The Georgia Trust

SPEECHES

GEORGIA PRESERVATION CONFERENCE KEYNOTE SPEECH
Macon, Ga.
28 February 2002

Richard Moe, President
National Trust for Historic Preservation

Perhaps you’ve noticed something remarkable about the theme of this conference: Instead of trumpeting the word “preservation,” it calls for a discussion of growth strategies and solutions for Georgia communities. I believe that says something important about the growing maturity of the preservation movement. Preservation is no longer an end in itself. It’s no longer a “frill” with little relevance to day-to-day life. Instead, it’s increasingly integrated – as the theme of this conference indicates – into broader discussions about what it takes to make a community attractive and supportive.

Preservation today is rooted in an appreciation of the value of history – just as it always has been – but it's not concerned primarily with the past. Preservation today is in the business of saving special places and the quality of life they support. This means that preservationists have a key role to play in any effort to create and maintain communities that are truly livable for all segments of the population.

Communities need what preservationists have to offer, particularly now that communities all over America – including the cities and towns of Georgia – are facing probably the most serious threat they’ve known in a generation: the destruction of livability caused by sprawl.

New technologies in transportation and communication have enabled America to do something unique in the history of western civilization: We’ve turned our cities inside out, scattering industry, commerce and population all over the landscape, often leaving ruin and wasted investment at the core.

We’ve called this “progress.” If that’s true, then Ogden Nash was right when he said, “Progress may have been a good thing at one time, but it went on a little too long.” The fact is, development that destroys communities isn’t progress at all; it’s chaos.

Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.” The same holds true for communities: The way we shape them has a huge impact on the way we feel, the way we interact with one another, the way we live. By harming our communities, sprawl touches us all – and one way or another, we all pay for it.

We pay in open space and farmland lost.

In 1990, the Atlanta metropolitan area extended about 65 miles from north to south; during the decade of the 1990s, that area almost doubled, stretching to more than 110 miles. In the Atlanta area, it has been estimated that 50 acres of forest were consumed by development every day during the 1990s. This catastrophic loss of open space and farmland isn’t unique to Georgia, of course; it’s occurring all over the country: One Department of Agriculture official has estimated that about 2,000,000 acres of farmland are developed every year. Nationwide, more than 17,000 square miles of land that was rural in 1990 reached suburban or urban density by 2000.

We pay in time lost.

According to a Department of Transportation study, American adults average 72 minutes every day behind the wheel – which is more time than the average parent spends with the kids. The Atlanta area has one of the lowest population densities of any large city in the United States – and one result of this sprawl, according to the Georgia Conservancy, is that Atlantans drive an average of 34 miles a day, the highest per capita rate in the U.S. In some cities, commuters spend well over 50 hours a year stuck in traffic – and it’s only going to get worse: In Los Angeles, according to one study, the average speed on the freeways will drop to 11 miles per hour by 2010.

We pay in higher taxes.

Over the decades, we’ve handed over our tax dollars to pay for things like water and sewer lines, schools and streetlights in our communities. Now we’re paying higher taxes to duplicate them in sprawling new developments, while the infrastructure we’ve already paid for is abandoned or underused in older neighborhoods.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, we pay in the steady erosion of our quality of life.

Older neighborhoods are enclaves of poverty. Tranquil communities are destroyed by road-widening. Historic landmarks get demolished and carted off to the landfill. The subdivisions and commercial strips on the edges of Macon and Columbus are practically indistinguishable from those surrounding Seattle and Cleveland. Everyplace looks more and more like Anyplace – and they all wind up looking like Noplace.

Sprawl and its byproducts represent the number-one threat to community livability in America today – and community livability is the key to community survival. Here’s why:

New technologies make it possible for people to work practically anyplace – and if they can work anyplace, they’re bound to pick the best place, the place that offers them the most in terms of livability. This means that in an era of global competitiveness, livability is a key factor in determining which communities thrive and which ones wither. As Robert Solow, Nobel Prize-winning economist at MIT, says, “Livability is not some middle-class luxury. It’s an economic imperative.”

Sadly, government policies and practices at every level – federal, state and local – actually work against livability by encouraging or even subsidizing sprawl. Tax codes are riddled with bias toward new development. Zoning laws prohibit mixed uses and mandate inordinate amounts of parking and unreasonable setback requirements, making it impossible – or even illegal – to create the sort of compact, walkable environment that attracts us to historic places all over the world.

