Behind the Princeton Parklet: Interview with local architect Kirsten Thoft

In May 2015, a parklet opened on Witherspoon Street in downtown Princeton, across from Small World Coffee. Parklets, defined as temporary sidewalk extensions built to enhance street life, were first developed in San Francisco in 2010. Princeton’s parklet turned out to be a big hit for the Arts Council of Princeton and the town government, which spearheaded the project. The parklet was open throughout the summer and closed in October 2015. To learn a little bit about this piece of local urban planning, Society of Princeton Urbanists co-president Harrison Blackman ‘17 sat down with Kirsten Thoft, a local architect who was part of the design team behind the structure. Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded on July 17, 2015.


Society for Princeton Urbanists: Can you tell me a little about your experience as an architect?

Kirsten Thoft: I started my own firm about 18 years ago, 19 years ago, at this point, partly because I worked at Graves [Michael Graves & Associates] for a few years, I worked at Hiller [Hillier Group] for a few years and I found that I liked to do everything, which is kind of categorized as design, technical and management in architecture firms. But in a big firm, which those are Hillier in particular, they want to stick you in a pigeonhole… and they were like you are a good manager. But I want to design too! So I thought it would be best to get out and start my own thing. I have three kids and the oldest one is 16, so I basically have a couple of years of practice before I had kids, and then it’s been kids-kids-kids. They are very intense at the beginning, of course, when they’re really young and you have three of them.

So I would say that I was sort of working part time when I started, and doing smaller projects. I used to tell people that I would only take projects that were in stroller-walking distance to my house because then I could bring my kids there. For a long time, I did a lot of renovations, a lot of small additions kind of stuff. It’s only the past few years that the kids are old enough, you know, they’re all in school, that I can actually, pretty much work full time. So I’ve been able to work on bigger projects. A new house, bigger additions, much bigger renovations, and also my husband and I started buying real estate of our own in addition to our house in 2001-2002. And so I’ve been doing those projects on the side, but it’s not really on the side… because of course what we’ve been doing is buying things, renting them out, being landlords, renovating them and often times finding things that needed zoning variances or other kind of legal stuff and then renovating them and then selling them. I kind of divide my time between clients and that sort of development… [I] basically have chosen to do only things where I’d want to live there. For me, that’s very much in the center of Princeton, because I’m not a person who wants to be in the suburbs.

SPU: Yeah.

KT: Even though we’re in the suburbs.

SPU: This is the suburbs.

KT: It is the suburbs, I know, but right here, it kind of feels like a little city, a little bit urban.

SPU: Could you tell me about the parklet, and what set you on working on the parklet?

KT: It really wasn’t me being set on the parklet. It was the mayor [Liz Lempert], last year… there was some day, called “Parking Day”… and whatever group this is encourages people to take over a parking space in their town and declare it a park for one day. And they did that here last year, and apparently they just put a parking meter bag over the parking meter, and put out a couple plants, and a couple chairs and a table, and called it a park. (And I think they took one of those funny hexagonal things that’s in front of the Arts Council and moved it here.) So it had a couple elements. And people were so excited about it—it was one day—so the mayor decided she wanted to do that on a more permanent basis. It’s still obviously a temporary structure. So she talked to the Arts Council. They then recruited the guy who organized these benches and planting stuff [Peter Soderman], who is an artist, and then Jessica [Durrie], who owns Small World, and they asked if they could put it in front of her store and her husband is a builder, and they asked him if he could help out with this. They had their whole gang and they did some sketchy pencil sketches of about what they wanted. And they then brought them to the town planner, to ask his permission. And he was like, I can’t read these drawings. We need an architect, we need architectural drawings… They didn’t really know what they were asking for. It wasn’t really my idea at all.

They asked me if I was interested and I thought it was a cool idea, so I said yes. So I drew it. You have to talk to the builder, and find out what materials they can get for cheap, and how can you use those materials most effectively, and talk to the town, and what exactly do they want, because they built the platform, there’s an ADA [American Disabilities Act of 1990] requirement, the platform versus the curb, where that needs to be, how far on the street it could go, how much of the parking space it could take up.

And I came out and measured the actual pitch of the street… where the trees were and all that. It had to take a couple of iterations for everybody to say, okay, we’re okay with this. The town is very concerned about safety, the barrier between [the parklet] and the street, they don’t want some kid launching himself in the street. But it’s funny, because you’re like, but everywhere there are cars going by and there are kids and why are you not worried about that? Because it’s an x-factor for them. Because if you put something up, and someone gets launched in the street, then it’s a lawsuit…

So I did the architect’s job, which is to kind of pull everything together and get it to happen. This was in April [2015].

SPU: This is the first year there has been a parklet?

Initially they thought it would only just be up for a month [in May]. But apparently it has been very popular. We had a meeting … where we decided it would stay up through October. So basically the full season.



Communiversity Project 2015: “What Makes an Ideal City?”

Sunday, April 26, 2015 marked the 45th annual “Communiversity” town and university arts festival, organized by the Arts Council of Princeton. As part of our first major outreach program, the Society for Princeton Urbanists hosted a booth and asked visitors the question, “What Makes an Ideal City?” Respondents wrote down their answers on large index cards. The results of our very unscientific survey were quite interesting. Some answers were very location-specific, calling to mind the place that embodied their ideal city. Others cited a variety of criteria, while some of our younger respondents had more ‘artistic’ answers. Above all, respondents cited “friendliness” and “people” the most frequently. After all, to quote Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, “What is the city but the people?” In this post, we’ll summarize the results of our survey.

Zak DeGiulio ’18, Jay Karandikar ’17 and Harrison Blackman ’17 operate the Princeton Urbanist booth.



