Cities, Villages, and
Towns: A Sensible Way of Life
One of my most enjoyable experiences every year is reporting for field trip duty with my wife's elementary school class at the Lincoln School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where we've lived for 25 years.
Pottstown is a town of about 22,000 people along the Schuylkill River 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
On a recent trip the kids were studying local heroes. We walked about eight blocks from Lincoln School to Pottstown Town Hall to visit the Pottstown Police Department. There the kids were given a tour by our community service officer, Charlie Wagg, also known as Officer Friendly, and shown every department, including the jail.
Then the kids walked about a half block to the Phillies Fire Co., where firefighter Bill Krause talked about fire safety. When he was done, he showed the kids the fire trucks and blew the sirens for them.
With our intellectual duties done, we started walking back to Lincoln School. On the way, we stopped at 222 Chestnut Street, which is the Hylton residence. All the kids trooped into the back yard, where they ran around a little bit, enjoyed apples, and petted our dog, Rugby. And then we walked back to school.
This kind of enjoyable experience is made possible because I live in a pedestrian community, the kind nobody's been building in Pennsylvania, or virtually anywhere else in America, for about 60 years. In fact, thanks to postwar planning and zoning dogma, it is expressly forbidden by law to build places like Pottstown.
I had the good fortune to be born and to spend the first few years of my life in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in America: the original part of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania.
Wyomissing was initially designed to have all the elements of society in less than a square mile. My family's modest rowhouse was just three blocks from the mansions of the men who founded Wyomissing. It was just two blocks from the Berkshire Knitting Mills, where my father helped develop the world's first nylon stockings. His office was so close he not only walked to work, he even came home for lunch. Our house was near stores, the park and Wyomissing Elementary School, where I walked to kindergarten all by myself.
My father died at the age of 40 and my family soon moved to an apartment in the nearby city of Reading.
Reading in the late 1950s and early 1960s was already declining, but it was still a wonderful place to grow up in. I could walk to the 5th & Spring Elementary School and to Northwest Junior High School, where I had a wide range of friends, from the son of a janitor to daughter of a neurosurgeon.
I could walk to all my friends' houses. I frequently walked to the Reading Public Library, my favorite place. I could walk to the downtown department stores, Pomeroy's and Witner's. I could walk to choir practice at Christ Church after school. In the summers, I'd check in every day at my mother's office on North Sixth Street.
At least once a week, I'd walk to my grandmother's apartment on North Tenth Street. She was always home and ready to give me lots of love and attention. And I could be useful. I'd run errands for her at the corner store and usually have at least 10 cents left over to buy a comic book.
This way of life was inexpensive and fostered a sense of community. Elderly people served as neighborhood watchdogs. Children like me could be independent, but still be observed by adults who knew our parents. Poor and working class people patronized the same schools, stores and public places as the middle class, which helped upward mobility and gave everyone a stake in maintaining public order.
I dwell on all this because, unfortunately, there is a whole generation of Americans who have no idea what a wonderful and enriching place a city or town can be, especially for a child. In fact, most suburbanites think cities are terrible places to live.
And the reason they think cities and towns are so awful, even though people have been living there for the last 6,000 years of human history, is because they've witnessed the results of 50 years of senseless public and private policies, which have given every incentive for middle class and affluent people to abandon our cities instead of improving them, and which have legally mandated an ugly, inefficient, environmentally damaging and socially divisive way of life known as suburban sprawl.
In 1948, the year I was born, Philadelphia was a prosperous, stimulating and even fashionable place to live. It had an outstanding public school system. Now whole neighborhoods lie in ruins while the city, abandoned by industry and the middle class, and overwhelmed by poor people, struggles to survive.
Meanwhile, the surrounding countryside, which once boasted some of the most scenic landscapes and fertile fields in America, has been nearly obliterated by sprawling development. In the last 25 years, the four suburban counties of Montgomery, Chester, Delaware and Bucks have lost a nearly a quarter of their farmland, even as the region's total population has declined by 140,000 residents.
Throughout Pennsylvania, the story is the same. Virtually every city has seen its population diminish since 1950, usually accompanied by eroding neighborhoods and debilitated buildings.
Philadelphia has lost a half million people. Pittsburgh has hemorrhaged nearly half its population. Cities like Harrisburg, Scranton, Chester, Wilkes-Barre, New Castle and Altoona have all lost anywhere from a third to more than half their residents.
States like California and Florida have been transformed since World War II by massive population growth. But in the East and Midwest we've hardly grown at all -- my state has grown less than 15 percent in 40 years. What we've done is spent billions of dollars in new infrastructure to do little more than take our existing population and spread it around in a very unhealthy and inefficient manner.
