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Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

Update Magazine

Save Our Land, Save Our Towns: A Plan for Pennsylvania

By Senator David J. Brightbill
Chairman - Senate Environmental
Resources & Energy Committee

Author Tom Hylton and photographer Blair Seitz have teamed up on a thought provoking, visually striking book on the evils of suburban sprawl – Save Our Land, Save Our Towns: A Plan for Pennsylvania.

In words and pictures, the book contrasts the pleasant, pastoral images we like to hold of Pennsylvania's towns and countryside with what is increasingly becoming the reality – bulldozed farmland, abandoned factories and row homes, glutted highways, strip malls, sterile housing developments. Hylton contends that these problems are an outgrowth of a trend in professional planning which began in the 1930's of grouping similar land uses together, and of post-World War II government policies that encouraged suburban development in a number of ways.

There is little doubt that sprawling development complicates the task of protecting the environment. As Hylton points out, increased energy consumption and air pollution from automobile use, groundwater pollution from failed septic systems and contaminated runoff, and pressure to pave-over and build on wetlands and other sensitive areas are some of the environmental effects of suburban development.

Most importantly, Hylton describes the subtle ways in which the development patterns of the past fifty years have contributed to the decline of our sense of community. Suburban-type development seems designed to separate – to separate homes from places of work, to separate different economic classes and races, and perhaps most importantly, to separate individuals from each other. The separation of individuals is caused by the size of suburban lots and by the need to use cars to get anywhere. Hylton cites on poignant example of the isolation that results from these trends – there are far fewer opportunities for children who live in suburban developments to visit with older people.

While most people may agree with Hylton's analysis of the problem, reaching agreement of a solution is another matter. Citing the experience of other states, Hylton proposes a comprehensive state plan to direct development toward our towns and cities. Local officials, who are currently responsible for land-use planning in Pennsylvania, are sure to bristle at even the thought of another state mandate. Alternative approaches might be to focus on educating local officials and the public about planning, and to provide incentives to municipalities that proactively develop and implement a vision of what their community can be. Also, the private market should play a role – after all, consumer demand contributed to the exodus to the suburbs in the first place.

The real value of Hylton's book lies not in his proposed solution, however, but in the soundness of his argument that there is more at stake here than an ugly view. A change in public policy to encourage building true communities would strike at the root of many problems for which we now seek simple solutions – including political "hot button" issues such as welfare reform and, yes, even crime.

Anyone who is concerned about the future of Pennsylvania's environment and quality of life will hope that Save Our Land, Save Our Towns ignites a vigorous debate over the need to combat sprawl and to nurture communities.




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