Public Rain Garden Bulldozed by Princeton Housing Authority Staff


You know, it’s been a beautiful summer, and I really don’t feel like being upset. But last Thursday, on August 7, the rain garden at the Princeton Housing Authority’s Spruce Circle on Harrison Street was bulldozed. Just like that. Gone. For six years it provided beauty to passersby, and food and habitat for wildlife. This time of year is peak flowering, with Joe-Pye-Weed, cutleaf coneflower, boneset and swamp milkweed providing color and feeding pollinators that find precious little to feed on elsewhere. In an urban landscape dominated by trees and turf, the rain garden offered an oasis for the dwindling numbers of monarch butterflies that come our way each year.

raingardenbulldozedWhen I discovered the destruction, the sign was still there. It would have been thoughtful if the head of maintenance, whoever that may be, had read the sign first, to find out what the garden’s function was, and who planted it. The next day, the sign too had been ripped out.

I called the Princeton Housing Authority, and was told by an assistant administrator, who could not have been more indifferent, that anything planted on their property is under their control, and can be destroyed at will. I explained that it had been planted and maintained for six years by volunteers, and asked if she might feel any regret? She said she would be lying if she said she did. Since I had called a few minutes after the office closed, she said she was doing me a favor by answering the phone.

raingardensignIt is true the housing authority has control over its property, but not completely true. That land is public land. It’s not owned by the recently hired maintenance supervisor. The rain garden was approved in 2008 by the executive director, Scott Parsons, and the Princeton Housing Authority board. It was faithfully maintained by volunteers. Such decisions can’t be reversed on someone’s whim, or so you would think.

Having planted a lot of raingardens on public land, in three different towns, I’ve developed a thick skin. The first time one was accidentally mowed by a new and uninformed employee, in Durham, North Carolina, it felt like a punch to the gut. I discovered, however, that gardens are resilient. They grow back from a mowing. So two years ago when I came upon a man trimming the Harrison Street rain garden with a chainsaw, I calmly explained that the wildflowers are not a hedge, and we joked about it later. But bulldozing represents a new level of ignorance and indifference.

One of the ironies is that I had just received an invitation from Princeton’s mayor to a volunteer thank you party. Well, the rain garden was a volunteer of sorts, doing everything right. In addition to the interest, beauty and habitat it provided, it also capturing runoff from the roofs to reduce downstream flooding. What a nice thank you it received, from a bulldozer.

RainGarPlantingPSAnd here, flashing back to 2008, is an example of community volunteers doing everything right. When Curtis Helm told me about his idea of planting a demonstration rain garden at Spruce Circle, I helped choose the spot and facilitated the permission process. Curtis carefully regraded the soil to hold just the right amount of runoff, so the water would seep into the ground after a day or two, feeding the plants but killing any hapless mosquito larvae before they could mature. By tempting mosquitoes to lay their eggs in ephemeral water, a rain garden actually reduces the urban mosquito population.

Surrounded by buildings and streets whose imperviousness displaces nature and contributes to downstream flooding, and whose emissions contribute to destabilizing climate, the rain garden acts as a buffer, welcoming nature and slowing the water down. In a time of increasing extremes, we need more rain gardens, not less.

Curtis arranged a generous donation of plants from Pinelands Nursery, and paid for the sign with his own money. The rain garden was part of a green home and garden tour that year. Photos of the garden were used in presentations at conferences, and also appear in the Rain Garden Manual of New Jersey (pp. 14 and 50), which is accessible on websites in NJ, Connecticut, Maine and elsewhere. When Curtis left town to take a position with Philadelphia’s parks department, I weeded the garden each year and made sure the roof downspouts were still feeding it water.

raingarden1PSIt takes a certain breed of person to keep a garden going, year after year. So many distractions in life, so many demands, and the weeds take advantage. There are some successes in Princeton. The gardens that serve as an attractive entryway to the town pool and the recreation building thrive because of the volunteer t.l.c. of Vikki Caines, a rec. dept. employee, and the Dogwood Garden Club. But other gardens have recently lost their longtime stewards. The splendid gardens at Riverside Elementary are losing Dorothy Mullen after so many years of devotion. The Barbara Sigmund Memorial Park on Hamilton Avenue. lost Polly Burlingham’s stewardship, in part due to a lack of volunteer help. Other plantings have gone for years without adequate attention. The memorial dogwoods at Princeton Battlefield languish beneath a tyranny of freeloading vines while acres of ahistoric lawn get mowed. The Harrison Street Park plantings got a burst of volunteer attention their first year, but then most of those gardens were left to the weeds and the unskilled grounds crew.

The lack of botanical training for employees charged with caring for our public spaces has always been hard to fathom. Princeton has an arborist, but no one versed in plants that happen to lack cellulose. Usually the lack of training expresses itself through the steady decline of any planting other than trees and turf. But now we find that this lack of knowledge and training has expressed itself as a willingness to destroy even those gardens well cared for by volunteers.

uglyplantsWhat we end up with is “greenery”, for example this mound of invasive Japanese honeysuckle vine that suffocated whatever shrub was planted there long ago, and now survives by being sufficiently boring and mindless.

