Lifestyle makes sprawl inevitable
Monday, August 8, 2005
By Thomas Hylton
Despite one of the most ambitious open-space programs in America, Chester County is losing its battle with sprawl.
Since 1989, the county has spent a whopping $140 million to buy easements on farms, expand parks, and subsidize new projects in its towns. Many Chester County townships have adopted dedicated taxes to fund their own open-space initiatives.
Yet each year, the county loses about 5,000 acres - an area larger than Phoenixville, Coatesville, and West Chester combined - to sprawling development. Highways are increasingly clogged with cars. Rural vistas are disappearing.
The fundamental problem is not population growth; England has protected its countryside despite being much more densely populated than Chester County.
The problem is America's love affair with cars and big lots. People have become accustomed to using a car for every activity and finding a readily accessible parking space at every destination. For maximum efficiency, ever-larger schools, shopping centers and corporate campuses have evolved that draw people from wide areas and require ample parking. Combine these factors, and development once concentrated in towns is soon scattered all over the countryside.
For example, the West Chester Area YMCA recently decided to move from downtown West Chester, where it has operated for more than a century, to a 15-acre tract two miles away. To the YMCA board, the move seems eminently logical. Eighty percent of the YMCA's members live outside West Chester. The new suburban location will allow for the construction of a larger facility and provide plenty of room to park cars.
Likewise, the West Chester Area School District closed its schools in West Chester years ago and assigned the borough's students to schools in outlying townships. Closing neighborhood schools required more busing, but the district reasoned that spacious new schools provided a better educational environment.
Even Chester County government, as it was developing its open-space plan in the early 1990s, moved numerous county departments out of downtown West Chester to a newly constructed Government Services Center on the urban fringe.
While such individual decisions might seem sensible, their cumulative impact has been the nickel-and-diming to death of Chester County's towns, countryside, and quality of life. The greatest strength of a traditional town like West Chester - the ability to walk places - is lost when schools, offices and recreational facilities are relocated out of town. Meanwhile, the countryside is eroded by a jumble of new development that can be reached only by car.
The downsides to sprawl go beyond the loss of scenic views and increased time stuck in traffic. Excessive driving requires enormous amounts of gasoline, which makes America dependent on foreign oil. Emissions from cars are a leading cause of air pollution, groundwater contamination and global warming.
Car accidents are the number-one cause of death and serious injury for Americans aged 3 to 33, and a leading cause of death for Americans of all ages. Obesity has skyrocketed in recent decades, in part because people spend more time sitting in cars and less time walking.
Upward mobility is hindered because the poor and minorities have become concentrated in older communities while the middle class live, work and send their children to school in homogenous townships.
All these problems could be alleviated if Chester County residents valued walkable towns more than abundant parking spaces. But changing our culture is far more difficult than raising money to buy open space.
That's where individual acts of leadership are essential. Consider the West Chester Area YMCA. Is the YMCA merely a fitness club for the middle class, or does it have a broader purpose? Nearly all its low-income clients live in West Chester. The YMCA's presence in West Chester serves those most in need and helps keep the town an attractive place to live and work.
The YMCA aims "to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build a healthy spirit, mind and body for all." Does that include promoting diversity? Protecting the environment? Encouraging a pedestrian lifestyle rather than one completely dependent on cars?
If the YMCA board takes a larger perspective, it might conclude that staying in West Chester fulfills its mission far better than moving to the suburbs. That decision might influence other individuals and organizations to make better choices when considering where to locate homes and facilities.
We need to encourage decisions that are good not just for individuals, but for society as a whole. It has taken many hands to create sprawl. It will take many to cure it.