The draft Master Plan: In defense of Princeton’s trees

Those of us who live in Princeton truly value open space and trees. The proof is all around us.  But lately, when the subject comes up, we are referred to Princeton’s “emerald necklace” which is well outside of town. While preserving this land, and hopefully adding to it, is laudable, it should not come at the expense of preserving our old-growth, in-town trees.

Those who drafted our new master plan are looking at our town with an obvious appetite for infill development. The plan calls for rezoning so that each home could be replaced by four. What will we lose when density is gained?  Trees and natural beauty.

A recent study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service finds “Urban trees are an essential part of our public health infrastructure, and they should be treated as such.” There were increased cardiovascular and respiratory illness deaths in counties, from Minnesota to New York, that lost trees due to the emerald ash borer.

The number of days in NYC hotter than 90 degrees is expected to triple by 2050. Heat-related deaths and emergency hospitalizations are expected to increase by over 50 percent in the next 20 years. Increasing tree coverage is a natural solution to reduce extreme heat in cities, and our government has allocated $1B to add trees nationwide to reduce heat and improve air quality. Why is Princeton headed in the opposite direction?

The proposed PTS redevelopment plan for the TRW property at 106 Stockton (a property described as, and known to be, environmentally sensitive) asks our town officials to approve removing over 25 magnificent, 100-plus-year-old trees, and to attempt mitigation of the guaranteed resultant flooding by adding underground storage tanks. This feels representative of our town’s future: remove a natural gift that prevents flooding, creates and cleans the air we breathe, cools our air in the summer and adds to our well-being, and replace it with a man-made mechanical solution that will fail over time.    

People want to live in a healthy ecosystem but, if this master plan is approved, we will embark on a plan to pave paradise. And once our beautiful trees are removed, it will take decades to bring them back, but only if there is any space left for them to grow.

Patrick McDonnell
Hibben Road


  1. Thank you for this letter. The debate about the master plan and recent in-town development often becomes divisive as those against development are portrayed as being against affordable housing for class-based reasons. But one can be against the development plans because of the environmental damage caused by the loss of trees and greenspace. The recent construction at the Shopping Center began with cutting down a huge swath of trees that provided a welcome patch of nature at the north of the shopping center. I came to Princeton from a city because I wanted to live in a town with lots of nature throughout the town. I am concerned that the Master Plan wants to create rules and zoning that would result in that nature being replaced by buildings.

  2. Patrick McDonnel is right and wrong. The problem with the plan is overdevelopment. The plan projects too much growth too quickly. Once you decide on overdevelopment there are, however, only two choices: destroy existing open space for more suburban sprawl or infill existing suburban sprawl by increasing density on already developed lots. There is no third option. When overdevelopment is the goal increasing density is the better option. Increasing density can preserve natural spaces rather than trading nature for manicured lawns and driveways. Once lost a natural space is almost never restored. Save the Emerald Ring!

    1. The Emerald Ring benefits the ultra wealthy whose properties border the land they want preserved. Almost everyone who is a part of the Ridgeview Conservancy group, for example, lives in homes bordering the property. These people then treat the land like their own private parks. Preserving that land is basically protecting and increasing their property values so they can have essentially a private park while trees and green space are taken away from the center of town.

  3. 100% agree. Anyone remember what Alexander Road looked like before they mowed it down? They green light anything in the name of progress, sustainability, and (un)affordable housing, yet a taxpaying homeowner can’t build a small backyard patio without having to engage in what looks like a pay-to-play scheme with town authorities.

  4. Reading Patrick McDonnell’s piece reminded me of something that, according to Albert Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson, Elsa Einstein said after she and her husband came to live in Princeton. Writing to a friend, she said “The whole of Princeton is one great park with wonderful trees.” The trees she had in mind may well have included the ones Mr. McDonnell is referring to at the former PTS property. The Einsteins’ home on Mercer Street was nearby, and the trees are probably old enough that they would have been mature and beautiful even back then.

  5. The “Emerald Necklace” exists in fragmentary form only. The name refers to the hope that all Princeton’s greenspaces and parks can be connected by a safe, attractive walking/jogging/biking path that would benefit public health and allow easy access to nature for all. Montgomery and Hopewell have such trails, and Princeton desperately needs one, but connector lands, rights-of-way, and keystone properties on the Ridge like the Lanwin tract must be acquired, and soon, if the dream of preservation for the benefit of all is to become reality. Meanwhile, our lovely trees fall to development, and the traffic roars on.

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