The Princeton Housing Authority has been incommunicado this week as it moves into new offices. Their executive director only works one day a week, and has yet to reply to requests for information. All indications, however, suggest that this was a pointless act of destruction.

So, really, what does Princeton value? Does it value the time, passion, knowledge, and energy its volunteers give to the community? Does it value the stream–Harry’s Brook–that this rain garden was aiding by holding back runoff? Whoever destroyed this garden thought no one would care, that the Housing Authority Board and town council would simply make excuses or look the other way. We’ll find out soon whether the town rebuilds this rain garden, or if public spiritedness is to be turned into a slurry of mud headed towards Harry’s Brook.


  1. As author of this post, I would like to add a note to clarify some points. Soon after I originally wrote this post for my blog, the Housing Authority’s executive director, Scott Parsons, responded to my inquiry about what had happened. He explained that there was a misunderstanding with his maintenance staff, but that there wasn’t much that could be done. He apologized for the misunderstanding. The apology was appreciated, but the thought that one misunderstanding would irrevocably wipe out a raingarden faithfully tended for six years seemed unfair.

    Since the reposting of the article on the PlanetPrinceton site, I have heard further, second hand, that the maintenance supervisor feels terrible about removing the garden. In light of this first clear evidence of regret, I too could wish I had mentioned in the article that I have always thought that Spruce Circle housing is a model of what should be happening much more often in our town. It seems well run, and is filling a vital niche. I was proud to be contributing something to it, which made the sudden wiping out of that contribution, and the subsequent seeming indifference, all the more traumatic. I normally try to invent excuses for those who perpetrate some slight or other, knowing that people are generally well-meaning and that I might be misinterpreting. In this case, the slight overwhelmed that instinct.

    Maybe something positive can still come out of this, not only at Spruce Circle but in other public areas of Princeton. Landscaping can be attractive to people, useful for wildlife, beneficial for the local stream, and low maintenance. To get there, governments, organizations and individuals all have to work together.

    1. What about the lady who told you to buzz off. She is still around to cause trouble, presumably.

    2. It is hard to believe that there was not a plan in place to fill in the garden. Is there not a planning process for the maintenance department that is vetted? Did they run out of things to do on their primary list of projects? If it was so easy to drive a bulldozer over there and fill it in, then it should be as easy for the city to drive it back over and excavate it. I know that there is more work than that, but it would be a start for someone wanting to rebuild it. Did the city make that offer?

  2. Some shame, some regret, but still little clue as to *what actually happened* (asterisks substitute for underlines). Misunderstanding is a couple of steps removed from that. Only by looking simply at who said what to whom and who took what action can such things perhaps be prevented from happening again.

  3. If the raingarden is to be restored (by volunteers or anyone), I suggest that it needs a modest fence of some sort to make clear that it is intended to be there. I’d be willing to contribute to a short fence deliniating it’s boundaries.

  4. On August 19, after a week of tense exchanges with the Housing Authority, I received an email from the Housing Authority’s executive director stating the following: “First and foremost, I, along with my staff and Board of Commissioners want to offer our sincere apology to you and the community at large for destroying an ecologically friendly community gift. The Princeton Housing Authority and the board certainly appreciate your hard work and dedication in donating your time and effort in the landscaping project. ” The email goes on to express a desire to move forward in correcting the situation. The email was an important step towards healing, and I look forward to working with them towards making something positive out of this unfortunate event. I will be posting more on this at as time goes on.

  5. I live around the corner from Spruce Circle Housing and also noticed that the rain garden had disappeared. Steve’s article was very helpful in highlighting the history of the garden and its importance to the environment.

    I have wondered for years who was actually responsible for maintaining the garden because it sometimes looked rather neglected, like nobody really took care of it. That may have been why the maintenance staff just thought it would be better to bulldoze the garden over, cover the ground with some grass seeds and straw and, in their eyes, make it look a lot better. They probably figured that nobody would really miss it. Indeed, a horrible outcome.

    If you walk into the housing complex and go behind the building that borders the park on the side of Hamilton Avenue, you come across another garden plot that some women living in one of the buildings have been taking care of for years. They grow vegetables and herbs, and the plot is surrounded with plastic containers with tomato plants. It is tiny, hidden away behind the building, but wonderfully urban in its appearance and obviously not neglected. This is probably the reason why the maintenance people, who occasionally mow the area behind the building, have left the garden alone, not cleaned it up and bulldozed it over.

    Steve gives several examples of other gardens in Princeton that have for many years been successfully taken care of by volunteers but are now in danger of being neglected and possibly disappearing. To safe these gardens, we probably will need a combination public leadership and community initiative to determine how these gardens can be taken care of without primarily relying on volunteers. We probably need it quickly otherwise these treasures will be gone. Without this, we should not even think about starting new ones.

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