Planning with 'the genius of the landscape' The valley's success story provides valuable guidelines for the rest of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. But the long, frustrating efforts that were required caution against optimism.

November 24, 1991|By TOM HORTON

At the time he was born on the outskirts of Baltimore, the view from Doug Carroll's bedroom window had not changed appreciably from his grandmother's day. The big sunlit rooms looked over lawns and huge old trees that verged onto a landscape textured delightfully by streams and pasture and fields. This in turn gave way to forest-cloaked slopes on both east and west that walled the long sweep of the valley floor. It was, he recalls, at once both ''beautiful and ordinary -- most of the country around here looked that way.''

By 1950, when Mr. Carroll was a boy of 10, unprecedented changes were altering much of the Maryland landscape, especially the Baltimore region. Population in the region would balloon by nearly a million people in the next decade, and a beltway would encircle the city with eight lanes of concrete, passing within half a mile or so of the Carroll house.

Still, the scene in the valley remained as peaceful and timeless as the sheep grazing on the green pastures outside, as natural as the trout finning in the clear shallows of creeks feeding the upper Jones Falls.

During the 1970s and '80s, yet another million or so persons flooded into the state. Again Baltimore County, where Mr. Carroll lives, would outpace most of Maryland in growth and development. As the suburbs rippled outward, more than 10,000 acres of the Baltimore region's forest and farm vanished before the bulldozers.

But save for the faint swishing of traffic now nearing gridlock on the beltway beyond the forested slope, the valley and the bedroom-window view inherited by Galen Carroll, born to Doug and Deirdre in 1990, remains nearly as it has been for four generations. There are days when Galen's parents dare to hope it may remain so indefinitely.

... ** Across the multi-state Chesapeake Bay watershed, where suburban sprawl has consumed more open space in the last few decades than in the previous few centuries, and where another 2.6 million persons are projected to settle by the year 2020, there is a desperate search for new ways to pattern development -- allowing growth without wrecking what is left of our natural heritage.

''One of the most fascinating innovations in protection of the environment,'' wrote Fortune magazine when it devoted its whole February 1970 issue to the environment on the occasion of Earth Day, was taking place in the Baltimore county valleys where Mr. Carroll grew up. Twenty-one years later the achievement there -- thousands of acres of lovely countryside retained amid some of the most intense development in the nation -- holds valuable lessons, both encouraging and sobering.

In the valleys, it all began not from any environmental movement or enlightened government, but with a group of Baltimore businessmen, recalls Robert Levi, former CEO of the Hecht Company department stores and a valley resident for 50 years.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, a group concerned primarily with planning the revitalization of downtown Baltimore, began to realize that the surrounding county was also ill-equipped to cope with the growth pressures that were being unleashed in the early Spurred by this, and by an imminent large-scale development proposal for a cornfield in the Greenspring Valley, residents contracted with a former GBC planning chief to plan an alternative future.

The Plan for the Valleys, as it was called, would include the Green Spring, Worthington and Caves valleys. It would involve Ian McHarg, who was to win fame as one of the nation's most visionary landscape planners. It would cost $300,000, a huge sum of money in an era when planning was thought by many landowners a frivolous, if not downright communistic exercise.

The landowners in the valleys raised the entire sum. Some were wealthy, but some had little more than their land. ''It was fascinating to me how many of them, even though they felt the plan would devalue what they could sell their property for, really cared deeply about the future of the land,'' Mr. Levi said.

Mr. McHarg, who would later write a classic book, ''Design with Nature,'' believed, as he wrote in the valleys plan, that ''the natural land form has an inherent sense of order.'' By his second trip to the valleys, the land had given him the broad outlines of his plan.

In the parts where developers would most naturally have developed, the broad, open valley floors, no development would be allowed. On the forested slopes that walled the valleys, only very restricted development could occur. In these elements resided what Mr. McHarg called the ''genius of the landscape,'' and they must be kept intact.

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