The World Need Not Be Ugly

June 30, 1994|By EDWARD T. McMAHON

Takoma Park -- Travel teaches you many things, not the least of which is that the world doesn't have to be ugly.

I first learned this particular lesson while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany during the 1970s. Heidelberg where I lived was clean, compact and dripping with history. The old town square was packed with sightseers, shops and sidewalk cafes. Missing were cars, which you really didn't need because you could walk from one end of town to the other in about 20 minutes.

This is not to say that Germans don't love their cars. They do. But they don't have to use them all the time. They can ride the ''clean as a whistle'' electric trolleys and the ''high speed'' trains that go everywhere or they can ride on the extensive network of bikeways. They can even walk.

Footpaths! An entire network! They extended all the way from the edge of town, up the hillsides, into the forests. These footpaths eventually link up with trails that crisscross the entire country.

I often think back to Heidelberg and other European towns whenever I observe all the changes we are making in Maryland. From the Blue Ridge to the Bay, we are tearing up the good stuff and replacing it with the banal and worse. We're letting look-alike fast-food emporiums, soulless subdivisions and cluttered commercial strips turn Maryland into Anywhere U.S.A. Today a person suddenly dropped along a road outside of many Maryland communities wouldn't know where he was, because it all looks exactly the same. Is it Rockville or Reisterstown? Salisbury or Severna Park? The Eastern Shore or the Western Shore? Who can tell?

It doesn't have to be that way. Last month, I spent a week traveling in the Czech Republic. The difference between their cities and ours was striking. Prague, for example, inherited centuries-old buildings from its imperial past. Almost all have been restored and integrated into the modern city. Shops, schools, banks and government offices can all be found in

buildings that are 200, 300, even 400 years old.

McDonald's and the other American fast-food franchises that have proliferated since the overthrow of Communism operate comfortably in 17th-century Guild Halls along cobblestone streets. Even the new K-Mart is in a three-story department store -- downtown.

Streets in the center city are jammed with people shopping, sightseeing or just plain strolling. This is because Prague, like most European cities, uses ''traffic calming'' devices to give pedestrians the right-of-way along many inner-city streets.

In the countryside, the quaint towns were gloriously free of strip shopping centers, billboards and overhead powerlines. The country inns were filled with tourists from Austria, Germany, France and the United States. The back roads were lined with trees and cyclists. Children walked to school and senior citizens visited friends after strolling to the pharmacy or corner store.

Europeans know that tourism involves much more than marketing. It also involves making destinations appealing. It is after all the heritage, culture and beauty of a community or region that attracts tourists. A tourism expert, Arthur Frommer, says that, ''Among cities with no particular recreational appeal, those that have preserved their past continue to enjoy tourism. Those that haven't, receive almost no tourism at all. Tourism simply doesn't go to a city that has lost its soul.''

Maryland can't imitate Europe and we shouldn't try. But we can learn some lessons. Next time you find yourself stuck in traffic or see another farm field bulldozed for tract housing, or wonder why trees are giving way to billboards, power poles and oversized parking lots, stop and think of Heidelberg, or Prague, or Salzburg or any of a thousand towns that have realized that progress does not demand degraded surroundings; that cities can be designed for people, not just cars; that open space and bike paths have economic as well as environmental value; that growth doesn't have to destroy the places that people love.

Edward T. McMahon is a member of the Maryland Greenways Commission.

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