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Book Review: 'Better Models for Development in Pennsylvania'

June 19, 2006, 7am PDT | Tom Kane
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In "Better Models for Development in Pennsylvania", author Ed McMahon outlines the best ways to harness inevitable urban growth and development without sacrificing a community's character, natural resources, and sense of place. As reviewer Tom Kane finds, these rules apply not only to Pennsylvania, but across the country.

Seven Strategies for Effective Community Development

Tom KaneBetter Models for Development in Pennsylvania
Written by Ed McMahon (Conservation Fund and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 2005)
Reviewed by Tom Kane

Although titled Better Models for Development in Pennsylvania, Ed McMahon's book features ideas for sustainable development models that apply to any community across America. McMahon researched the book for the Conservation Fund of Arlington, Virginia, received funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and ranged over the entire nation searching for the best ways successful communities handled development. In essence, these communities did not fight against development. The truth, according to McMahon, is that development is inevitable, but the destruction of community character and natural resources that too often accompany growth is not.

McMahon constantly refers to the need to "preserve the sense of place," referring to community efforts to retain uniqueness and individual character. When development comes to a growing community that has no sense of place -- often in waves, isolated from the rest of the community -- nothing seems to blend together, and each site sits in stark contrast to its neighbor, producing the worst examples of "sprawl".

It doesn't have to be this way, McMahon says. "There are many successful models of development throughout Pennsylvania and across the nation," he says. "Downtowns are being rejuvenated, open space is being preserved, historic buildings are being restored, and farmers are working to protect their way of life."

What's happening in these communities? Developers are constructing affordable, walkable, and mixed-use developments and related transit systems, which are gaining awards and garnering support. To build on these successes, McMahon isn't calling for more regulation, but a more thoughtful approach to new development and redevelopment. He established what may be identified as seven strategies for effective community development:

Identify community resources. McMahon believes that community resources in need of preservation include natural areas, rare and endangered species, historic sites, open space, scenic views, and prime farmland. To begin the development or redevelopment process, these resources should be identified, described and mapped. "The process of inventorying key resources can be undertaken by citizen's groups, private organizations or public agencies or a coalition of such groups," he says. Communities that conducted these kinds of inventories found that their effort built community awareness and consensus for planning in the future. The surveys can be professionally conducted or they can be done simply by having locals photograph what they like most and least in their communities, and then compare the results in a community forum.

Preserve farmland. Like many states, Pennsylvania is losing farms to development at alarming rates. To counter this, McMahon lays out an array of programs, including: developing and updating comprehensive plans, assigning agricultural security areas that protect farms from nuisance ordinances, enforcing mandatory open space requirements, and promoting conservation easements, the transfer of development rights, and land trusts that insure a property will never be developed.

Open space attracts tourists. A recent Delaware Bay study showed that shorebird migration annually generates between $7.8 and $11.8 million in tourism-related economic benefits to the immediate bay shore area. The typical bird watcher spends $522 per visit for lodging, dinners, food, and gasoline. Many decide to return at other times during the year, generating as much as $25 million in the immediate area, another $2.5 million in New Jersey, and another $6.2 million elsewhere in the U.S. -- a total of $34 million a year.

Maintain a clear edge between town and countryside. "Grow in, not out" is the cry of smart-growth planners. Two alternatives to land consumptive suburban sprawl are to encourage more "infill" development -- putting additional people where roads, schools, sewers, and water lines already exist -- and "brownfield" development -- developing abandoned properties of former industrial sites. Many of the communities McMahon highlights followed these routes with enormous success.

Practice "conservation subdivision". McMahon lauds an increasingly popular strategy of smart-growth development called conservation subdivision. Simply stated, conservation subdivision design limits site construction to half or less of the development area, leaving the remainder to open space. "Without controversial 'down-zoning,' the same number of homes can be built in a less land-consumptive manner, allowing the balance of the property to be permanently protected and added to an inter-connected open space network," he says. Developers find that most people like their homes to be close to permanent, non-developed open space, and these homes sell faster and at higher prices than other homes not so protected.

Build and maintain livable communities. Livable communities are described as communities that have quality open space, a variety of uses -- mixed zoning with sidewalks and the ability to walk to stores -- and variety of building types -- homes, apartments, stores, libraries, and other places to walk to or bicycle to. These communities don't rely on automobiles, strip shopping centers and malls, large parking lots surrounding stores, or cookie-cutter architecture.

Historic preservation is smart business. McMahon's recurring thesis is that smart communities preserve their historic places as they develop. It makes strong business sense. Better models of development are economically profitable to a community. For example, tourism -- much of it of the "heritage" variety -- is Pennsylvania's second largest industry. In 2001, tourists spent $20.5 billion in the state with a total economic impact of $37.2 billion in sales, supporting 618,000 jobs and $13.3 billion in compensation. Many other states have similar statistics.

This book should be required reading for all planners, developers and municipal officials in any state who wish to manage new development in ways that will preserve the particular character of their community and build on it. Each community is unique, and development should continue that uniqueness, and not be what McMahon calls the creation of "Anywhere, USA".

Tom Kane is a journalist for a weekly paper in upstate New York. He is also the coordinator of a local conservation group called the Visioning Committee of Upper Delaware River Valley, formed three years ago. The group is comprised of local residents and municipal officials who aim to educate and prepare for the coming growth.


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