieve a vision of sustainable growth in the area that would be an example for not only the state but the nation as well.
In subsequent articles I will:
• Describe in more detail what is meant by “walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented development,” particularly as it might be appropriately applied in the greater Princeton community.
• Speculate about how walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented development could be of strategic interest to Princeton University.
• Imagine how growth in the area could benefit the greater Princeton community, including residents, businesses, institutions, and governments.
• Lay out what would need to be done to create an ongoing program of collaboration in the greater Princeton community.