The Walking Life
Just outside Philadelphia, a onetime factory town builds on its assets.
Planning – Magazine of the American
By Thomas Hylton
I was working in my home office the other day when my wife called from the elementary school where she teaches. She forgot some materials she needed for a class project. Could I bring them?
No problem. Our house is just a five-minute bicycle ride from the school. I was happy to get some exercise and enjoy the rejuvenating power of a roomful of second graders.
Like other traditional Pennsylvania towns, my town of Pottstown was designed with the pedestrian in mind. Big plants that, during the town's glory days, turned out fabricated steel, auto parts, underwear, and Mrs Smith's pies lie in a mile-long stretch along the Schuylkill River. Just north of the plants is a four-block-long commercial district, which is bordered by neighborhoods of closely spaced single-family houses.
When the plants were running full tilt and the downtown was full of stores, people walked everywhere. Kids could walk to school, and for the most part, still do.
Having grown up walking to school myself, I was careful to buy a house close by the Pottstown Mercury, the newspaper where I worked for 22 years. My wife made a special effort to get a job in the Pottstown School District, where her students are also our neighbors.
Not having to commute a half hour each way to work during the last three decades has saved us more than 12,000 hours behind the wheel, the equivalent of six years at work. It's also saved us at least $150,000 for the second car we didn't have to buy and maintain. We own a car, but it's our servant, not our master.
Everything you need
Although Pottstown, a town of 21,000 located just 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia, isn’t the hub of industry it once was, it still has everything needed for daily life within its five square miles: small stores, offices, a post office, hospital, supermarkets (even a Wal-Mart). And we’ve been steadily building on our assets—walkability, diversity, historic architecture—to make our town a place where people want to come and stay.
In this, public-private partnerships have been immensely helpful. For example, a nonprofit organization called Trees Inc. was created in the early 1980s to plant and maintain street trees. In five years, it raised nearly $500,000, mostly from corporations, for 1,800 trees.
Two decades later, these trees have transformed the appearance of our downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Tree canopies soar over two-story houses and shade entire blocks. In recent years, Trees Inc. has received a small annual donation from the town to maintain the trees and plant replacements.
Another nonprofit, Preservation Pottstown, did the research necessary to get most of the downtown placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. A second, smaller National Register district was created in 1991, and both areas are now covered by a local preservation ordinance.
The register designations have allowed local developers to qualify for tax credits to restore buildings. The most recent project was a former Kiwi Shoe Polish factory on our main street, which was renovated as a classroom building for the local community college.
In 2003, we replaced our conventional zoning ordinance with one designed to reinforce, not undermine, the historic development pattern that gives Pottstown its small-town charm. The new ordinance uses plain language, charts, and photographs to explain how we want our town to grow.
The ordinance has created a conservation district that extends through all of our downtown and our residential neighborhoods. It requires new construction to be compatible with existing architecture. It also relaxes parking requirements to make it easier for property owners to use the vacant upper stories of existing downtown buildings. Parking spaces can be shared by commercial users during the day and residential users at night.
Ample shade trees are required along streets and in parking lots, where we seek one tree for every two parking spaces. Instead of using arbitrary measurements for side yards, setbacks, and building size, the ordinance calls for new buildings to be about the same size and have the same setbacks as existing buildings on the block.
The ordinance also establishes design guidelines for new buildings in Pottstown’s strip commercial development areas. We were pleased that shortly after the new ordinance was adopted, McDonald’s flew an architect in from Chicago to design a new restaurant compatible with surrounding traditional architecture. That building is now under construction.
To make it easier for property owners to comply with our ordinance, Pottstown contracted with a design professional to provide free advice for applicants who want to erect a new building or modify the appearance of an existing one. We’ve also hired landscape architects and town planners on an ad hoc basis to suggest improvements to plans that have been submitted. For the most part, developers have been willing to cooperate.
Since George Washington’s day, Pottstonians have parked their carriages (and later cars) at an angle on both sides of High Street, our main street. In the early 1950s, angle parking was eliminated to create two travel lanes in each direction and thus speed the flow of traffic. It did that, but it also eliminated parking spaces where they were needed most: right in front of the stores. Together, these changes degraded High Street’s ambience as a shopping district.
By placing back-in angle parking on one side of the street, we increased the number of parking spaces downtown by 21 percent. Back-in angle parking is easier, because it eliminates the maneuvering needed to park parallel to the curb. It's safer, because drivers can easily see the flow of traffic when they pull out. Eliminating the second travel lane in each direction not only helped shoppers cross the street, it also created space for bicycle lanes.
Recently, the local chamber of commerce launched a campaign called Bike Pottstown to encourage more people to bicycle around town. As part of the program, free bicycles will be placed in two or three strategic spots downtown. The bikes will come from the Pottstown Police Department, which each year picks up about 75 bicycles. The best of them will be refurbished with a distinctive paint job by our vocational-technical school. Other elements of the plan call for more bike lanes and traffic calming devices.
A real town
But Pottstown offers far more than easy mobility. Real towns give us something more difficult to quantify but equally important: an opportunity to feel part of something larger than ourselves. Within a two-block radius of my home, for example, are churches, small stores, an elementary school, homes and apartments of every size, and our town hall. Every walking errand takes me past someone I know or something I love. In a small way, my daily walks have made me a participant in weddings and Sunday services, playground recess, walking the dog, buying the groceries, delivering the mail.
And rather than detracting from my town, new neighbors and new growth enhance it. Every new store, office, and dwelling—sensitively designed—adds to the richness of my community.
Low-density suburbs have been so successful in recent decades it might seem they’ll flourish forever. But they depend on a development pattern that is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Traditional towns, on the other hand, have a 5,000-year track record of usefulness, and they remain the finest environment for daily living that civilization has ever devised.