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Offering solution to urban sprawl in Pa.

A writer recommends a plan to be implemented by the five largest population regions and by individual counties.

Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, Dec. 17, 1995
Reviewed by Ted Hershberg

Since the 1950s, Pennsylvania has lost more than 4 million acres of farmland – an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

"It didn't have to happen," writes Thomas Hylton in his new book, Save Our Land, Save Our Towns: A Plan for Pennsylvania, a thoughtful and touching reflection on the spatial underpinnings of community that is at once both profoundly simple and complex. It is a first-rate treatment of a significant subject.

The book is simple because the truths about the many advantages of small towns over most suburban developments almost leap up from its pages. It is simultaneously complex because it draws together so many separate threads from which our future will be woven, including economic development, farmland preservation, education, racial and socioeconomic diversity, pedestrian-scale communities, public open spaces, and land use and tax policy.

Hylton, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials in the Pottstown Mercury on open space, has organized his book in a useful and unusual way: You can open to any two pages and read them as a self-contained mini-chapter consisting of text and photographs (152 color photos by Blair Seitz grace its pages). Should you be sufficiently disciplined to read straight through the individual sections, you'll find that the cumulative impact makes a compelling case for a comprehensive state plan to guide development.

Hylton is deeply concerned with sprawl and its consequences. He believes that public policies on land use and growth management in the last 50 years have been misguided, abetting a departure from historic patterns of more efficient, denser settlement. The results are unnecessary costs for redundant roads and highways, water and sewer lines, homes and schools, office complexes and shopping centers; lost agricultural land and open space; more expensive public services arising from low density patterns of housing and jobs; air pollution; and a diminished sense of community.

Suburban development in many states has been driven by population growth. California gobbled up huge expanses of land as it grew from 7 million to 30 million people between 1940 and 1990, a 329 percent increase. But in the same half-century, Pennsylvania grew only 20 percent. In Southeastern Pennsylvania between 1970 and 1995, suburban development ate up a quarter of our prime farm land while population actually declined by 140,000.

"What we've done is spend billions of dollars for new infrastructure to do little more than take our existing population and spread it around," Hylton writes. "We've ruined our wonderfully livable cities, and ravaged the countryside surrounding them, in order to create a terribly expensive and woefully inefficient way of life. We've tried to run away from urban problems rather than solve them. In the process, we made those problems worse."

The solution, according to Hylton, is a comprehensive state plan that would be built on the following principles:

• Economic development, spurred by streamlined building-permit procedures, would be guided by clearly demarcated areas for growth, leaving other areas for open space.

• Cities, villages and towns would be nurtured and sprawl development discouraged.

• Communities would be designed so that people could walk to work, shopping and recreation.

• Neighborhoods would embrace diversity, ensuring that people of all incomes could live together as neighbors.

• The state would decrease reliance on the real estate tax, which separates communities into haves and have-nots and which induces officials to encourage sprawling development.

• To ensure equal educational opportunity, regardless of where people live, the state would provide 100 percent of public school funding.

Implementing the plan would fail to individual counties in much of the state and to regions in five areas – Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, and Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton – where popularly elected metropolitan councils would establish growth rings, develop land-use plans, and operate transportation and water and sewer systems.

The antithesis of a boring tract on "planning," Save Our Land, Save Our Towns demystifies the subject of land use and growth management and makes an eloquent, accessible and persuasive case for a rational approach to state, county and local planning.

Whether or not you agree with the sweeping changes Hylton advocates for Pennsylvania, his book is a must-read, not only for planners but for all who wish to preserve a high quality of life for themselves and their children.

Ted Hershberg is professor of public policy and history at the University of Pennsylvania.




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