• Heritage Action
  • More

National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers

National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers
March 24, 1997
Washington , D.C.
Becky Norton Dunlop

It is an honor and a pleasure to participate in this session today, and particularly to have a chance to express my point of view on the very important subject of “Smart Growth” or what we used to call urban revitalization.

Before I do so, however, I want to say that I have been following the work of the National Conference over the past three years through Alex Wise, our State Historic Preservation Officer in Virginia. I applaud your organization for what you have done to make the National Park Service and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation more responsive to the needs of the states. The fact is one size does not fit all. From where I stand it is clear that in recent years both the Park Service and the Advisory Council have become more flexible and practical in their respective understanding of that salient truth. Your involvement is largely responsible for this progress and has contributed significantly to the advancement of commonsense in historical preservation policies and project.

I understand that Bryan Mitchell, the former Virginia SHPO and former president of NCSHPO has played a major role in this progress, and I want to acknowledge his valuable leadership and congratulate and thank him for this. But NCSHPO hasn’t stopped there. By tackling other issues such as heritage tourism, determinations of eligibility in the Section 106 process, the new Section 106 regulations, and tribal issues, you are also doing cutting-edge work in advancing common-sense preservation. And the issue with perhaps the most significant implications for the long term is the issue we’re here to discuss today: “Smart Growth.”

Back in the fall Alex arranged for me to sit down with Tom Hylton, a charismatic Pennsylvania preservationist and author of Save Our Land. Save Our Towns. Many of you are probably familiar with his work. It centers on his town of Pottstown, Pennsylvania and the kind of centrifugal development that over the last four decades has eaten up much of the surrounding land while hollowing out the town. He articulates a compelling vision of what the town was when he was growing up there and of what it could be again. He points to the often misguided incentives which have induced people to create the present situation and concludes that such perverse incentives are largely the unintended products of state and federal government policies.

The vision Tom Hylton expresses is one that resonates deeply with others and me. Dick Moe, for example, has spoken up forcefully in support of it. The vision is one in which families live in safety and neighborliness, with schools, churches, recreation, shopping, and jobs all close at hand. The vision includes people from all walks and stations of life and from different ethnic backgrounds. And it contemplates a healthy interaction among them. The vision is, in short, a traditional community, a community spiritually and physically whole, rather than the one which we see too often today: a people divided and fragmented, living in an area perforated by parking lots and gashed by superhighways where handsome buildings and whole neighborhoods once stood.

In short, this neighborly community is a place where, to paraphrase Lewis Mumford, mind can take form. And that “mind” will be unique and creative, yet ordered, hopeful, productive and tolerant of diversity. It will be the mind of free good citizenship. Mr. Hylton’s vision is indeed compelling.

Also, I think Hylton is right on target when he points the finger at government policies that have created perverse incentives and unintended consequences for our society, a push-pull problem, if you will. We have interstate highways, ring-roads and huge economic development projects that have completely changed the growth and commercial patterns of our urban areas, pulling the growth ever outward. We also have criminals roaming cities; streets unsafe for children and adults to walk about; neighborhoods that are not secure for the wealthy and especially not for the poor; schools that fail to educate the children; crumbling infrastructure; urban renewal programs that destroy “homes” in favor of “better housing;” and tax policies that discourage urban restoration -all the products of government policies that “push” growth outward.

All the while, apparently understanding that its policies and incentives can be perverse, governments have often adopted counter incentives to redevelop downtowns and prevent development of farmland as panaceas rather than addressing the underlying fundamental problems that push and pull development ever outward. In places like Virginia’s capital of Richmond, the prevailing dynamic is this same push and pull of growth ever outward -out even beyond the suburbs and into far-flung exurbs. The result is that decline today is found not just in inner cities but in the suburbs as well.

I am heartened to see that this problem has arisen to the surface. I’m interested in what has been going on in Oregon and Delaware, as well as through Governor Glendening’s new initiative in Maryland. I am watching closely his call to change what he describes as “fifty years of policy that has fostered sprawl, de­stabilized many neighborhoods, polluted our environment, consumed thousands of farmland acres and open spaces and led to economic inefficiency and higher taxes.” And a very welcome note to me is his commitment to a bottom-up, community-based effort, not a top-down effort.

