Growth trends have to change
Saturday, Nov. 9, 2002
By Thomas Hylton
From the front door of my house I have a panoramic view of a parking lot that was once the site of my town´s middle school. I remember it well. In the early 1970s when I bought my home, the massive brick building was serving 700 students who enjoyed a lovely library, two gymnasiums, and an auditorium worthy of Horowitz. The school was a vital life force in the neighborhood, which was (and still is) a mix of closely spaced homes, offices, and small stores.
In 1978, the school district closed the building because of declining enrollments. Four years later, the school was sold and demolished - a neighborhood tragedy - so the space it occupied could be used to park cars one day a week.
Even as the wrecking ball swung, a new middle school was being erected just outside of town by a suburban school district to accommodate a growing student population.
I live in Pennsylvania, but my story is familiar to Toledoans. During the last 30 years, Toledo has lost more than 70,000 people, and countless buildings, while formerly rural townships in Lucas County have grown by a proportionate amount.
The new development, however, is radically different from the old. No longer are buildings woven into a lovely mosaic of homes, stores and workplaces within walking distance of each other. Instead, subdivisions, malls, and corporate centers are built in separate "pods" scattered randomly over the landscape, connected only to the nearest highway.
Suburban sprawl requires exorbitant amounts of tax dollars to build and maintain. It consumes enormous quantities of farmland and open space - in northwest Ohio, about 14 acres a day. It worsens air and groundwater pollution. And it forces people into a wearisome life of constant driving.
There´s a growing consensus that America can no longer afford this kind of development. Enlightened builders, environmentalists, and municipal officials are looking to an alternative called smart growth.
Smart growth embraces two fundamental principles:
Public infrastructure such as roads and water and sewer lines should be concentrated in carefully defined areas where it makes sense to encourage development.
New development should be designed with a mixture of homes, stores and offices in close proximity, to take up less space and allow people to make some of their trips by walking or using public transportation.
In Lucas County, which has experienced virtually no population growth in recent decades, smart growth means redeveloping the vast areas of vacant land in Toledo and its satellite cities rather than building on virgin land. Toledo already covers more land area than far more populous cities like Boston, Baltimore and Washington. It covers twice the land area of Paris, a city of 2.1 million people.
To enhance their cities and protect their farms and forests, Oregon, Washington and Tennessee have drawn growth boundaries around all their towns. Development is channeled inside the boundaries, while land outside the boundaries is reserved for agriculture and forestry.
Throughout America, scores of new pedestrian-scale developments have been approved for construction in recent years. The best known, Disney´s town of Celebration near Orlando, will eventually house 17,000 residents whose kids can walk to school. But in slow growth areas like northwest Ohio, new pedestrian communities should be using recycled land in cities. Pittsburgh, for example, is converting an abandoned slag heap called Nine Mile Run into a lovely neighborhood of more than 700 homes and apartments. Denver is transforming the former Stapleton Airport into a series of commercial and residential districts in a $4 billion project that will bring 30,000 new residents and 35,000 new jobs to the city.
In today´s economy, quality of life has become the major consideration of businesses looking to grow. It would be tragic if Lucas County sacrificed its environment to gain prosperity, and ended up losing both.
After years of effort, Lucas County citizens have developed two excellent smart growth guides - the county Land Use Plan and the Toledo 20/20 Comprehensive Plan. The county commissioners, through their control of water and sewer lines and their role as county leaders, have considerable power to influence where development goes. If they want to save the county´s towns and countryside, they need to follow the plans.
Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from Pennsylvania, is author of Save Our Land, Save Our Towns and host of a public television documentary based on that book. He will give a slide presentation 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 12, at the Brandywine Country Club, Monclova, sponsored by the Village of Waterville.