Even education departments are part of the problem. A big issue nationwide is “school sprawl”: the construction of new schools in the middle of nowhere, in locations that children can’t walk to and that are too remote to have any meaningful connections to the community where the students live. One of the reasons school districts build schools in locations like this is that state education departments impose acreage, parking and other regulations that make it hard for communities to preserve the older schools that anchor so many neighborhoods.

Transportation policy is the worst offender of all. Most road-design standards destroy the pedestrian-friendly layout of small-town Main Streets and big-city neighborhoods. Even worse, transportation officials keep trying to ease traffic problems by building more roads. That’s like trying to cure a hangover by drinking more whiskey.

We need to stop emphasizing movement over place – or we run the risk of having no place left. Having a multi-lane highway to help us get there doesn’t mean much if “there” isn’t worth getting to.

Many people think that saving open space is the way to stop sprawl. Making sure that farmland, wetlands and forests aren’t paved over is very important – but we could buy all the open land in the country and still not solve the problem of sprawl. The essential thing is to offer people a viable alternative to sprawl. That means reclaiming the streets and neighborhoods where people live – the towns, inner cities and older suburbs that we’ve neglected so badly for the past half-century.

You can’t have smart growth without reinvestment in existing communities.

Let me re-phrase that: Reinvestment in existing communities is smart growth. Here’s why:

Municipalities need financial resources if they are to grow smart. Vacant or underused historic buildings brought back to life are tax-generating assets for a community. Making the most of these assets is smart growth.

If we expect people to use their cars less, the physical environment in which they live, work, shop and play must have a pedestrian orientation. One of the predominant characteristics of historic areas is their pedestrian orientation. Preserving them is smart growth.

Smart growth advocates density and diversity of use. Most older neighborhoods were designed and built with these factors in mind. Saving them is smart growth.

Rehabilitation and reuse of older buildings allows for growth without consumption of land. The conversion of a warehouse into 40 dwelling units reduces the demand for new housing on 10 acres of farmland. The revitalization of Main Street reduces the demand for another strip mall. That’s smart growth at its very best.

We’ve finally begun to realize what sprawl is doing to us. But just talking about it isn’t enough. What are we going to do about it?

The question is not whether our communities will grow, but how they will grow. In seeking to answer this question, a number of states have recognized the need to provide leadership and assistance on land-use planning and revitalization issues. Let me summarize some of these initiatives, starting with two of the most effective, in Oregon and Maryland:

One of the country’s strongest, most effective statewide land-use planning laws has been in place since 1973 in Oregon. The law requires every community to calculate the amount of land it needs to accommodate growth during the next 20 years. Then it draws a line – an urban growth boundary – around that land and concentrates development inside it.

Maryland has adopted a program under which state funding programs that encourage growth – including highways, school construction, sewer and water lines, and location of state offices – are targeted to areas where infrastructure is already in place and where growth has been planned for and can be managed. Local governments can still decide where they want development to occur – but if they opt for development that will encourage sprawl, they can’t assume that state taxpayers will help pay for it.

Other states are dealing with the issue in a variety of ways:

To deal with the issue of “school sprawl”, state planning and education officials in Maine have jointly issued a brochure called “The ABCs of School Site Selection” that calls on school districts to consider renovation or expansion of existing schools instead of assuming that “new” is always “best.” The brochure also urges school districts to select sites where students can walk or bike to school and to follow the goals and vision that the community has set forth in its local comprehensive plan.

To help remove regulatory barriers to reinvestment, New Jersey has enacted a statewide Rehabilitation Subcode, a set of rules for rehabbing old buildings that ensures safety without sacrificing historic character. Within months of its enactment, the new code had generated a 60% increase in rehab activity across the state and was credited with helping fuel a renaissance in the core of the state’s cities and towns.

And here in Georgia, Gov. Roy Barnes, with strong support from the business community, created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority in an effort to manage the traffic and sprawl that topped everyone’s list of threats to livability in the Atlanta area. As a regional super-agency, GRTA thus far has confined itself mostly to transportation issues, but it is increasingly flexing its muscle in the arena of land-use planning as well.

What these statewide initiatives demonstrate is that piecemeal efforts aren’t enough. When you’re dealing with sprawl, city limits and county lines are just irrelevant marks on a map. Limited jurisdiction hampers the ability of local government to deal with an issue of this magnitude, and efforts to control sprawl in a limited area often just shift the problem to somewhere else. It’s like trying to stop a flood with a picket fence.