I also applaud the American Planning Association for addressing this issue. And I’m glad to see that it will develop alternative approaches to legislative reform rather than recommending one model code to be adopted by every state. My impression is that in the past, the desire for a federally mandated or perfectly uniform one-size-fits-all solution across the country has hampered efforts to redress the problem. The Founders of the Republic understood the vast differences that existed between the various states that had very different traditions, needs and approaches to things that are important to people in communities. We should understand this, too, for these differences are still very significant and always will be.

As some of you know, I was involved in the Reagan Administration as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. That experience brought home to me just how enormous and diverse this great country of ours is. And thank goodness! It is certainly true that one size does not fit all.

That notion is what I want to emphasize to you. I want to sketch for you the kind of approach that fits Virginia’s situation. Governor Allen will be using this approach this year as chairman of the Southern Governor’s Association. He is focusing his efforts as chairman on urban revitalization. His approach may be more useful in many Southern and Western states than is the prevailing more prescriptive approach preferred in the recent past.

Since I’m speaking to people who appreciate history, perhaps you’ll forgive me while I take a detour into comparative history. To understand the Virginia approach, I think you have to understand Virginia’s roots as compared to those of, say, its sister colony Massachusetts. The two places had, and I think still have, a very different view of the land and the relationship of society to it. Cultural historian Leo Marx in his book The Machine in the Garden considers the comparison, and historian David Hackett Fischer in his book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America also sheds light on these things.

William Bradford apparently expressed what might be called a typical Massachusetts view when he described nature as a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts.” By contrast, Virginia’s founders saw the land as an Eden. Captain Arthur Barlowe, who explored Virginia for Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584, wrote of a land of plenty whose soil was “the most plentiful, sweet, fruitful, and wholesome of all the world” and whose water “smelt so sweet and so strong a smell, as if we have been in the midst of some delicate garden abounding with all kind of odoriferous flowers...” Captain John Smith, who headed the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown in 1607 -you see Virginia was first by 13 years- thought that “heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.” The image of Virginia as a garden of paradise so captured the English imagination that it prompted Shakespeare to write The Tempest.

The Massachusetts and Virginia societies were as close to being diametrically opposite as two English colonies could be. In the seventeenth century, Massachusetts society was composed mostly of middle-class, literate, skilled, town-dwelling, Puritan East Anglicans -almost equally balanced between men and women. They immigrated to New England to escape royalist religious persecution and form a society in which they were free to live in a covenant with each other and with God. The purpose of their society was to demonstrate the benefits of God’s election and to hold nature at bay both inside and outside themselves. As Washington Post editor Joel Garreau says, the Pilgrims were intent on taming the wilderness and on bringing order out of chaos, making them the nation’s first developers.

By contrast, for Virginia colonists the primary relationship was that between man and the soil. The agrarian society they formed was meant to support that primary relationship. Seventeenth-century Virginians tended to be either younger sons of landowners -the “cavaliers”- or young, illiterate, unskilled farm hands that came as indentured servants. They came from the Anglican South and West of England, areas known for their beauty, large agricultural estates and paucity of towns. The first real flood of Virginia immigration occurred in the mid 1600s when the cavaliers left in search of freedom from the rule of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan protectorate. (Africans were not brought in great numbers until the last third of the seventeenth century.)

So Virginia’s character and social organization, although admittedly hierarchical, was decidedly libertarian, not communitarian as was New England’s. It valued personal freedom from government, not freedom to enter into government. It also valued eccentricity more than conformity. And the very source of goodness itself, to paraphrase Leo Marx, was the garden. For most of its history, Virginia was a place where the garden nourished the social and political order and gave root to health and virtue. Thomas Jefferson was quite explicit in linking virtue with the land and those who worked the land. “Those who labor in the earth,” Jefferson opined, “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people.”

