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Route 206 passing through Hillsborough, NJ.

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Downtown Somerville, NJ.

If shown the above town centers and asked which one they would prefer to live near, most people would doubtless choose the second. In downtown Somerville, rows of businesses are lined by wide brick sidewalks with conveniently placed benches and scenic trees every few yards. These serve as barriers from the (one-lane, relatively quiet anyway) street. These features encourage pedestrians to walk to the area from nearby houses or consolidated parking lots placed behind the shops. Although it is similarly the main hub of local business in Hillsborough, Route 206’s accessibility to pedestrians pales in comparison. This busy two-lane road, hazardous to cross and lacking a shoulder of any kind, runs directly next to the awkwardly placed parking lots that were constructed in front of the storefronts. There are sidewalks along the storefronts, behind the parking lots, but each section of stores are placed at different distances from the street and are separated by hedges and at one point a gas station, making walking between them a challenge.

Hillsborough started out as farmland, which was gradually converted into either connector-type suburban developments or shopping complexes and large businesses tucked away from the street amidst large parking lots, a feature that neotraditionalists would frown upon for reducing the walkability of the town. There was likely less of an emphasis on walkability in the original plan.

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Shopping centers pushed away from the street and unaccessible except by car.

Below you can see an example of a project that could have created a space for people to walk and sit near the stores lining 206. Yet the path is located at the edge of a parking lot and leads to a busy intersection, where most people would likely not venture out to sit.

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Intersection of Route 206 and Amwell Road in Hillsborough, NJ.

Unlike the individualized parking lots above, the parking lots in downtown Somerville are located behind the shops, allowing the buildings to be close together and close to the street.

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Parking lots in downtown Somerville located behind the shops.

I’d like to make another comparison between livable environments, this time between two neighborhoods in Hillsborough. Baker’s Circle is one of three complexes located adjacent to one another. The streets wind together forming circles and creating an intimate atmosphere in the neighborhood. This atmosphere is added to by the relatively small yards and closeness of the houses, the tennis courts and park provided for residents, and the walking paths that connect the separate developments, a feature reminiscent of neighborhood plans like that of Radburn, NJ.

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Tennis courts at Baker’s Circle in Hillsborough.

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Photo showing the paths that connect one neighborhood to the next.

A street like Baker’s Circle looks fairly different from another common type of street in the town, which contains widely spaced houses pushed back far from the road and continues for long stretches without looping or joining other streets, making the neighborhood seem spread out. The differences are not as great as those between the two downtowns compared earlier, but still offer an interesting choice between layouts. I would prefer the Baker’s Circle type layout, but I’m aware that some people enjoy having large yards and privacy from their neighbors, making the second choice more favorable to them.

Obviously a town like Hillsborough and a town like Somerville have been designed very differently, with pros and cons on each side. However, a built environment at the heart of a town should never be as pedestrian-unfriendly and traffic heavy as rt. 206. A good planning initiative could energize a place like this and improve the quality of the town overall.