How Big Is Princeton? And Where Is It Anyway?

Welcome to Princeton, NJ. And where is that exactly? (click to expand.)

Welcome to Princeton, NJ. Home of 400,000 people, according to some estimates. (click to expand.)

OK, here’s a question: how many people live in Princeton? Easy- right? Well, not really…

Did you say 29,008 people? That’s the population of municipal Princeton, according to Census Bureau estimates. But that just means the present municipal boundaries of Princeton, which date all the way back to 2013. Is that the right definition? If you think the answer is ‘yes’, ask yourself another question: how many people live in the City of London? The answer is 7,375 people. Of course it would be ridiculous to suggest that only about seven thousand people live in London. Most estimates place the population as over 8 million people.

As in London, the real boundaries of ‘Princeton’ are subject to different definitions. 29,008 people live in municipal Princeton, but 47,115 people live in the 08540 zipcode area, which is defined by the USPS as ‘Princeton’. Add in the 5,000 or so people who live in the 08542 zipcode area, which contains parts of the old Princeton Borough, and you arrive at a population figure of over 50,000 people.

But here’s the thing: if you ever miss a parcel delivery and have to go to Princeton post office to pick it up, the chances are you go to the Princeton post office in the Carnegie Center in…West Windsor. West Windsor is clearly very closely connected to Princeton, to the extent that it seems quite reasonable to describe it as part of Princeton. West Windsor is, after all, also home to ‘Princeton Junction’ rail station, and the ‘Hyatt Regency Princeton’. If we include the 28,366 people in West Windsor as part of Princeton, then we have a population of around 80,000 people (actually it would be a bit lower than that, because parts of West Windsor- such as Canal Pointe Boulevard- are in the 08540 zipcode area, so we’d be counting them twice).

People who live around Princeton often say they live in ‘Princeton’ or the ‘Princeton area’, and it is even more common for businesses to describe themselves as, for example, “Princeton’s Hometown Trader Joes” (it’s also in West Windsor). This points to a real community that goes much beyond the legal boundaries of Princeton. A study of economic activity and commuting patterns in the Princeton area suggested that ‘Greater Princeton‘ is a community of over 100,000 people. Three out of four of the people who work in Princeton live outside of the Princeton municipal area. It doesn’t make sense to say that ‘Princeton’ stops at the town line. The community is much bigger than the legal statute allows for.

Businesses know this – ‘visitprinceton.org’  defines ‘The Princeton Region‘ as a huge area including parts of Somerset, Middlesex and all of Mercer County. If we consider Princeton in those terms, we get to a similar situation as with London: the population is probably about ten times larger than the official figure, or somewhere a little over 400,000 people. This seems like a stretch, but it’s true that Princeton draws in commuters from all parts of this region. Princeton is not a small town of about 30,000 people. It’s the center of an economic area that includes over 400,000 people. If we’re making planning decisions, it’s probably a good idea to keep that in mind.

What’s your definition of Princeton? Do you agree that 100,000 people is a realistic estimate for how many people live in Princeton? Let us know in the comments section below.

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One Response to How Big Is Princeton? And Where Is It Anyway?

  1. TMA says:

    This is easy. Princeton refers to people who live in Princeton – the town, not the weird Post Office definition and not just what people say because they’re feeling insecure about living in West Windsor or Lawrenceville. If you don’t pay property taxes to Princeton, and you can’t vote for Mayor, you don’t live in Princeton. Period.

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