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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the June 2, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Suburban Sprawl

A postscript to last week’s column on the alumni panel on urban sprawl and smart growth at the Princeton reunions. I — with no formal training or experience in land use planning — was planted on a panel with some of the leading lights in the country. All I could figure was that I was supposed to be the voice from the front lines: The guy making a living in the heart of the sprawling wasteland and ready to throw a bucket of reality onto the proceedings if the other panelists got lost in their ivory tower.

So I showed up with an observation and a question:

The observation: That the suburban sprawl associated with places like Plainsboro and West Windsor, where our sister newspaper — the WW-P News — gets distributed every two weeks, is not nearly as “sprawling” as some would believe. My empirical evidence, sure to impress the academicians, consisted of data collected delivering the News into the driveways of Plainsboro and West Windsor. While we think of those communities as McMansions on five-acre lots, many developments are in fact densely built tracts of single and two-family attached units. On many a street you have to slow to a crawl to give yourself enough time to throw a paper into the driveway. In some places it is actually easier to walk around the neighborhood than to drive.

And I was armed with some other research: Jim Hughes, dean of the Rutgers school of planning and public policy, had just issued a 24-page report entitled “The Beginning of the End of Sprawl?” The report cites data for employment, population, personal income, and housing that suggest the rampant suburbanization of the region is coming to an end and that cities may be the next growth sectors of our economy. One factor: Baby boomers, who are now tired of mowing lawns and sitting in traffic and yearn for a home within walking distance of Starbucks.

Then the question: Could it be that towns like West Windsor and Plainsboro are winning the quantitative battle, but still losing the qualitative war? Yes, both Plainsboro and West Windsor have substantial tracts of preserved open space and both townsh]ips are buying up more land as fast as taxpayers can approve it (Hughes points out that more than 90 percent of all referenda for open space preservation have passed). It may be no coincidence that the nesting pair of bald eagles who have returned to central New Jersey for the first time in eons have chosen to reside in Plainsboro.

But on the other hand, if you drive around some of those dense residential developments, there’s still no there there. The residential density is there, and the open space is there surrounding the houses, but you will not yet find the amenities that are the backbone of the cities now profiting from the new development forces. Drive down Scudders Mill Road in Plainsboro. On one side is the new town center, under construction. On the other side is a housing development perfect for baby boomers. But how are they going to get from their home to the future Starbucks on the other side of this six-lane highway? What can be done to pump some urban vitality into these recently extruded neighborhoods?

So I showed up, but I might as well have stayed home. This time around, the experts from the ivory tower needed no Everyman to keep it grounded in reality. These guys get around. One of the experts, Jim Stockard of the Harvard Design School, stopped in Princeton on his way back from China. The business card of Alan Plattus of the Yale School of Architecture was printed in English on one side and in Chinese on the other. As he told the gathering, based on first-hand observation, “we have exported a lot of our bad planning to the rest of the world — China for example.”

Lest anyone think that this was a discussion aimed at helping aging yuppies get perfect lattes with dramatic views of bald eagles soaring overhead, the panel had some sobering words. Yes, noted Jim Shea of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, his city has profited handsomely from the new baseball stadium and waterfront developments. But there are still 60,000 drug addicts living in its core.

“Important social issues get glossed over by some of these environmental groups,” said Plattus. “Everyone’s for ‘smart growth’ but smart growth for whom — not the people in the public housing projects.”

And based on the panel’s comments no one in a bright shiny suburban development should feel immune to the forces of decay. Thirty-five years ago, when I was in college, certain guys from Cleveland wanted you to know that they weren’t really from Cleveland, they were actually from Shaker Heights. Last week at the alumni panel Bill Hudnut of the Urban Land Institute talked about the problems now being faced by the first tier suburbs that blossomed in the 1950s and ’60s. Hudnut’s example: Shaker Heights.

None of the experts offered any specific suggestions for the Plainsboros and West Windsors of our times. But smart land use cannot begin too soon. As Plattus said: “Even if we stopped all growth tomorrow, there would still be millions of units of poorly planned developments. It’s a tough job to retro-fit them. Those developments could be the brownfields of tomorrow.”

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