What’s essential is leadership – by the governor, the legislature and the private sector – to develop a vision for accommodating growth in a smarter way, and to create mechanisms to implement that vision. What’s needed is smart-growth legislation with teeth in it, legislation that requires local governments to work together in deciding where new development should and should not go, and then targets infrastructure funds to those areas designated for growth. This legislation should favor spending in existing communities first, and ask localities to develop strategies for using already-developed land more efficiently.

More and more states are doing it. All of them need to. Successful people and corporations have goals – and a plan for reaching them. Too many states don’t.

We should encourage planning that reduces distances between work and home, that encourages mixed uses in places where they are viable and desirable. Our goal should be an integrated system of planning decisions and regulations that knit communities together instead of tearing them apart.

I’m convinced that the fight against sprawl is to us what the fight against urban renewal was to an earlier generation of preservationists. I’m convinced that the answer to sprawl is sound land-use planning and reinvestment in older communities.

How can we make it happen?

The pieces are already in place.

People everywhere are increasingly aware of the seriousness of the problem. We all experience it every time we’re forced into our cars to run even the simplest errands, every time we pass a boarded-up building that could be put to good use, every time we see open space being bulldozed for another office park or shopping center just like the one next door.

We have a great crop of enlightened public officials and corporate leaders who support preservation and smart growth. Mayors across the country – from Tommy Menino in Boston to Wellington Webb in Denver – are increasingly articulate about the role that preservation and smart growth can play in the revitalization of their cities. And more and more corporate CEOs are sounding like card-carrying preservationists these days. Hugh McColl, the former chairman and CEO of Bank of America, puts it this way: “Smart Growth is pro-growth. The goal is not to limit growth but to channel it to areas where [it can be] sustained over the long term. We depend on development to survive, but we also depend on the sustainable health of the cities in which we do business.”

Finally, we have plenty of allies – including a big community of preservationists we haven’t enlisted yet. My definition of a preservationist is someone who is concerned about the rootlessness and erosion of community that threaten the very foundations of our society, someone who wants to maintain a connection with the past, who feels the need for a tangible link with something real and meaningful. There are lots of preservationists out there, including many who would never think to pin the label “preservationist” on themselves. They’re our allies in the fight to enhance quality of life.

It’s just a matter of making choices.

We can choose where to make investments. If we keep pouring funding into more highways and more suburban infrastructure, sprawl will continue to spread like an epidemic. But if we make a firm commitment to reinvestment in existing communities, it can make an enormous difference.

We can choose to let highway engineers and sprawl-builders do our planning for us, or we can take a more active role ourselves. We can keep on accepting the kind of communities we get, or we can take steps to get the kind of communities we need.

I use that word “need” deliberately. I’m convinced that preserving our heritage is essential in meeting some fundamental needs of our nation – and of ourselves as human beings.

Today’s Americans come from all corners of the globe, bringing traditions and means of artistic expression that enliven and enrich our communities in countless ways. But as America becomes more culturally diverse, we face new challenges in simply knowing who we are as Americans – or even defining exactly what an “American” is. In a situation such as this, an understanding of our common history is part of the glue that binds us together as a nation, that keeps society from cracking apart into dozens of separate pieces.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger has said that America suffers today from “too much pluribus and not enough unum.” To combat this tendency, we must identify, safeguard and interpret those elements of our heritage that help give us a sense of community. It is imperative – especially now, in the wake of September 11 – that we meet this challenge effectively.

When we save older buildings and neighborhoods, we strengthen a partnership that makes for orderly growth and change in our communities: the perpetual partnership among the past, the present and the future. This partnership encourages each generation to meet its own needs by taking advantage of the very best of contemporary thought and technology. But it also recognizes that we can't afford to reject the history, the traditions and values on which our lives and our futures are built.

When this partnership falls apart, connections between generations of Americans are broken and blank spaces open up in our understanding of the long process that made us who we are. But when it’s allowed to work as it’s supposed to, this partnership strengthens the sense of continuity that one historian says is “part of the very backbone of human dignity.”

This partnership offers our best hope for managing sprawl, fostering smart growth and creating truly livable communities. Keeping this partnership alive and healthy is the best gift we can give to the generations that will follow us.

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