We have lost more than 4 million acres of farmland since the 1950s. But perhaps worst of all, we have undermined the spirit of community we used to enjoy when we had people of all ages and incomes living and working in the same town.
Three years before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln warned that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." Pennsylvania is a state that isolates two-thirds of its poor people in its cities and towns, while the middle class and affluent live and work in the suburbs; it is a state where 14 percent of our public school children are black, but more than two-thirds of these children go to segregated city schools, while suburban schools are virtually all-white; it is a state that even allows the construction of affluent housing subdivisions closed to public access and protected from the rest of us by guardhouses and gates.
And the only part of state government that's been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years is the prison industry. We have five times as many inmates in Pennsylvania prisons as we did 25 years ago, at a annual cost of $20,000 each, but we're not one bit safer.
So we have to ask ourselves: Is Pennsylvania truly a commonwealth, or is it becoming a house divided against itself?
I had the unique opportunity, thanks to a journalism fellowship, to look at eleven states that have initiated initiated comprehensive they have a responsibility to care for each other, and that being a good citizen requires more than just voting and paying taxes. It requires getting personally involved in some worthwhile community endeavor.
A real community is well maintained, like Toronto or Montreal, where they actually wash down the streets every day. A real community has a lot of humane- looking buildings, rather than glass boxes and concrete bunkers to work in, that are also well maintained.
A real community has lots of great big shade trees, and greenery, and flowers, because beauty and order are vital to our well-being.
And after more than 20 years in newspapering, I've come to believe that virtually every problem we have in America -- crime, chronic poverty, the degradation of our cities, the loss of farmland and forests, pollution, the high cost of living - could be greatly alleviated by building real communities.
In 1992, New Jersey passed the state's first comprehensive plan - one that will encourage every agency of the state to channel its resources to rebuild New Jersey's cities and older suburbs along the lines of traditional communities and to discourage suburban sprawl.
New Jersey's state plan has identified more than 600 centers, ranging from cities like Trenton to crossroad villages with a dozen houses and a mini-mart, where traditional town-like development will be encouraged. The state requires every municipality to actively plan for its fair share of affordable housing. For example, Moorestown, one of the wealthiest townships in the state, has adopted a plan to place its required 500 units of low-income housing in various sections of the municipality, most of them in small apartment houses designed to look like single-family homes.
Before adopting this state plan, the New Jersey Legislature required an independent assessment of its likely impact. A year-long study directed by Rutgers University concluded that implementing the plan would save the government $1.3 billion in infrastructure costs over a 20-year period and another $400 million annually in operating costs.
That's just the government. That's not talking about the millions of dollars residents will save by not having to drive everywhere for everything.
Several states, such as Oregon and Washington, have
adopted formal urban growth boundaries. For example, each of Oregon's 242 cities (and in Oregon terminology, the smallest little town would be called a city) has drawn up a growth boundary to accommodate all foreseeable growth for the next 20 years. Development is given the red carpet treatment inside the boundaries, and except for agriculture and forestry, virtually forbidden outside of them.
Although Oregon is twice the size of Pennsylvania in land area, and has just a fourth as many residents, Oregon still believes people are better off living in towns. "We like the outdoors," one Portland city councilman told me, "but we don't feel we have to live there. There's an ethic that says it's better if we all own the outdoors and take care of it collectively."
Metropolitan Portland, which contains 24 cities and parts of three counties in its growth boundary, requires all its municipalities to zone housing at an average density of 6 to 10 units per acre.
And people can live nicely at those densities. For example, I know a successful Pennsylvania lawyer, with a record of outstanding service to his community, who with his wife brought up eight children, all while living in a modest house on a 7th of an acre lot on a tree-lined street of a Pennsylvania city. His name? Robert P. Casey, for eight years the governor of Pennsylvania.
And I tell my fellow Pennsylvanians, if we could encourage our middle class residents to live at the same kind of town densities as former Gov. Casey has for the last 35 years, we could accommodate all the development we're going to have for decades to come without using up one more acre of farmland and open space. And at the same time, we could make our cities and towns safe and attractive places for everyone to live.
Very few people have any idea how compact a quality environment can be. For example, consider Cranberry Township, the fastest growing township in western Pennsylvania. Cranberry has a Wal-Mart/Kmart complex nobody can walk to instead of a downtown. It has about 18,000 residents sprawled over all 23 square miles of its territory, marring the scenery and forcing everybody to drive everywhere for everything.
