Towns offer sprawl solution

June 10, 2005|By Thomas Hylton

IN 1963, developer James W. Rouse acquired 22 square miles of farms and adjacent parcels in central Howard County - an amazing feat, even then - and set out to build an ideal community that would "contribute to the growth and improvement of mankind."

Mr. Rouse's hugely ambitious vision evolved into a city with 91,000 jobs and nearly 100,000 residents. Columbia is a popular place to live - prosperous, racially diverse and green, with abundant walking trails and natural areas. It is also more densely populated than almost all modern suburban development built in Maryland.

And density, paradoxically, is the only way Maryland can save its farms and forests.

It is not so much population growth but rather low-density development that is ruining Maryland landscapes. Many people aspire to live on a large lot in the countryside and drive over uncongested roads to stores, schools and workplaces. Such a dream is possible only when a small number of people try to live it. When the masses move into the countryside, it loses the very qualities - beauty, solitude, tranquillity - that make rural life desirable.

In recent decades, Marylanders pursuing the rural ideal have transformed vast expanses of pristine land into a hodgepodge of strip malls, housing subdivisions and corporate centers. As the countryside becomes cluttered, people respond by moving even farther out. That's why Maryland's fastest-growing counties are on the fringe of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area.

But Maryland is running out of room. At its present growth rate, the state will be more densely populated within 50 years than all but two European countries, Belgium and the Netherlands. That will be a disaster if new development continues in the form of sprawl, but comfortably accommodated if it comes, Columbia-like, in the form of towns. The Netherlands, for example, has protected 83 percent of its land mass as farmland and open space. But the Dutch live in cities and towns. Marylanders would have to do the same.

Columbia can be an inspiration. Columbia demonstrates that carefully planned communities, with abundant landscaping, civic open space and opportunities for walking, can compensate for the lack of big lots. In fact, plans are being developed to increase Columbia's density by making its town center - currently a collection of discrete office buildings and a shopping mall surrounded by parking lots - closer to a traditional downtown, with walkable new streets that mix housing, offices and stores.

Maryland is unlikely to build another Columbia, but it has plenty of traditional towns that can become equally attractive places to live.

Tomorrow, Carroll County is to launch a three-year effort to develop a new comprehensive plan with a conference of the county's Council of Governments. Long resistant to Smart Growth, the county has changed its ways. Last year, after a moratorium on residential development, the county adopted a rigorous permitting process requiring developers to demonstrate there are adequate facilities - roads, schools and water supplies - to support their projects.

Now that it's started protecting its countryside, Carroll County needs to cooperate with its eight incorporated towns, such as Westminster and Taneytown, to make them the focus of the county's growth. Good urban design will be critical to attracting residents and businesses. For example, sidewalks lined with street trees should be mandatory. Parking lots should be well landscaped and placed to the side and rear of buildings. New architecture should blend in with the old.

As one who has lived 56 years in traditional towns, I can attest to their merit. My house is just a block from the newspaper where I worked for two decades. My wife teaches at our neighborhood elementary school. Our way of life has saved us thousands of dollars, countless hours behind the wheel and an enormous amount of stress.

And rather than detracting from my town, new neighbors and new growth enhance it. Every new store, office and dwelling - sensitively designed - adds to the richness and fabric of the community.

It's not too late for good planning to save Maryland. But it won't happen until people realize the best "home" is not just a house, but a neighborhood.

Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer from Pottstown, Pa., is author of Save Our Land, Save Our Towns.

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