Planning Expert Visits, Praises City

Prize Winner, Author Lauds Westminster For Its Sense Of Caring

It's `A Really Nice Town'

Development Group Sponsors Appearance, Presentation At Wmc

April 25, 1997|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Thomas Hylton calls himself a missionary: traveling the country to denounce suburban sprawl and promote a return to cities and towns -- and to the sense of caring and community that's been lost in the commute.

Hylton presented his case yesterday at Western Maryland College, with slides of boarded-up cities surrounded by low-density development, contrasted with successful community-style developments with a mix of houses, shops, offices and schools.

Among the successes was his own Pottstown, Pa., population 22,000. Hylton said Westminster, at 16,000 residents, has much the same feel -- "built to a human scale."

"This is a really nice town, and in much better shape than any in Pennsylvania," he said after a walking tour of Main Street with R. Douglas Mathias, executive director of Greater Westminster Development Corp.

The nonprofit corporation sponsored Hylton's visit. "It's the first time we've brought a nationally recognized figure to town to sit down and talk to people like this," Mathias said.

Said Hylton, upon arriving yesterday morning: "I'm here to talk about the idea that traditional towns like Westminster make a lot of sense [and] are a wonderful place to live."

The 48-year-old Pottstown resident was a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for the Pottstown Mercury when he was awarded a fellowship to study comprehensive state planning in 1993.

That led to his new calling and the book, "Save Our Lands, Save Our Towns: A Plan for Pennsylvania," which is going into its third printing.

Hylton said he envied Maryland's setup of cities and towns surrounded by unincorporated areas, which is far more flexible than Pennsylvania's myriad local jurisdictions.

Although it was his first visit to Westminster, Hylton said, "Everybody's going through the same thing from coast to coast."

He praised Westminster in particular for its pedestrian-friendly Main Street, and Maryland in general for its recent growth initiatives.

Walking was a fact of life for centuries, Hylton said, noting how many local people -- bankers, lawyers, shop owners and curmudgeons -- he met on the street in Westminster during his brief tour with Mathias.

"Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages: People always walked where they needed to go," he said. "You need four or five things: places to buy things, a place to work, schools, parks and for hundreds of years, all these things were close together.

"Therefore, rich and poor and the middle class were all living close together. Even when you had stagecoaches, trains and trolleys, you still had to walk to the station.

"But at the end of World War II, we took this pattern that had been tried and true through all those centuries and just threw it out the window," he said. "We decided, `We'll have zones for housing, for manufacturing -- and we'll build highways.'

"So the only walking you have to do is from the parking lot to wherever you're going. And as your governor has noted, 50 years of such practices has really messed up the state, and we can't afford 50 more years or there'll be no Maryland left."

Hylton can rattle off numbers with the best of them: population movements, vacant houses, density and square footage, and lost farm acreage.

But the more important loss to him is the loss of community and the serious problems -- such as racism -- that have resulted.

"When you know people, you care about them," he said, rather than looking back at the dying city or town you fled, and "you see it as like Bosnia or Rwanda: You may say, `Tsk, tsk,' but we don't go there."

The solution isn't only in America's preservation-style successes such as Annapolis.

Change is being signaled across the country, he said, as booming western cities hold fast to their limits, or New England towns defeat warehouse-style chains -- or where some of these megastores have chosen to locate in cities.

Perhaps most significant, he said, is the aggressive marketing of new developments as old-style towns -- such as in Montgomery County, where subsidized homes are scattered amid million-dollar houses.

Like the new-urbanism movement, Hylton said, these marketers have realized that "the community of the future is the traditional town of the past." And a nation of stressed-out commuters could bring about a change back to the older ways as quick and surprising as the fall of communism.

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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