We had over forty respondents fill out cards and many more visit our table. From our responses, we first used a Word Cloud to display the most commonly invoked terms to describe the respondents’ ideal city. As you can see by the below graph, some of the most common words used were “people,” “water,” “open,” “public, “friendly” and “food.”

Word Cloud of Responses, most commonly used words, (excluding prepositions and verbs). Courtesy

After doing this preliminary investigation, we grouped the terms into categories, conflating similar terms like “friendly” and “friendliness,” for example. Click on the graph below to see a frequency bar graph of our 26 categories. In this analysis, the most popular key terms to describe an ideal city were “friendly,” “people,” “Parks/Nature,” and “Location-based,” meaning the car referred to a specific place. In collecting this data, we gave a point to a category if a card mentioned something that fit the category, so if a card described things that fit multiple categories, it counted for each category it referenced.

Frequency bar graph of categorical term invoked by respondents.

To see another view of this data, check out the “radar” graph, which offers a different perspective of the strength of the term in terms of its representation in the survey.

Communiversity_ Results_Radar
“Radar” frequency graph of the most frequently used terms.

Now, we’ll move on to look at some of the categories in detail, as well as some of the most used cards and specific responses.


Location-based card, plus a philosophical question.

Some responses concerned the places people thought were ideal cities. This one is pretty Princeton patriotic. Some others:

“San Francisco, CA—Good Weather”

“Taoguan, Taiwan; very convenience.”

A descriptive list of what a young person likes.


Emery Real Bird ’17, on the importance of water.

Water was of deep concern to a few people. Some were more descriptive than others:

“Solar water pump in skyscraper pushes water to the top floor during the day, releases water to fall downward at night spinning a water wheel to make electricity.”

Very funny.



Friendliness, as one of the most common responses, seemed to be a shared theme.

“Colorful, cozy, affordable and dense living with a great public transportation system and a HUGE bike culture! – NO SPRAWL! NO LITTER! FRIENDLY PEOPLE!”

“Safe, friendly neighborhood with good schools, parks and a community feel.”



Andrew Schilling ’17 and Adam Cellon ’17 on the importance of parks and social justice.

Many of our respondents were interested in nature and parks. A few responses:

“Walkable neighborhoods, safe, interesting food/drink options; artistic; beautiful nature surroundings.”

“We like green space, parks, open area… bike lanes, public transport…”

This one is pretty artistic and can probably be associated with nature.

Street Life


Many of our respondents pointed to the characteristics of a vibrant street life, like walkability and density.

“Street traffic – but foot traffic, not cars. Community with people talking together and acting together to make a more interesting and lively place.”

“Clean open spaces. Lots of them! Nice public transportation system would be nice too.”


Blake Lawson ’17 and Shubham Chattopadyhay ’17.

Food and dining was of utmost interest:

“Good Food!! And people to eat with <3””

“I have more resources then needed, like power, water, sewage, no trash, fires, police, hospitals, food, air and a friendly environment.”

“Walkable neighborhoods, safe, interesting food/drink options; artistic; beautiful nature surroundings.”



Some our respondents had more visual representations of what they thought they were interested in.

My favorite:

Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Rafael. All you need in an ideal city.


Social Justice


“I would like a city that has a lot of opportunities for developmentally disabled to work and play!”

“Affordable. NJ is getting not affordable day by day.”

“Culture. Equality. Opportunity.”


“Safe, friendly neighborhood with good schools, parks and a community feel.”

Susan Farrell ’17.


Luisa Banchoff ’17.


Princeton community respondents had a lot to say about what they thought an idea city should have. Though our survey was decidedly unscientific, it was interesting to hear what people had to say. We loved hearing your stories, and the Society for Princeton Urbanists looks forward to talking to the community next year at Communiversity!


Plus, Jay will always be ready to answer your questions.


Princeton Urbanists “Learning from/in Latin America”

On Thursday, April 2, 2015, Princeton Urbanists co-founders and co-p residents Harrison Blackman ’17 and Zak Degiulio ’18 attended a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) titled “Learning from/in Latin America” which is part of a two-day conference sponsored by the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities at Princeton University as well as the MoMa. Part Two, on April 3, 2015 was held at the Princeton University School of Architecture.

"Orchidiarium - Medellin Botanical Gardens" by Jorge Láscar - Own work, I took the picture and release it with as per license on this page. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
“Orchidiarium – Medellin Botanical Gardens” by Jorge Láscar – Own work, I took the picture and release it with as per license on this page. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

This image is of the Orchidiarium, a project in Medellin Colombia by Mesa’s firm plan b Architects.

The Roundtable at MoMa featured lectures by Angelo Bucci, an architect of SPBR Arquitetos in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Tatiana Bilbao, architect at Tatiana Bilbao SC  in Mexico City; and Felipe Mesa, an architect from planb Arquitetos in Medellin, Colombia. Barry Bergdoll, from the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMa, introduced the discussion, and Princeton-Mellon Initiative Senior Fellow Fabrizio Gallanti moderated a discussion between the three architects.

A fascinating discussion, the roundtable at MoMa was one of just a few of the exciting urbanism-related events at Princeton.

Blackman '17 and Degiulio '18.
Blackman ’17 and Degiulio ’18.

Though recently formed, the Society for Princeton Urbanists will be at the Princeton Preview Club Fair for newly-admitted students on April 13th, and we are planning to have a booth and activity at Communiversity on April 26, Princeton’s spring fair on Nassau Street. Come talk to us!


An Introduction

The Society for Princeton Urbanists is proud to announce its recognition by Princeton University’s USG and ODUS.

Founded in October 2014 to promote a student forum for urban studies-interested undergraduates, the Society for Princeton Urbanists is committed to creating events for Princeton undergraduates and providing urban-related coverage on this website.

Expect updates, interviews and articles on this site in the coming weeks.



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