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Fostering a sense of community

Author Thomas Hylton promotes comprehensive planning to stop suburban sprawl and enhance towns and cities.

Baltimore Sun
Friday, June 21, 1996

By Tom Horton, Sun Staff

Listen to Thomas Hylton on moving in the 1950s to an apartment house in the declining city of Reading, Pa., after his father's death left the family in reduced circumstances:

"A wonderful place to grow up. I could walk to (schools), where I had a range of friends, from the son of a janitor to the daughter of a neurosurgeon.

"I could walk to all my friends' houses…to the public library…to downtown department stores…to choir practice after school…to my grandmother's apartment.

"She was always home and ready to give me lots of love and attention, and I'd run errands for her at the store, stopping to visit adult friends at Sally's Luncheonette."

It was a life, Hylton recalls, "that was inexpensive and fostered a sense of community. …Elderly people served as neighborhood watchdogs; poor and working class patronized the same schools, stores and public places as the middle class. …Children could be independent but still be observed by adults who knew our parents."

Hylton, an author, public speaker and Pottstown, Pa.'s tree commissioner, dwells on such mundane themes because he says, "there is a whole generation now who have no idea what a wonderful and enriching place a city or town can be."

Humans have mostly lived in just such arrangements for 6,000 years, he explains. But in the United States, in just the past 40 or 50 years, we have begun to grow up with an "American Dream" defined by sterile, sprawling suburban and exurban development.

Hylton, whom I met during his speaking engagement in Annapolis last week, has written a fine book about this: "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns."

Alternatives to sprawl

The book's subtitle is "A Plan for Pennsylvania," but it's a plan for Maryland, too – a plan for any place where citizens wonder if there isn't an alternative to more traffic and less open space; if there is any way to recapture the community that existed in places like Reading in the '50s and '60s.

Hylton's book, illustrated with more than 100 color photos by noted Pennsylvania photographer Blair Seitz, captures the tragic connection between sprawl development's uglification of the landscape and the decline of our cities and towns.

But mostly this is a positive and hopeful book. Its words and pictures show compelling, real-life examples of people living and working in vibrant centers of community, leaving prime farm soils and rural heritage intact for all to enjoy.

Walking to work

It is no armchair philosophy Hylton brings to bear on the subject. He and his wife live on a tenth of an acre in a low-to moderate-income part of Pottstown, population 22,000. Both can walk to work, which explains how he has driven the same car for 21 years.

They figure that living close to work has saved 10,000 hours of driving time and $85,000 in transportation costs.

She is a teacher. He helped found Preservation Pottstown. He also organized Trees Inc., a nonprofit organization that maintains 3,100 shade trees on Pottstown's streets.

In 1990, he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorials he wrote for the Pottstown paper, the Mercury, on preserving open space. In editorials, he also pushed for the integration of local elementary schools.

A yearlong study

The book grew out of a fellowship he got in 1993. It let him spend a year studying how various states approached the comprehensive planning he thinks is key to preserving both natural and human communities by stopping sprawl and enhancing towns and cities.

He poured $50,000 of his own money into producing 5,000 copies of the book, made more expensive by his insistence that it be printed in Pennsylvania instead of Singapore or Taiwan.

It is full of insights about a suburban existence we are so inured to that we simply don't think about things such as the following:

A person takes up 2 square feet, but each of our cars takes up 30 to 45 times as much space. "So all our stores, schools, houses, offices, even our parks, must set aside massive amounts of storage space for cars; for every car registered in Pennsylvania we have six or seven parking spaces."

A person growing up in wealthy suburban New Jersey is three times more likely to die young than one raised in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Car accidents are the main reason.

Pittsburgh's urban Golden Triangle contains 140,000 jobs and thousands of residents on less than 400 acres, while a typical "in the middle of nowhere" industrial park, Chester County's Great Valley Corporate Center, uses 650 acres, mostly for parking spaces for the 15,000 people employed there.

New Jersey's 1992 state plan, which emphasizes cities and towns and discourages sprawl, will save government $1.7 billion in infrastructure and operating costs over the next 20 years.

Other than Oregon, where comprehensive growth planning is in a class by itself, no state has a good handle on the problem, Hylton says.

But he feels Maryland is in front of Pennsylvania and says his comparisons among states have left him impressed with our approaches to shoreline preservation and tree protection, and with the Glendening administration's emphasis on rehabbing schools in preference to building new ones to accommodate sprawl.

This book is a wonderful, readable guide to how we can begin redefining progress to better serve humans and nature.

Hylton spends full time these days giving talks and distributing his book (he charges expenses only; in addition, you agree to buy and distribute a couple of dozen copies).

I'd like to see this Pennsylvanian visit every Maryland county. His phone number is 610-323-6837.



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