Monday, March 30, 2009

Thomas Hylton lectures on "Growing communities, not sprawl".

By Cliff B. Lewis

Monday evening, as a kickoff to Franklin and Marshall's annual Sustainability Week, Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Hylton was hosted by the college for a lecture entitled "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns: Growing Communities, Not Sprawl."

Hylton, a lifelong Pennsylvanian and resident of Pottsville, focused his lecture upon how communities like Lancaster can preserve our natural lands by enriching our local neighborhoods. And, as Hylton explained it, local neighborhood enrichment leans upon two general qualities: Livability and Walkability.

For most of human history, people have lived in villages, towns, and cities. This was a commonsense arrangement: We can accomplish more, create more, and enjoy more when we’re closer together. But since the post-World War Two era, America has had a different idea.

With the development of affordable automobiles, our country has progressively sprawled away from its urban centers in favor of more personal space. Along with this shift, we have developed a car-centered way of life, which has produced its fair share of problems—neglected downtowns, obesity, and global warming only being the most obvious.

Other parts of the world, Hylton explained, have followed a different course of development: In England, "they had practically starved during the Second World War because they couldn’t import food …. So they decided after the War, 'We’re not going to see any agricultural [land] conversion if we can help it; we’re going to save the farms.'…. They developed greenbelts to save agriculture, but what they also saved, at the same time, was their towns …. In England more than two thirds of all retail trade is still conducted on traditional main streets; in the United States, it’s about 4%."

Ultimately, Hylton held a positive tone, confident that a rising global demand for oil, a growing cultural interest in local downtowns, and an increasing public awareness of the environmental costs of a car-centered society will steadily lead more and more people to lay roots in America’s towns and cities. Of course, in areas of policy, there remain some impediments to urban growth and land preservation; one example cited by Hylton is the property zoning:

"Zoning, in this county, generally speaking, does exactly the opposite of what you want to do. Zoning, in this county, separates things: 'The housing is here, the offices are here, the mall is up here….' Zoning should say, 'I don't care what’s going on inside of a building nearly as much as I care about what it looks like and how it relates to the street.'" On this note, Hylton commended the County's newly adopted Greenscapes plan in its consideration of these issues.

Mayor Rick Gray, who attended the lecture, expressed his personal commitment to growing and guiding Lancaster City toward a higher standard of livability: "Currently, we’re looking for the money to do a study that would end [the zoning problem] by individually zoning every business in the city for its prospective use. For example, so many corners we see in Lancaster were obviously built for commercial use and are now zoned residential….We’d look at that building under 'form-based' [zoning] and think about zoning just that building for light commercial use—a tailor shop, a coffee shop, that sort of thing." Gray expressed that a central goal in Lancaster City’s planning is to make the city a "walkable urbanity."