A yearlong effort is underway to update Lancaster County’s comprehensive plan, which will guide growth here through 2040. Preventing sprawl is a key concern.
Comprehensive planning is not new to Lancaster County, and the area has, of course, changed tremendously since such efforts first began.
The first major planning effort here was in the 1920s, when Cambridge, Mass., planner John Nolen was hired to draft a comprehensive plan for Lancaster city, with some regional context.
The Nolen Plan was published in 1929. Here are some of the photos that accompanied the plan, and below is a 1991 Lancaster New Era column in which the Scribbler, Jack Brubaker, discussed the document:
Renowned city planner suggested Lancaster alter growth pattern in 1928
By Jack Brubaker|THE SCRIBBLER
June 14, 1991
If the central theme of the ongoing discussion about growth in Lancaster County _ from the county Planning Commission’s comprehensive plan to the Lancaster 2000 forum, from municipal initiatives to popular debate _ could be reduced to one question, it might be this:
"Shall Lancaster grow haphazardly or according to a comprehensive plan?"
You say that the question has been answered, decisively, in favor of planned growth?
If that is true, then how can it be that that precise question was asked and answered six decades ago, but still we have not ended haphazard development?
David Schuyler, American studies professor at Franklin and Marshall College, specializes in the history of urban parks and city planning. Recently he was reading through Cornell University’s collection of the papers of John Nolen, noted early 20th century city planner from Cambridge, Mass..
In the late 1920s, Nolen produced a comprehensive development plan for Lancaster City.
Among Nolen’s papers, Schuyler found a notice for a dinner meeting of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce held on Dec. 14, 1928 at the old Hotel Brunswick. Nolen was to address the topic, "Planning the Lancaster of the Future." The logo reprinted with this column accompanied the notice.
Schuyler was struck by the similarity of the logo’s question with Lancaster County’s running dispute over development.
Nolen’s speech was directed at Lancaster City, rather than the entire county, although the planner made it clear that the city is the center of the county and that planning for the two must be coordinated.
The city’s largest problem, Nolen said, was its size: two miles square. That was its size in 1818, he noted, when the population was one-sixth of the 1928 total of 60,000. He proposed enlarging the city. (Significant annexation did not occur until two decades later.)
Lancaster’s problems were common to other cities of its size and type, Nolen said: "They are due to the congestion of traffic as the result of narrow streets or a wrong planning of streets, to the lack of adequate recreation facilities and small school grounds, to an unnecessary scattering of industries, and other causes.
"The remedies for these ills are many, but they include above all the working out of an adequate thoroughfare system, a street widening program with setback lines, the early acquisition of land for parks and parkways, the establishment of new playgrounds, and the increase, in some instances, of school grounds, the encouragement of the best development of industrial and residential districts, resulting in the stabilization of land values and the more orderly development of the community."
In his comprehensive plan, Nolen suggested large acquisitions of public land to connect existing parks into a system, through which the Conestoga River, Little Conestoga Creek and Mill Creek would meander.
He also suggested developing a "Cultural Center," including art, natural history and history museums. The preferred site was near James Buchanan’s home at Wheatland.
Many of the things Nolen suggested have been accomplished, though not always in the ways he suggested.
Annexation has considerably expanded the city’s space and tax base. Some streets have been widened. Industrial and residential zoning have been enforced. Lancaster County developed Central Park to encompass sections of the Conestoga River and Mill Creek, although there is still no greenway connecting city parks. The cultural center museums Nolen proposed have been scattered around town.
The New Era editorialized on Nolen’s comments the day after his speech:
"The old theory of building for the present, letting the future to solve its own problems, has long since been exploded. The modern procedure is building for the future with vision and care. It is banal, to say the least, to blame those who have gone before for lack of foresight in their planning. We should profit by their mistakes and build better."
Six decades later, we are still trying.