"Save Our Land, Save Our Towns" Commentary
Broadcast and published in Tompaine.com
Saturday, July 14, 2001
By Jane Holtz Kay
Sprawl is in the saddle and Tom Hylton is out there trying to draw in the reins. First in a book and now in a public television documentary airing nationwide (at local listings), Hylton's plea can be heard in the title of both productions: "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns."
The great American growth machine calling for production first, plan second spread our lives across the landscape. Five housing or parking spaces now do the work of one and the battered, sprawling landscape shows it. Following the lead of misguided federal highway and housing policies, lax land use laws and the proliferation of Big Box chain stores, cities have shrunk and subdivisions swelled and Tom Hylton tells us how.
An appealing raconteur with his long tie and a small-town Pennsylvania twang, this local advocate speaks to millions when he calls out to protect spaces and places we love. Unraveling a sometimes spry, sometimes sentimental tale, the Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and author focuses on people whom the screen chapter heads say now lead "Lives of Quiet Desperation," in the wake of the collapse of livable towns in the last half century.
"Why must you wreck a whole farm?" asks one Pennsylvanian. "Why must you spin your wheels driving junior," asks another. Why must you do without sidewalks? Do without stores next door? Have crime on the streets? Or sadly watch, as Hylton and viewers do, while a solid old school building is smashed into oblivion?
Our powerlessness to live lives of quiet content is made poignant as this hour-long film begins to reel its script of the past, documenting ill-advised government road subsidies, thoughtless zoning and free-for-all development.
The "thread" connecting all the stories in Hylton's narrative unravels from the asphalt parking lot outside his own house to the larger landscape, he says. Unreeling the good (small town 4th of July parades) and the bad (the destruction of farmland the size of Delaware in his home state), Hylton introduces wiser options and new possibilities.
An ingenue abroad, Hylton describes his personal epiphany: in London, home of seven million souls where the author/narrator notes the lack of crowding and general livability of England's ancient capital city. Moving from English town to countryside, Hylton makes the old-new connection, visiting the walkable early century Letchworth, a classic of village life. Then it's back to the USA, where our engaging small town savior moves to stop sprawl via compact, transit-oriented communities, dissing space-hog housing dependent on a wrap of roads.
Traveling from town to town across the country, our peripathetic guide offers greened zones at a neighborly scale, argues for land use policies to rope off open space, and inspects door-to-door communities huddling closer for life-support. He chats with new-mode developers and planners, shows a scarred stripmined soil made over, peruses more pleasant places and visits iconic greenbelted Portland, Oregon.
For all the agreeable photographic reminiscences of the film and the no-place-like-old-home rebuilding shown here, the thoughtful citylover may pause in this day's occupation. Architecture observers will find the "traditional" designs pulled out of the developers' bottom drawers a bit weary in their copycat historicism. Urbanophiles may see the likes of Disney's "Celebration" or other communities shown here as more Pleasantville than really pleasant or vibrant.
The politically-conscious will certainly nod to the need for better planning and zoning on the town scale - though, here, too, urbanists might want more attention paid to the 600,000 blighted urban brownfield sites and core communities dense enough to provide public transportation. In his travels at home, Hylton wisely emphasizes the departure of industry (shown in appealing photographs) as death knell to small town life, but somewhat ignores the draw of Wal-Marts as slayer of main street.
Still, if Hylton's small town diner doesn't offer the whole menu of rebirth and regeneration, it spoons out an introductory taste and a tantalizing tomorrow in text and television treatments. Those looking to savor - and re-shape - segments of a vanishing America will do well to drop by "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns."
Jane Holtz Kay is the architecture and planning critic for The Nation.