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A Real Place to Call Home

Pottstown, Pennsylvania’s smart growth yields a community to care about

February 26, 2001 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

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 for a class project. Could I bring them? No problem. Our house is just a short walk from the school, and I was happy to get some exercise and enjoy the rejuvenating power of a roomful of second graders.

Like all traditional American towns, my home town of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, 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 an eight-block commercial district, which in turn is bordered by neighborhoods of closely spaced single family homes.

Having grown up walking to school myself, I was careful to buy a house close by 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 10,000 hours behind the wheel, the equivalent of five years at work. It’s also saved us more than $100,000 for the second car we didn’t have to buy and maintain.

More importantly, we love the sense of belonging that Pottstown gives us. We wake up in the morning to the chimes of the Trinity Church carillon. We listen to the banter of the volunteers lounging outside the nearby fire house. We exchange pleasantries with the hygienists going to the dentist’s office down the block.

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.

That’s because they’ve witnessed the results of 50 years of senseless public and private policies that have given every incentive for middle class and affluent people to abandon our cities instead of improving them. These policies have also created a zoning system that randomly scatters homes, offices, and stores all over the landscape.
This new lifestyle — suburban sprawl — is proving to be a colossal blunder. It has consumed irreplaceable farmland and open space, degraded the environment, raised everyone’s cost of living, and isolated the poor and minorities in cities from Oakland to Miami. 

We need to stop these self-destructive practices and start building real places to call home. One of the most encouraging signs I’ve seen is the Smart Growth movement that’s gaining acceptance among builders, businessmen, and government officials across America. Smart Growth embraces two fundamental concepts: First, public infrastructure, such as roads and water and sewer lines, should be concentrated in carefully defined areas where it makes sense to encourage development. Second, new development should be designed with a mixture of homes, stores, and offices in close proximity to take up less space and make it possible for people to make some of their trips by walking or public transportation.

To help rebuild their towns and protect their farms and forests, for example, Oregon and Washington have drawn urban growth boundaries around their cities and towns. Development is encouraged inside the boundaries, while land outside the boundaries is reserved for agriculture and forestry. Georgia, with the strong support of its business community, has created a regional transportation authority for metro Atlanta to foster compact development around public transportation nodes.

Throughout America, scores of new pedestrian scale developments have been approved for construction in recent years. The best known, Disney’s town of Celebration near Orlando, will eventually house 20,000 residents. Modeled after pre-1940 southern towns, Celebration has a wide mixture of housing types within walking distance of a traditional downtown with stores and offices. Children walk to a K-12 public school.

Of course, slowly growing states like my state of Pennsylvania don’t need to build new towns. We need to rediscover and rebuild the cities and towns we already have. Within its five square miles, my town of Pottstown has 14,000 jobs and 22,000 residents — a great balance that allows more than a third of us to live and work in the same compact area. And we closely mirror the economic and racial diversity of Pennsylvania, which is essential for upward mobility.

Standing on the patio behind my home on a cold evening, looking over the moonlit rooftops to the 1861 clock tower of Transfiguration Lutheran Church, 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.

Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is author of Save Our Land, Save Our Towns, and host of a public television documentary based on the book. He can be reached at hylton@ptdprolog.net.

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