Princeton has no oceans to flood its streets and no forests where wildfires can burn out of control, but it is not immune to the consequences of climate change. But if Christine Symington gets her way, the town will be doing all it can to mitigate those effects.
Symington is the program director of Sustainable Princeton, the organization behind the 97-page Princeton Climate Action Plan, unveiled in July, featuring detailed explanation, goals, and proposed actions. The plan offers a roadmap to reducing the town’s carbon emissions as measured in 2010 by 80 percent in 2050, while continuing to look for strategies to reach 100 percent.
The mandate to create this plan grew out of the town’s goal setting process in 2017, and Mayor Liz Lempert and the Princeton Council gave the job to Sustainable Princeton, an organization already researching options for offsetting climate change.
Sustainable Princeton, whose mission is to “inspire our community to develop and implement solutions that positively impact our environment,” understood that to reduce community emissions not only did the government need to be on board, but also businesses, nonprofits, and individual residents.
Before tackling climate change, Symington says, “we had to do an inventory so we knew what our collective emissions are and could set a target to try to reduce emissions by some date in the future.” Following a protocol used by cities around the world to measure emissions, Sustainable Princeton learned that two sources combined to produce most of Princeton’s emissions: residential and commercial buildings, which consume electricity and burn natural gas, contribute 64 percent of Princeton’s greenhouse gas emissions, and transportation contributes 30 percent.
The development process, which kicked off in 2017 with a $100,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was shaped, by “engaging the actors that are critical to carrying it out — so that they feel vested in the successful implementation of the plan,” Symington says. The plan’s actions came out of working groups each focused on one of five sectors: energy, land use and transportation, natural resources, materials management, and resiliency.
The plan opens with a review of climate science and the likely impacts on Princeton: more frequent days of high heat; increases in average temperature, heat-related illnesses, and tick-, mosquito-, and water-borne diseases; heavier rains; decline in outdoor air quality; potentially longer dry spells; and impacts on mental health and well-being.
For each sector the plan offers a visionary statement, then sets out “why it matters,” examines progress to date, and lists objectives. Each objective comprises a list of actions, along with their potential for reducing greenhouse gas, the time frame for implementation, leaders and partners, and other details. Finally, the plan sets key performance indicators and targets for completing them, as well as listing national, regional, and state policies, programs, plans, and initiatives that may enable Princeton to meet the plan’s goals.
‘All our buildings produce emissions, and that is why the first section of the plan is about energy and energy usage and how we can reduce the amount of energy we consume and at the same time have energy coming from cleaner sources like solar and wind,” Symington says.
Symington cites two policies implemented by other cities: requiring a home energy audit at the time a home or building is put up for sale to inform the buyer of its efficiency level and requiring buildings and multi-family dwellings to benchmark their energy performance. Informing the buyer of a building’s efficiency is important, Symington says, because “that is usually the time they are more likely to do the work.”
Benchmarks involve submitting baseline measurements of energy usage to the local government and then submitting an updated measurement yearly. They can use Energy Star Portfolio Manager, an online tool created by the Environmental Protection Agency to measure and track energy and water consumption, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. “In New York City, when this was enacted, it got a 90 percent compliance rate,” Symington says. The hope is that building owners “will use that information to implement energy efficiency retrofits.”
The plan asks homeowners to reduce energy usage by having a professional certified by the Building Performance Institute do a home audit. The audit report will indicate where a home needs air sealing, which involves caulking wherever air leaks exist — and where to add insulation for walls or spaces exposed to the outside. “The better the envelope, then all your equipment has to work less,” Symington says. Money may also be available to offset the cost through the NJ Clean Energy program.
The municipality plans to submit a request for proposal later this year for renewable government energy aggregation, whereby the local government requests third-party electricity providers to supply electricity on behalf of all residents — for a price cheaper than what they currently pay and with a higher percentage of the energy from renewable sources.
This has been successful in Livingston, for example, where Direct Energy is supplying 100 percent renewable energy over a 16-month term that began in June at a price substantially lower than residents had been paying to PSE&G. The importance of negotiating cheaper prices, Symington says, is “that nobody should have to pay more, particularly people who are lower income.”
The municipality has also submitted an application to the NJ Board of Public Utilities that, if selected, will allow Princeton to issue a request for proposal to select a developer to build a community solar project that will offset the utility costs of Princeton’s low- and moderate-income households.
Land use & transportation
Reducing emissions from cars, trucks, and buses, Symington says, is “not just about making vehicles more efficient but about reducing the number of times we have to drive to get somewhere. If we build more densely and closer to public transportation, we reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled.”
“The hardest thing about transportation is reducing our dependency on cars,” Symington says. In Princeton, she continues, “everything was built around cars.” That’s why many of the actions under transportation deal with land use.
“If the town has to build more housing, we want to build it where people don’t need a car to meet basic needs, to get to work, to the store, and to doctor’s offices, and should be easily accessible to public transit,” Symington says. That means building where infrastructure and density are in place rather than “on the ridge.” Some actions that can make this happen are updating zoning in certain areas around town to mandate what can be built; using density bonuses and parking credits; and allowing accessory dwelling units.
An important approach to reducing vehicle miles traveled is by switching drivers to public transit. “We are looking at consolidating and doing a better job of connecting all the options — Tiger Transit, jitneys [belonging to the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton Theological Seminary, Westminster Choir College of Rider University], and the FreeB,” Symington says, “and we are going to do a really thorough, ongoing, continuous campaign to get people to use them.”