Let's suppose we were to rearrange Cranberry's population into just two villages.We put 6,000 people into one village of just 1.4 square miles. Let's call it Swarthmore. We put the other 12,000 people into another village of 1.8 square miles. We'll call it Princeton. Now everyone in Cranberry is living on about 15 percent of its land area, so 85 percent is left over as open space. In these two villages, the residents are close enough so they can walk to many of the places they need to go. In fact, 6,000 people are enough to support a public school system, so each of these villages can have its own schools.
There's even room in each village for higher education: Swarthmore College, and Princeton University. And because we have a sizable group of people living in a small area, they can support public transportation. So we can connect these two villages with a train line that goes to the nearest big city and points beyond.
Of course, I'm talking about real places. The combined population of Princeton, New Jersey, and Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, is equal to Cranberry, but their combined land area, even including the colleges, is just 15 percent of Cranberry.
And although Princeton is one of the most fashionable addresses in the United States, it is in fact racially and economically integrated. It's 78 percent non-Hispanic white, 8.5 % black, 7% Asian and 5% Hispanic. Almost 10% of its residents are poor, which is very close to the statewide average for New Jersey.
Princeton and Swarthmore are among many attractive towns -- like Annapolis, Md., Oak Park, Ill, and Charlestown, S.C. -- that are built at densities that support walking and public transportation.
And there's no reason we can't mix people of different income levels in the same neighborhoods.
Montgomery County, Maryland, which is Maryland's wealthiest county, has required since 1974 that every development of more than 50 units must set aside 15 percent of those homes for low-and moderate-income people. This has led to developments like Avenel, which has modest homes for the working poor in the midst of million dollar mansions.
The rule has helped integrate the poor among the middle class, and doubled Montgomery County's minority population in the last 20 years, to 12 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and 8 percent Asian.
Lancaster County is the first county in Pennsylvania to create urban growth boundaries. Lancaster is working with its 60 municipalities to create 13 urban growth boundaries: a large one around the city of Lancaster, and 12 smaller ones around boroughs like Lititz and Ephrata. Each growth boundary contains twice as much land as is needed to accommodate all foreseeable development for the next 20 years. Walkable, livable communities will be encouraged within the boundaries. Development will be strongly discouraged outside of them.
What Lancaster County needs now is the force of state law behind its plan.
And I believe that concept of urban growth boundaries, with walkable, livable communities inside them, will eventually become the standard development pattern in America. Last year, Newsweek Magazine featured a cover story about the movement to start building traditional towns once again.
One little town that's almost completed is the Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md. The Kentlands has a wide variety of housing types placed closed together on tree-lined streets. It has an elementary school that kids can walk to. It has within walking distance a large mall, with a Kmart, a Giant supermarket, a Lowe's home center, and more than a score of stores. But this mall's parking lot is in the middle, not out front, so people can walk there if they want to.
New villages are being built in other states, such as California, Florida, and Oregon, that will have a variety of housing types on traditional tree-lined streets within walking distance of a central square, stores, and offices. Even Walt Disney is building a new town, Celebration, that will house 20,000 people of all incomes in the traditional settlement pattern of pre-1940 southern towns.
In Pennsylvania, Michigan, and and other slow-growing states, we don't need to create new towns. We need to rediscover and rebuild and expand the wonderful towns we already have.
If I could wish anything for our children, it would be to grow up in places like Princeton, or Oak Park, or even my home town of Pottstown. Within its five square miles, my town closely mirrors the racial and economic diversity of America. Physical proximity, I think, encourages the personal involvement needed to dissolve the fear and alienation that's been growing in our state. When students of Pottstown's prestigious Hill School tutor Hispanic children living a few blocks from their dormitory, for example, both are enriched.
And it's very convenient. Not having to commute a half hour each way to work during the last two decades has saved my wife and me nearly 10,000 hours behind the wheel, the equivalent of five years at work. It's also saved us about $85,000 for the cars we didn't have to buy and maintain. We own a car, but it's our servant, not our master.
Historians Will and Ariel Durant spent their lifetimes researching and writing their 11-volume Story of Civilization. Then, when they were in their 70s, they concluded their work with a short book called Lessons of History. One lesson, they said, is that for every hundred new ideas, "ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace."
In the whole sweep of civilization, America's 40-year experiment with isolation and sprawl is but a few ticks on the clock. To many Americans, suburbia seems a natural way of life. It is, in fact, an aberration. Cities, villages and towns have been with us always, and they will endure.
Sitting on the patio behind my home on a cool fall evening, looking over moonlit rooftops to the clock tower of Transfiguration Lutheran Church, built during the days of Abraham Lincoln, I feel a sense of kinship with my neighbors and the generations before me that have lived under its glow.
If we want to encourage caring, I've come to believe, we need places to care about.