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Creating a Sense of Place
This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
February 17, 1999. All rights reserved.
What you hope your home and community will look like
depends on where you came from. If you grew up in Manhattan, you may
be aggravated by suburban sprawl that requires you to drive two miles
to buy a newspaper. If you were from farm country, living cheek by
jowl with your neighbor’s townhouse may seem confining.
Helping people analyze their "sense of place" is what James
Constantine and Toby Israel do. Trained as an urban planner, Constantine
had his own company, Community Planning & Research, and now has joined
a much larger one. Trained as an artist, teacher, and environmental
psychologist, Israel joined Constantine to set up the Princeton office
of Looney Ricks Kiss, a Tennessee-based firm known for coming up with
house plans that twang buyers’ heart strings.
"Listening to the end user is the best way to create design that
enriches someone’s life," says Constantine. "Research is a
way to make those ears a little more formal and structured."
Constantine and Israel each had their own singular methods of researching
their clients’ wants and needs — how they wanted their houses
and their communities to look. Together, they work on projects ranging
from profiling a single designer’s environmental biography to helping
a community choose its environmental future. As for their own environmental
choices, they just finished moving from Charlton Street to one of
Princeton’s proudest and oldest historic homes, the Beatty House,
on Vandeventer Avenue.
Israel had written a book on her concept of Design Insight, which
uses face-to-face interviews to help people discover their thoughts
and feelings about proposed designs. These interviews can be one-on-one
(as when she interviewed Michael Graves about his childhood-based
preferences) or in groups.
Constantine had developed tools grouped under the title Design Preference:
bias-controlled, carefully structured questions and visual prompts
to elicit opinions on various design choices. These surveys can be
conducted by mail, telephone, computers in high-traffic locations,
As part of Looney Ricks Kiss they combined these methods under the
rubric LRK Design Research, aimed at eliciting "community responsive
design." One of their initial joint projects was a community visioning
survey for Hillsborough Township that ran on computers as an "electronic
Hillsborough Township is anxiously waiting for a bypass to route traffic
around their community. Then it hopes to "take back," as a
local street, the center of town along Route 206. "Their vision
is to turn it into a Main Street and a traditional town center,"
The project contracted to T&M Engineering cost a total of $105,000,
and the Looney Ricks Kiss part of it was worth $67,500. Dot Line Inc.,
based on Park Place in Princeton, did the programming. "It blended
use of our design preference methodology with followup design insight,"
"It’s one of the first computer planning surveys to be done so
successfully, and it is receiving a very prestigious national award
from the American Planning Association," says Jack Molenaar, a
planner with the Morristown-based RBA Group and president of the New
Jersey chapter (http://www.njapa.org).
Until now, planners have had two alternatives: send out mail surveys
or assemble community members at town meetings. Mail surveys can’t
convey in full graphic detail all the nuances of all the choices,
notes Molenaar, and they do not offer the synergy that can bubble
up from a group. "Someone may get a wrong idea in his head and,
with a mail survey, there is no way of changing that person’s mind."
Public meetings, on the other hand, are more interactive, "but
if you do more than one or two, they cost a lot of money," says
In contrast the township formed a representative group for a series
of workshops, not to conduct the survey, but to come up with a set
of "wants and don’t wants." With these in hand Israel helped
develop probes — hyperlinked questions to offer selection and
The survey was loaded into computers in the YWCA, the library, a firehouse,
and a cafe, so as to obtain a large scale community input. Posters
advertised the location of the special computers, which could download
the more than 100 color pictures speedily and cut survey time to 12
to 14 minutes. The survey was also accessible from the township’s
website, but at double the download time, which cut actual participation
through the Internet to 110 people. Overall, respondents were from
a wide range of income levels, ages, and household configurations,
from senior citizens to teenagers.
"We have a college-educated professional work force, and we thought
with that level of computer proficiency we would have a better chance
of getting good response to the survey," says Frank Scarantino,
Hillsborough’s director of engineering, planning, and public works.
"Statistically there was a very good response. It was a greater
response than anybody had anticipated," says Shirley Yannich,
township planner. Only a one percent sample (350 people) was needed,
and 1,000 responses would have made everyone very happy indeed, yet
nearly 2,700 people answered the questions. Each question garnered
at least 1,200 responses.
"We had a series of visuals of existing street scenes with buttons
you could hit, saying `I like existing conditions’ or `Bury the utility
wires’ and the image would change before their eyes to show what that
could do," says Constantine. Participants could add decorative
lights, brick crosswalks, and landscape medians or replace a strip
mall with stores and sidewalk cafes. "We had two dozen people
that liked the existing conditions but over 700 people selecting all
the improvements," says Constantine.
