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How urban sprawl developed and how we can reverse it

Wilmington News Journal
Sunday, Sept. 29, 1996

By John Taylor

Thomas Hylton is a man with a mission. He's a teacher and a preacher.

Most of us who play the opinion trade hope we help people to understand the important issues of the day as we write our editorials and columns. Hylton is certified in his role. He won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about open space in Pottstown Mercury editorials. He transformed those editorials along with a year's worth of research into an enjoyable, instructive, beautiful, eminently readable book: "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns." The subtitle is "A Plan for Pennsylvania," but it's contents and prescriptions for creating livable communities would apply anywhere – certainly to Delaware.

In fact, Hylton has included a positive reference to Gov. Tom Carper's "Shaping Delaware's Future Act" in the second edition of the book. We can take pride that Hylton sees promise in Delaware. But not too much. We're a long, long way from solving the social, emotional and economic woes that suburban sprawl has brought to our state.

Hylton's book is a straightforward description of what misguided government planning has done to his native Pennsylvania. In language so simple that it belies the complex subject, he offers example after example of what communities – real, livable communities – can be and what so many places have ceased to be.

He waxes fondly about growing up in first Wyomissing and then in Reading. But Hylton never devolves into sloppy sentimentality. Throughout the book are facts and figures about industry, about people and their problems, about roads and rails, about education, about racial inequity, about farmland, about tax policies, about planning, about suburban development and urban renewal.

These facts and figures are woven with care into a narrative that persuades the reader of the rightness and the righteousness of his message.

And the text is wrapped around wonderful photographs taken by his collaborator, Blair Seitz.

Unlike other critics of sprawl, Hylton doesn't blame developers, who, after all, are largely followers. He blames misguided government planners who promoted wasteful suburban development rather than encouraging urban redevelopment. And he blames us – you and me – who watched it all happen. In any event, blame isn't the right word, really. Hylton is a preacher yet his sermon is not stern, but instructive. He is a teacher who offers examples as the best way to learn lessons.

Far from being depressed about the future, Hylton is confident that things will change. But not soon and not easily. Here is what Hylton says just before he offers tips on how ordinary people can get involved: "Just as it took several decades to devastate our cities and create underclass ghettos, it will take many years to reverse the process. But it can be done.

"And it's going to happen because of people like you – people who care about the environment and social justice, who want a better life for our children, and who are willing to get involved – the elite group Theodore Roosevelt called 'the Fellowship of Doers.'"

This is a book for anyone who feels that modern life need not be the scramble on the highways and the isolation of homes that are not in neighborhoods. It offers a rich and instructive look at how we live and how we could live much better.

John Taylor is editor of The News Journal editorial pages.



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