Highland Park, NJ Gets Small Details Right For Walkable Placemaking

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Great design means this seating area in Highland Park, NJ is more than just a bench- it’s an authentic miniature plaza. (click to expand.)

You see an ordinary bench. We see an authentic miniature plaza. Highland Park, a half hour north of Princeton on NJ Route 27, is showing how to make great walkable places. Here’s why.

If you go out walking, there’s a very good chance that at some point you will want to stop to take a rest. This is particularly true if you are walking with kids, if you have any kind of  mobility impairment, or if the weather is hot. Public benches offer a possibility for people to rest, or even to just stop and watch the world go by. As such, they are a feature of all great walkable spaces. Sadly, benches are present in far smaller numbers than in days gone by. This is in part because sidewalks have got narrower to expand roads, and also because homeless people sometimes use benches as a place to sleep. Faced with the sight of homeless people sleeping on benches, municipalities tend to do the obvious thing: provide appropriate homeless shelters take away the benches.

Highland Park is actively working to build on a local strength- their walkable downtown. With these benches (see photo above), they have gone way beyond the minimum. Let’s count the good things:

  1. What’s better than one bench? Two benches.
  2. The benches are placed at right angles, which means that a group of people can easily talk, facing each other. This is a layout which says “this town is comfortable with people congregating in the public arena, and talking to one another”.
  3. The benches are located on a ‘bulb-out’ where the sidewalk extends into the roadway, instead of encroaching on limited sidewalk space. That also means that- gasp! – one on-street parking space might have been ‘sacrificed’ to add these seats.
  4. Pedestrian-oriented lighting, at an appropriate height, directly above the benches. If you want to read a map in the dark, or a guide to historic Highland Park, you can.
  5. Little table. If you are drinking a cup of coffee, you can put it down here, instead of at your feet where you might kick it over. Alternatively, you can set out a chessboard and have a game of chess. (see point #2)
  6. Beautiful street tree. Watch it change with the seasons from the comfort of your seat.
  7. Street tree is planted below sidewalk level with metal grate over it. That means the tree roots have space to grow, and the planting doesn’t make the surrounding sidewalk unusable for people in wheelchairs or with strollers.
  8. Trash can and recycling directly adjacent. No need to go searching for somewhere to put that empty takeout coffee cup / can of soda.
  9. Extra plants in pretty blue planter to add extra interest for passers-by / people sitting here.
  10. Those tiles. Wow. Aside from being really pretty, the commitment to go to the extra expense to add those says ‘we are a town which is serious about making life better for walkers’.

These details are on one level so trivial, that the most surprising thing is how rarely we see them all come together to make a great pedestrian space like this. There should be more big prizes for design of people-oriented public spaces like this. None of these improvements are particularly expensive or complicated, but together, they significantly improve the experience of living and shopping in Highland Park. Why can’t more towns follow this example?

The pocket park in context in downtown Highland Park. (click to expand.)

Seating area in context in downtown Highland Park, NJ. (click to expand.)

What do you think of seating areas like these? Waste of  money or worthwhile enhancement of the public commons? Do you fear that these seats will be a magnet for ‘undesirables’? Or would an extra on-street parking space maybe be more valuable? Have your say in the comments section below!

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This entry was posted in Complete Streets, Downtown Vibrancy, Local, Placemaking, The Parking Question, Walking and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Highland Park, NJ Gets Small Details Right For Walkable Placemaking

  1. Wow says:

    Bulb-out probably didn’t cost a parking space: its not legal (or advisable) to park that close to an intersection. In my opinion a bulb-out like that just takes away the temptation to illegally park.

  2. Excellent post once again! This is new since I left the New Brunswick area. Way to go HP!

    One minor nit-pick though. I don’t know how comfortable I would be sitting with my back to traffic. New Brunswick did this too with some of their benches in their very good downtown streetscape project. I understand the reasoning behind facing the benched to where the people would be walking but putting one’s back to danger (speeding cars) does not encourage one to sit and linger. Still, REALLY cool!

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