Then the inevitable question: "We tested their willingness to
pay. We asked them if they would consider paying additional annual
taxes to implement the streetscapes they had selected, and three-fourths
were willing to pay in different price ranges. That’s why this project
has received strong public support from the officials. Not only do
they have a clear vision but they are willing to step up and pay for
"It showed the will of the people — they expressed a very
strong dissatisfaction with existing conditions along Route 206,"
says Constantine, "as being too automobile-oriented and not inviting.
They had a very strong desire to see a people-friendly traditional
"We heard over and over that they want a place in town where they
can walk on a town green, shop at quaint stores, and buy an ice cream.
They kept saying they were tired of going to Princeton, downtown Somerville,
Chester, or Lambertville."
Toby Israel’s core values are three: "Wherever there is an overlap
between art, architecture, and education, that makes me feel great,"
says Israel. She grew up in Bergen County, majored in English and
art at Trinity College in Connecticut, Class of 1974, and has a master’s
from Rutgers in education and a master’s in environmental psychology
plus a doctorate from the City University of New York. She did her
doctoral research in England on how people can participate in the
design of their environment. "The British have a long and well
established tradition of community participation in both the arts
and architecture," she says. "It is so much a part of the
heritage, they drink it like the mother’s milk."
Israel was an environmental educator and arts consultant before taking
a job for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts in 1982. She had
been a consultant to Looney Ricks Kiss but joined the firm three months
Constantine’s core values go back to his first encounter with a British
"garden city," Radburne, "when I knew what I needed to
do for the rest of my life. It was a public green space that knit
the community together. It hit home like you wouldn’t believe."
He was 19, and this insight impelled him to major in urban studies
at Rutgers, Class of 1983, where he studied with Tony Nelessen.
Yet Constantine had grown up amid traditional Bergen County suburban
sprawl; his father was an executive in Manhattan and his mother was
a traditional homemaker. In Constantine’s case, rebellion against
the environment of his youth would determine his core value. "I
knew that helping to create a better sense of community would be what
I would do for the rest of my life."
After he graduated, the community planning business
hit a slow spot, and he developed an interim career in video production,
approaching the New Jersey Society of Architects to do a television
series that culminated in a 30-minute documentary on Michael Graves.
He also worked for Nelessen. "He was my mentor; he helped me start
my own firm in 1991."
Constantine devised his own methods of research, different from Nelessen’s,
and collaborated frequently with LRK. "As I was starting Design
Preference Research, I discovered I was getting a response with LRK
designs coming up very very strong. LRK was practicing a client-responsive
architecture to a very high degree. The residential designs that became
the hallmark of the firm are updates of timeless design, and we started
to get an insight on the preference for the traditional neighborhood.
`It reminds me of grandma’s house’ is a deep insight that comes from
their past. They can’t explain it but `it reminds me of a warm, secure,
With his previous firm Constantine did a master plan for the borough
of Doylestown that involved two standing-room-only crowds at town
hall. "It was the first master plan they had done in 30 years,
and it was well received, publicly and politically," he says.
Other projects were to gauge market acceptance for the growing wave
of traditional neighborhood developments, referred to as "new
urbanism." Early in 1998, to measure acceptance for Sharbell Development’s
proposed Washington Town Center, he did a mailer survey and some focus
This desire to re-make one’s community is part of a nationwide trend,
says Nelessen, the author of the benchmark book "Visions for a
New American Dream," and a professor at Rutgers. His Nassau Street-based
practice works mostly outside the state, most recently on projects
in Maryland and is just finishing a redevelopment plan for downtown
The babyboomers, children of the generation that created both the
prosperity and the sprawl, are trying to retrofit their environment
to cure the sprawl, the traffic congestion, and the pollution, says
Nelessen. Hillsborough hopes to create a Main Street or Town Center
where a state highway now runs. Lawrenceville hopes to reclaim its
Main Street as the centerpiece of a sustainable village (see page
18). Plainsboro and West Windsor are struggling with the problem of
how to carve out town centers from what used to be farm land.
"Sustainable main streets mean you have some level of population
close to the main street, so there is a percentage of people who live
and work there and don’t have to drive," says Nelessen. "We
are finding that if the Y and X generations have a choice, they would
dump their car too."
"What we are starting to determine," says Nelessen, "is
that the boomers want to preserve rural land, sustain communities,
have more green, have a downtown that they can call theirs and is
human in scale, and balance transportation — that is starting
to become fairly clear across the country."
Says Nelessen: "It’s a baby boomer phenomenon, to want to leave
a legacy for the future."
08542. James Constantine and Toby Israel 609-683-3600; fax, 609-683-0054.
Home page: http://www.job.com/lrk/.
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