Now, I have gone on at some length to demonstrate the deep roots of Virginia’s attitudes about the land. What’s interesting is the paradox that today approximately 6 of 7 million Virginians live in metropolitan areas. Before long, the corridor between Fairfax County and Virginia Beach will be a solid metropolitan band. Yet many Virginians don’t want to live in the cities, or even the suburbs. Doubtless largely because they see themselves as gardeners, they are pushing growth outward into the exurbs. The nub of the paradox is that growth fueled by desire for the garden destroys the very thing it seeks. Yet I find it very problematic, and absolutely contrary to Virginia’s defining cultural and political traditions, to tell people they can’t go where they please. Our job in Virginia is to recognize and draw on our traditions so they work for us. Deeply rooted values explain why property rights remain, and rightly so, a vitally important concern of Virginians. No approach to smart growth can ignore this, and we have to use our values to our advantage instead of challenging them and fighting with them. This is why I prefer incentives rather than mandates.

Just two years ago the Virginia General Assembly voted down a state comprehensive planning statute because it was perceived as instituting a form of centralized command and control that would tie the hands of state agencies and localities and threaten property rights. The problem was in the language of the proposal as much or more than in the substance. The very word “plan” doesn’t sit well with many of the very people we need to reach. It smacks of planning in the Soviet style. We don’t emphasize “preservation;” we talk about “stewardship” because that is a dynamic concept more appropriate for a garden. It takes account of the obligations of the gardener, yes, but also of the gardener’s right to meet his own needs. So we urge “wise use” and “best practices.”

Our approach to smart growth in Virginia can be seen in Governor Allen’s “Virginia History Initiative” and in our testimony last spring before the House Committee on National Parks.

The approach can be summed up in two words: leadership and incentives.

By leadership I mean using the bully pulpit or better stated, the moral authority of the Governor, to focus public attention and private energy on the problem;

- educating the public, the business community and federal, state and local officials about growth alternatives

- coordinating with other agencies to rationalize contradictory policies and eliminate unintended perverse consequences;

- and dealing with the real core social policies that tear at the fabric of our cities and towns.

By incentives I mean fully implementing our new state tax credit, which is being phased in between this tax year and 2000 - 10% this year, 15% the next, 20% the next, and 25% in year 2000;

- and, packaging the credit with other redevelopment incentives such as local tax abatements and enterprise zones, brown fields redevelopment, Step 21 transportation reform, tax benefits for use of technologies that improve the urban environment like permeable cement;

- and aggressively articulating and communicating the benefits of appropriate stewardship for communities, so that private property owners come to understand the public value of their decisions and feel a need to do the right thing. This means researching, explaining, and marketing the economic, cultural and social benefits of stewardship more compellingly than ever before. Under incentives, I would also include jawboning developers and businesses so that they understand good stewardship is a positive for their public image and their bottom line; offering awards and recognition to those who act this way; and creating bandwagons so that good stewardship becomes fashionable.

Now, it is true that this approach will not lead to uniform results. But as I said, our experience has been that a prescriptive planning approach will not be accepted in Virginia. Through the History Initiative we are already beginning to see a re-invigorated stewardship ethic take hold. Our approach is suited to our conditions and may well be suited to states with similar cultural traditions.

This is the approach Governor Allen is taking with the Southern Governor’s Association’s community revitalization initiative. He has already held the first of up to half a dozen one-day mini-conferences. The first was in New Orleans, and others are scheduled for Hampton Roads, Oklahoma City and Memphis. The conferences will spotlight race relations, housing, education, crime, welfare reform and economic development.

Smart Growth is part of the policy solution to all these issues. Governor Allen is a great communicator and educator. He will be using the bully pulpit to highlight concrete solutions that are working in each city, thus creating a kind of best practices models for the South.

A report on urban revitalization projects will be released during the annual meeting of the Southern Governors in September so that all of us might better evaluate the opportunities for progress.

Let me conclude by saying that the garden is ours, in trust, and as a blessing. Although it may appear imperiled, I am an optimistic person and I know our environment is resilient and dynamic. I also know that people are our most important resource. With sound, articulate leadership and thoughtful, effective incentives, we can re-kindle a stewardship ethic; an ethic that will sustain us into the next century -the gardeners and the gardens alike.