Princeton business leaders have invited the internationally-recognized planner, Jeff Speck, to give two talks in Princeton this week. Having worked on over 75 town master plans, and authored one of the best-selling popular planning books of the last decade, Speck has the credentials to provide insight into ways that Princeton could redefine itself for the 21st century. This moment is particularly important, because last week the Princeton Planning Board made a recommendation on consultants to oversee a re-write of the Princeton community master plan (the Clark Caton Hintz firm of Trenton, NJ, who previously helped implement the town’s affordable housing settlement). But can any outsider, no matter how expert, understand what makes Princeton tick?
Jeff Speck’s 2012 bestseller “Walkable City” outlined his philosophy, based on observing what planning approaches work in many different cities. A fast-paced, provocative read, “Walkable City” makes a strong case that towns that prioritize a fantastic experience for people on foot are more likely to attract businesses, new residents, and a high quality of life. According to his “General Theory of Walkability”, there are certain key ingredients that support a thriving, walkable downtown. Sidewalks by themselves are not enough, walking has to be “useful, safe, comfortable and interesting”. Places that can get this right will harvest the benefits as visitors flock to them and property prices increase.
The question of walkability is especially hot in Princeton right now, as the town has grappled with how to redesign Witherspoon Street in the best possible way. (Princeton Council will be discussing that further at their meeting tonight). Many walkability advocates favored turning lower Witherspoon Street into a pedestrian plaza, but some business owners pushed back, arguing that street parking and car access is more important. Council is currently advancing a one-way concept, in which street parking would be slightly reduced, but vehicular access would be maintained. With chapter titles in his book like “Put Cars In Their Place”, you might guess that Jeff Speck would be strongly on the side of making a fully-pedestrian space, but his 2012 book also articulates some skepticism about pedestrian plazas, noting that they often failed in many US cities in the 1970s-1980s.
Jeff Speck’s talk seems like it will be specifically tailored for the unique town of Princeton. Before he gives his talk, he will join local elected and business leaders on a tour of the town, to observe what is going on, and identify potential strengths and opportunities for improvement. As such, it is possible that we will get a fresh perspective, focused on the town of Princeton, but informed by Specks’ work around the country.
Jeff Speck will give a free, public talk at Nassau Inn at 6.30 pm on Tuesday, September 28. Click here for the full information, including details on sponsors. A ‘Ted Talk’ video of Jeff Speck discussing walkability is linked below.
Then Jeff will give another talk at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce ‘Business Breakfast’ on Wednesday, September 29.