March 20, 2013

Princeton Future Launching Database For Problem Solvers

Some 50 Princeton residents turned out Saturday morning for the second of three discussions focused on the town’s future. Organized by the 501c3 non-profit organization Princeton Future, the meeting looked at “What Information and Input is Needed to Plan and Measure Progress?”

Katherine Kish of Einstein’s Alley introduced talks by regional planner Ralph Widner, a member of the National Academy of Public Administration; architect Gianni Longo; and design psychologist Toby Israel before a panel discussion that, in addition to Ms. Kish and the speakers, included Larry Hugick of Princeton Survey Research Associates and former Princeton mayors Marvin Reed and Chad Goerner.

“Today we take the first step in creating a vision for Princeton with the community not for the community,” said Ms. Kish, setting the tone for the meeting.

Mr. Widner immediately got down to the nitty gritty of numbers needed to understand the newly consolidated Princeton but also the town in relation to Greater Princeton and beyond. He unveiled “A Statistical Portrait” that is, in effect, a database of information from the 2010 U.S. Census and the 2007-2011 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census.

“This is a tool that will help us to argue for what is needed in Princeton,” said Mr. Widner. “All too often towns bring in consultants who come for a time and then leave; this information bank will be a living thing that will help us plan for the future as a whole rather than just for specific issues.”

The database was prompted by a conversation Mr. Widner had with Anton Lahnston about Princeton’s traffic problems. Mr. Lahnston had said: “You can’t solve traffic problems unless you know where the traffic is coming from.” At first, a traffic database was decided upon, but then the project enlarged to become a comprehensive information bank, a tool that could be valuable for future decision-making and planning purposes. “Our perceptions need to be informed by facts,” said Mr. Widner, adding that the database will be available in the Princeton Public Library in a few weeks time. It will be downloadable in pdf or spreadsheet form as well as in hard copy.

What does it include? Facts, figures, charts, comparisons, maps, questions, and answers that show “where Princeton has been, where it stands today, and where it might be headed.”

“A lot of problems faced by the town are not confined to the municipal boundaries,” said Mr. Widner, as he went through his slide presentation of information that was gathered in response to questions raised by town residents. These were questions about people; such as how many seniors, how many teens, how many on food stamps and breakdowns by age, gender, race and ethnicity; about traffic; such as how many commuters in and out of Princeton daily, how many trucks going where and when; and about the economy such as the effect of traffic on downtown businesses and home prices, to mention a handful from the wealth of detailed data gathered by Mr. Widner, who was careful to also point out inaccuracies such as those that resulted from the 2000 census counting a number of Princeton University students twice.

Summing up aspects of the data, Mr. Widner described Princeton as “different,” with a higher proportion of people walking or biking to work. He noted the “sad decline in the town’s African American population over the last 20 years.”

The pressing issue of traffic loomed large. “There are 180,000 vehicle trips passing through Princeton every day,” said Mr. Widner. “Traffic and ways to transplant auto travel with mass transit will have to be the focus for the next decade,” he said.

In his presentation, architect Gianni Longo of ACP Visioning+Planning, focused on ways to involve the community in the planning process. Citing the historic relationship between “master builder” Robert Moses and activist Jane Jacobs, he described a “major shift” from autocrats to community engagement.

Ms. Jacobs’s influential 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities argued that urban renewal did not respect the needs of most city-dwellers. She famously organized grassroots efforts to oppose Mr. Moses’s plans to overhaul New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood.

One audience member questioned a perceived “shift” in the use of the word “stakeholder,” suggesting that the term once included the ordinary citizen/resident but now seems to mean interest groups. Mr. Longo acknowledged that “stakeholders” can become non-inclusive “gate-keepers.”

Toby Israel, author of Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places and founder of the new field known as “design psychology,” engaged the entire audience in an exercise demonstrating participation. She invited everyone to think about a favorite street and find five words to describe it. The room lit up with activity and conversation which was then directed toward a hypothetical future vision for the Witherspoon Street/Valley Road area of Princeton. The exercise demonstrated just one step in Ms. Israel’s participatory process, which is based upon eliciting environmental autobiographies. “Its a methodology that helps people become conscious of their unconscious responses to place,” she said.

A third discussion in the Princeton Future series —“A United Princeton Looks at the Future: What Do We Want Our Town and Region to be in the Next 20 Years?”  — is scheduled to take place at the Princeton Public Library on Saturday, April 20, from 9 a.m. to noon. The meeting will focus on “Best Practice: What Tools and Techniques can Lead to Effective Decision-Making and Implementation?” For more information, visit: