I got thinking about my friend Pierre Coutin, the architect, the other day while I was driving around the plains of West Windsor, delivering copies of our sister newspaper, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, to the McMansions of “The Tree City,” as the township calls itself.
It was a bright sunny summer day on this Friday afternoon, and my older son, Rick, was with me, tossing the papers into the driveways and giving me a chance to think while I drove. What in the world were they thinking, I wondered, when they built all these massive houses with proportionately massive front lawns? William H. Whyte, the author and student of urban planning, would have examined that question by first taking a measure of who used the yards and for what purpose.
Do kids frolic under sprinklers and squirt each other with hoses? Do they pitch tents and hang out with their friends? Do teenagers sun bathe and cast eyes toward the member of the opposite sex next door or across the street. Do adults set up a game of croquet or bocce? Or frolic with a pet in a game of fetch?
Not on this day. In fact, if Whyte were around to conduct one of his land use surveys he would discover that over a two-hour period of our study, involving 500 houses in several different West Windsor developments, that the only human activity being conducted on any front yard was the work of the landscaping crews, cutting the grass, collecting the clippings, and making it ready to be done again, presumably in another two weeks or so, when I may be out delivering again. Something to look forward to.
My friend Pierre has another approach to yards, a little different from the suburban approach.
Actually my friend Pierre has a different approach to many matters. If you met him in passing you might think he was a curmudgeon. When a bank teller says “have a nice day,” Pierre responds, “thank you, but I have other plans.” When a waiter suggests a cup of coffee at the end of a lunch, Pierre might say, “No thanks, it’ll ruin my nap.”
I first met Pierre at a cocktail party in Princeton in the late 1970s, shortly after I had purchased my first house. I bubbled on about my renovation plans. Pierre seemed unimpressed. A day or two later I was in line at the Morris Maple Paint Store, buying some deck paint for my front porch. What color do you want, the clerk asked. Gray, I answered. A voice piped up from a few spots behind me in the line: “Great. If you have any left over you can paint a battleship.” That would be Pierre.
Shortly after the West Windsor delivery run I found myself sitting outside Pierre’s house in Hunterdon County, not far from his office in Sergeantsville. There he and his wife, Sheila, a talented potter, have created — without the help of any landscaping service so far as I know — an outdoor living area that consists of a few patches of lawn, tied together by paths through modestly trimmed areas of natural growth. An unexpected gate leads to a previously unseen bench next to a creek on the edge of their property. Another path leads to a modest garden. A picnic table occupies another man-made niche in the natural landscape.
Not only can people use this outdoor space, they actually do. On the day I was there the grandchildren were also there — playing cheerfully a few feet away but out of sight from the adults. Heard a little but not seen much — a nice combination.
Back at the lifeless lawns of West Windsor, the citizens are contemplating the redevelopment of a 350-acre area surrounding the Princeton Junction train station. Some housing would go there, perhaps eventually approaching 1,000 in number. Residents are wary, however, that the housing will bring more children, crowding the schools and costing the township more in education than it generates in property taxes.
But at least one potential developer, Steve Goldin (a resident of West Windsor himself), has proposed housing that would include no front yards and no nearby playgrounds or other child-centric amenities. Studies of similar housing projects in other towns suggest that few families with children will move into such units. Palmer Square in downtown Princeton, with around 140 units, has virtually no schoolchildren.
West Windsor residents are still wary and I’m not surprised.
In the first place, as I watch the needle on my gas gauge drop, I wonder how these big box McMansions, baking in the summer sun and standing alone against the wind on the winter plain, will compete in the real estate market with energy efficient townhomes within walking distance of the train station and downtown.
As for the possibility of children in a transit village, I think back to the dearth of kids in the suburban neighborhoods I just traveled through. I can’t imagine living there. But I could imagine moving with my two teenagers into a townhome next to the train station.
“Hey dad. We want to spend the afternoon hanging out on Nassau Street.”
“Great. Get on the train and go.”
But for West Windsor, all of these concerns are matters that the economic marketplace will eventually resolve. As my friend Pierre likes to say (and as I quoted him in my 60 rules of life on the occasion of my 60th birthday), if you have a problem that money can solve, then you don’t have a problem.
It’s a pleasant Saturday afternoon on the lawn at the Coutin house in Hunterdon County. I think about raising the subject of the McMansions and their lawns with my friend Pierre but I decide not to. I think I know what he might say:
“Nothing exceeds like excess.”