Public transportation, she says, must be convenient: it must go to places that residents want to go, frequently enough so they will use public transportation in place of their cars.
The Princeton Transit Advisory Committee is now working cooperatively with Princeton University, the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association, and other transit development resources to study and make recommendations for improvements to transit services in Princeton. The Climate Action Plan Emission Reduction Strategies, or CAPERS, team, including university undergraduates and graduate students, high school students, and community members, “are helping to find out what the cost will be to harmonize existing transportation systems.”
Once an integrated system is in place the plan mandates ensuring ridership “by instituting an intensive and continuous transit information and education campaign” that includes way-finding signs and real-time information about transportation options.
The Master Plan Subcommittee of the Planning Board is working on adding a Green Building and Environmental Sustainability element to the Master Plan to integrate the principles of transit-oriented and location-efficient development.
This working group looked at the impacts of climate change on green spaces, trees, and the natural environment. “We want to make sure they are healthy,” Symington says. “Not only are they sequestering carbon emissions, they also provide storm water retention. We have to have more pervious cover [that allows water to pass through].”
In addition to maintaining the tree canopy, she says, Princeton needs to reduce the amount of maintained land — land that we mow — by promoting low-mow and no-mow maintenance. One path toward this goal is to convince institutions like the Institute for Advanced Study, the Princeton Theological Seminary, and Princeton University to plant more meadows and rain gardens on the land they maintain. “This also helps habitat diversity,” she says. “We want to be able to have those ecosystems for species that have to endure changes in climate.”
This sector involves “strategies to reduce emissions from all of our consumption habits,” Symington says. Although recycling and composting do help reduce our carbon emissions, post-consumer disposal accounts for less than 1 percent of lifecycle emissions, according to a consumption-based inventory in Multnomah County, Oregon. The majority of lifecycle emissions are generated from the production (56 percent), use (31 percent; e.g., washing and drying clothes or changing oil in a car), pre-purchase transportation (10 percent), and wholesale and retail (2 percent) of the products and goods we purchase.
To reduce the emissions that are “embodied” in the products we buy, we need to make more sustainable purchasing decisions and other lifestyle changes. But modifying personal consumption involves individual behavior change. “It involves reusing, repurposing, and thinking carefully before we buy,” Symington says.
The resiliency working group explored preparatory actions to reduce the community’s exposure to and risk from climate change. An increase in the severity and frequency of storms is resulting in more damage to Princeton’s trees, downed power lines, risks to life and property, and cleanup costs.
Another danger is flooding from the increased runoff that happens when increases in rainfall combine with increases in impervious cover — driveways, roads, parking lots, rooftops, and sidewalks — and the natural landscape is unable to effectively absorb rainwater. This requires a set of strategies on storm-water management: for example, installing green roofs and rain gardens and reducing impervious cover.
“There is a cultural shift that needs to happen between what is aesthetically pleasing — a very manicured lawn is how we want the lawn to look — and having more native planting,” Symington says. With native plants in place of a lawn, “you don’t have to use lawn equipment to maintain it.”
To deal with health effects of extreme weather events, the municipality of Princeton, in partnership with Sustainable Princeton, received a $50,000 grant from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts looking at the intersection of how cities are dealing with climate change and health.
The project focuses on resiliency strategies that do a better job reaching vulnerable populations in times of extreme weather. This involves working with Princeton’s emergency services and the health department to identify residents vulnerable to a storm or heat wave and finding out what they would need, for example, adequate water or access to medication or a medical device, and make sure this information was available to first responders.
A Princeton resident for about four years, Symington grew up in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Her father was a software developer, and her mother worked in an office.
After graduating from West Chester University with a degree in elementary education, Symington had a couple of long-term substitute positions. Her goal had been to be a science teacher, specifically teaching environmental education. But that summer she got a temporary job with Vanguard that morphed into a permanent position in the finance industry. But, she explains, “15 years later I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Interested in sustainability, she Googled “sustainable” and “Princeton,” and came to Sustainable Princeton as a volunteer in 2014. She started out writing about energy and working on its energy efficiency campaign. Volunteering led to a part-time job and ultimately to a full-time position as program director. “I immersed myself in sustainability, taking whatever classes I could,” Symington says. “For me, [sustainability is] understanding how all systems work and trying to make sure they work as efficiently as possible and benefit the quality of life.”
Sustainable Princeton has been a nonprofit since 2012. Currently the executive director is Molly Jones; the community outreach manager and volunteer coordinator is Jenny Ludmer; and they have a 12-person board. The organization runs “great ideas” events that bring in subject matter experts and draw around 90 people. They also run special projects, for example, an electric vehicle charging station in Spring Street Garage, for which they helped get funding and coordinated the installation. The municipality owns and maintains the station.
As they begin to implement the Climate Action Plan, Symington says, “We prioritize those [actions] with the most impact on emissions, and we are flexible enough to take advantage of options for funding as they come about.”
To make the changes suggested in the Princeton Climate Action Plan demands both education — of homeowners, consumers, and practitioners — and policy changes, and the role of Sustainable Princeton is to initiate programs, campaigns (for example, naming October as “home-energy audit month”), and community education.
“Every year they will redo the emissions inventory and every three years will bring the working groups and community groups back together and see how we are making progress,” Symington says. “Every year we will be at the priority setting sessions [of the Council and the mayor] to make sure everyone remembers we committed to these actions.”