Open space. A complete network of cycle paths. Housing options that preserved social and economic diversity. Stores that can be accessed easily on foot. All this was envisaged in 1973 by the Princeton Planning Board, as part of a 20-year vision plan called ‘A Princeton Of Villages’. The plan would have seen Princeton’s population grow to 40,000 by 1990, with new residents added in a series of clustered, mixed-use developments.
Produced following ‘three years of intensive and extensive work’, the ‘Princeton of Villages’ report envisaged concentrating development at four sites. As reported in ‘Town Topics’ at the time, the goal of the plan was as follows:
“…to keep the diversity of the Princeton community, to bring back the young marrieds and the elderly who now can’t find a place to live, and retain the environment and the present ‘community’…”
By clustering development, it was hoped that more open space could be preserved- up to 25% of the former Township lands. And people would have less far to travel to take care of their daily needs, because each ‘village’ would have “a center with loaf-of-bread, spool-of-thread stores, a school, perhaps a day-care center, community rooms.”
So what happened? It’s fair to say that most of the recommendations of the report were not implemented. Instead of mixing housing of different income levels throughout the community, affordable housing was concentrated at just two sites. Other sites mentioned by the report, such as the Ettl Farm (pictured above) were built out as an exclusive development of very-low-density single-family homes. The bike path network remains rudimentary and disjointed. Everywhere, single-use zoning has been the rule, so accessing ‘loaf-of-bread, spool-of-thread’ stores almost always requires a car trip.
Perhaps the most striking difference between the 1973 report and subsequent history has been the level of home construction. Whereas the ‘Princeton of Villages’ report planned for a population of 40,000 in Princeton by 1990, even twenty-five years further on, in 2015, the town has not yet reached 30,000 residents. One impact of this systematic under-building has been what we might expect: property now trades at a big premium in Princeton, and lower-income people have been squeezed out. We can expect this trend to continue, because we are still not building anything like enough housing, and present zoning makes it very difficult to build market-rate housing at lower points on the income spectrum.
Interestingly, despite building thousands fewer homes than what planners anticipated was necessary in the early 1970s, traffic in Princeton has grown considerably. Instead of living in mixed-use areas in town, potential residents have been pushed to car-dependent homes in other townships (usually built on farmland). Limiting housing has not limited traffic- instead, it has increased the number of vehicle miles that people must travel to get to work, and accelerated the loss of open space in the region. The question is, have any lessons been learned for future planning efforts?