"Don't tell me about floor area ratios, or density, or heights, or the tax base. Tell me about a good place to live that our children will be proud of," Arlington County Board chairman Stephen H. Detwiler told a citizens' meeting last week.

"We first need to talk about a positive, imaginative approach to transforming disjointed, uneconomic architectural eyesores into an integrated development that will give the country a new heart, new economic vigor and a new image," Detwiler added.

A banker, Detwiler, 38, is a refreshing change from Suburbia's run-of-the-mill politicians. He is working to transform the country's passive acceptance of chaos, disguised as growth, into active guidance and control of real estate development, a.k.a. planning for the public benefit.

He is focusing this effort on the development of the Rossalyn-Ballston corridor, which frightens many Arlingtonians.

No wonder. The wonder is only that misdevelopments like Rossalyn, to say nothing of Crystal City and Pentagon City, have not yet served as the setting for a remaking of "A Clockwork Orange" or some Orwellian horror film.

Arlington's mushrooming, tree-less and joyless high-rise "cities" have turned parts of the country, once a pleasant bedroom suburb, into "Spread City, U.S.A." Diminishing islands of the old, green subdivision tranquility are gasping for clear air under a web of strip developments and super-highways.

The Arlington happening may well be the worst planning, or rather nonplanning, disaster this side of Los Angeles. It makes citizen opposition to the development of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor understandable.

Opposition is also futile. Development is inevitable because the underground Metrorail is pumping people and money into the sleazy, underdeveloped but auto-congested commercial strip along Wilson Boulevard, the corridor's main road.

The problem is not to stop but to control the inevitable eruptions at Metro stations along the line -- Courthouse, Clarendon, Virginia Square and Ballston -- and to make this development benefit all Arlington County residents. Detwiler and other Arlington leaders think they have found an answer.

They found it in Europe.

At the invitation and expense of the German Marshall Fund, Detwiler and a group of county board and planning staff members visited suburban rapid transit station developments in France, Germany, Sweden and Holland last fall. The trip was suggested by Wilfred Owen, a Brookings Institution urbanist and member of the Arlington County economic development commission, who believes that the world is a "global laboratory," where everyone can learn from everyone else, and that a tree could grow even in Rosslyn if only someone were to plant one.

In West Europe, the Arlington delegation found, trees often are planted by the rapid transit planners. Suburban stations generate carefully and comprehensively planned satellite communities in which livability is considered as important as profitability.

In sum, the new developments the Arlingtonians saw in Europe were designed, rather than merely allowed to happen within the rubbery bounds of zoning regulations and building codes. The difference is not only esthetic. It is the assurance that new development benefits not only developers and speculators but the community as a whole, that it integrates a variety of activities, interest and people.

"I was amazed to see a high-rise apartment house for the elderly at one of the subway stations that had a public library, a small elementary school and a public cafteria on the ground floor," Detwiler said. His constituents are amazed to see the color slides of the trip, which the travelers are showing to citizens in meetings all over the country.

When the lights are dimmed in those church basements and the upside down slide is finally put right side up, words like "quality developments," "mixed use" or "comprehensive planning" come to have vivid meaning: Flowers, fountains and benches; and audience of two elderly ladies on a bench admiring the rope-jumping performance of a 4-year-old; housing for the elderly; public libraries, officies, restaurants, health services and recreation for teen-agers, all within the same walking environment, free of combustion engines.

Europe, to be sure, has a long tradition of government planning, dating back to the days when cities were built for defense and the greater glory of princess and potentates. The Dutch were forced into meticulous land-use planning when, 400 years ago, they started to wrest their land from the sea. In America we have much planning wisdom (Europe learned from us how to build underground railways and deal with parking in residential areas), but no tradition, interest and -- up to now -- political leadeship in planning matters.

This may be changing as we begin to recognize the difference between freedom and license and the need for order in the urban environment. Order, in our system, can only be achieved by a working partnership among government, citizens and private developers/investors. It must be inspired by what I would call "environmental morality."

The right of the community to make the habitat "beautiful as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled," has been established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Berman v. Parker some 30 years ago. That right gives local government the authority, if not the obligation, to draw up a master plan illustrated by models, for the development or re-development of critical areas such as those surrounding the Metro stations in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

The government's development proposal must show more than the usual colored potato sacks representing land use and densities. It must help everyone visualize the proposed urban design, the arrangement of buildings and the spaces between them with their trees, benches, kioska and intended activities.

This proposed master plan is then presented to the community for discussion. Now it is up to the citizens to make sure that their reasonable interests are reasonably accommodated. It is now their responsibility to question and debate how the proposed development is likely to affect their homes and their streets, the elderly, the disabled and the poor, as well as recreation and culture -- the many factors, in short, that add up to the qulity of the community's life.

In Britain, local government planners are required to submit two or more alternative development proposals for public discussion. There, as here, however, the ultimate decision is made by the elected officials.

Two plans or one, this method enables the public rather than private developers to deterrmine what happens to the community. Good planners will make sure that the project is attractive to private investment, which must, of course, finance new development. Responsible investors will welcome a master plan that tell them how their investment relates to everything else and assures them of community support and stability. r

This procedure will start in Arlington County when, on April 30, the economic development commission will present a model of a proposed Courthouse Metro station area redevelopment. Most of the land is owned by the county.

The proposal is sure to start a lively debate. It may also start a new era in Arlington County's history an era in which the citizens help to determine the shape of things to come.