Open Space is a Finite Resource

Open space is not a renewable resource. It is finite.

Open space in Vermont -- view from Mad River Glen in September 2010.

It seems like an obvious statement. Once open space is developed, it likely never will be returned to a natural state. Preservation, as a whole, understands this concept. Master plans often center growth in specific areas. Our National Parks, wildlife refuges, scenic areas, and similar conservation areas work to protect our invaluable, limited open space. Segments of land may be slated for development, but for future generations. After all, it is likely that our population continues to grow and land continues to be developed.

Will we ever run out of space? Hopefully not in our lifetime, right? But what about a few generations after us?

I heard this statement about open space at a workshop this week, the first of seven classes of Road Ecology training, The course is taught by Keeping Track, an organization that provides technical training to a variety of professionals and citizens in order to promote better knowledge of how to monitor, detect and record wildlife. The Vermont Agency of Transportation, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, and the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife  work together to coordinate this training and encourage their employees to take the class; it has been a great success.

The purpose of ecology training in relation to transportation brings us back to the fact that everything is connected. Transportation projects can impact the environment and the landscape in many ways, positive or negative, seen or unseen. When people beyond the biologists understand how intertwined the ecosystems are, it allows transportation staff to see projects differently and to develop creative, innovative solutions that allow our roads and transportation systems to be safe for humans and wildlife. In addition, those not in transportation can gain a better understanding of the safety and construction standards that must be met. Collaboration on site, like a planning charrette, brings out the most innovative solutions.

Day one was an introduction to reptiles, animals and wildlife tracking. While it is not historic preservation, it is a unique opportunity to learn more about how decisions are made beyond cultural resources. Designing a bridge or a roadway that is safe for wildlife has the potential to affect cultural resources, and vice versa.

Wildlife, open space, cultural resources, transportation — the connections are clear as a bell. Stay tuned throughout the next few months for course highlights and important lessons.

Chains that Change?

Chain stores. Big box retailers. Corporate America. Capitalistic society.  Independently owned. Mom & Pop. Local business. Local economy. Small scale.

All businesses started small at some point. Right? And some just kept growing. Or some went too far. Yes? No?  We could debate the American economy and society all day long, as well as the pros/cons, and roots of all large businesses. (Feel free to start the debate in the comment section if you’re up for tangents. I’ve written about big boxes here and here, among other times.) Instead, let’s think in reverse.

Have you noticed any big box chains giving back to “their” communities? You can usually find a business donating money/supplies/food to a fundraising or community event. That’s normal. It’s good PR, tax write-offs and just a good thing to do. (People are genuinely good, I like to believe. And, for the record, when I mention that big boxes are evil I am referring to the system of big box retailers and the negative effects it has on the core of communities where something existed prior.) Back to the point. Big box corporations help out communities in some ways, it seems.

However, more often than not  you can find that big box retailers often try to replicate the local, independent business –  in subtle aesthetic references and connotations such as calling the food section a “market.” These companies have long ago recognized the value of small scale operations in feeling, only they wanted to create a monopoly of sorts. 

Yet, why should one business offer every service or every product? Granted, this type of consolidation goes way back. Sears & Roebuck is probably familiar to most of us, but it has happened in all generations on varying levels.

Drug stores are an example of a ubiquitous big box store; if you don’t have a CVS or Rite Aid, you probably have Walgreens or Kinney Drugs — or all four of them. Modern drug stores have wiped out local pharmacies in most towns and cities. You can even buy food in the drug store, toys, etc.  With flu season approaching, you may have heard drug stores advertising offers for flu shots, saving you a trip a doctor. Vinny brought this to my attention the other day after hearing it on the news – drug stores are attempting to be seen as “health centers.”  (Oddly enough, these “health centers” are the same drug stores selling junk food.) This is taking business away from an unexpected source – actual doctors and physicians.

Retailers snagging business from non-retail businesses? That is a new level of “Corporate America” complications. Obviously, drug stores are not going to put doctors out of business; but I would imagine that small things like flu shots add to their revenue. I don’t know the economy of the health care world enough to actually comment; but, I will say that when one business sector attempts to control too much of the market share, no good can come of it.

So, I wonder, if chains are doing more to help the community, is it just for business purposes or are they actually trying to be a part of the community. Do you know what I mean? It is sincere or is it business strategy only?

Should chains be changing? Say a drug store chain decided that it wanted to be more like a pharmacy or a health center and less like a mini superstore, would you choose that chain over another?  What if a chain decided to stop building ridiculously large, brand new stores and chose to integrate downtown. Would business practices pertaining to sales or business practices pertaining siting and location matter more to you? They are here to stay, as history indicates, so what can we do to make the economy of chains and local businesses symbiotic?

I have never liked chain drug stores, mostly because every store seems to be one of the large rectangles with giant facades along the highway. I suppose I will not like them unless the entire business policies change: location, products and services. How likely is that?

This Just In: Wilderness Battlefield Saved!

WalMart has abandoned its plans for a special use permit to build a new supercenter on the grounds of the Wilderness Battlefield. Read all of the details here from civilwar.org. Additional information about the former proposal is here.

From the National Trust for Historic Preservation (via Preservation Nation blog), a statement from President Stephanie Meeks:

The National Trust for Historic Preservation commends Walmart for taking this important step. By withdrawing the current proposal, the company has created an opportunity for all parties to work together to find an appropriate solution — one that will allow Walmart to pursue development elsewhere in Orange County, while ensuring that this important part of America’s Civil War heritage is protected. We and other members of the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition are greatly encouraged that Walmart is willing to find another location for development — one removed from the battlefield — that we can all support. We also look forward to working with Walmart and others to ensure that the current site will never again become the subject of a development battle.

This is outstanding news for the preservation community as well as everyone else. Keep in mind, WalMart still plans to purchase the land, just not develop it. And another store will be built elsewhere, but the most important part is that the fight to preserve Wilderness Battlefield has been won (for now). As preservationists, we can temporarily breathe a sigh of relief, but of course, we’ll still be alert.

Hooray for Wilderness Battlefield!

Buzzword: Sustainability

We all love to talk about sustainability, green building, environmentalism, recycling, hybrid cars, walkability, local businesses, and so much more. All of these are buzzwords in the media and when you can talk about them, you’re considered hip (in some circles) or at least on top of the latest news in the green generation. And while it’s easy to casually bring up one of the aforementioned topics in a conversation and to focus your passionate discussion on one or another, sustainability is about more than that, more than just one of those. It’s a complicated issue, but one that makes so much sense when considering our future, ours and generations after us.

Maybe everyone else already consciously grasped this, but I feel as though my understanding of the web of sustainability is improving by taking a Community Design through Sustainability class this semester. It’s a class offered through the Community Development and Applied Economics department, but it’s an elective for many so there are about half environmental studies (and related fields) students, a handful of us preservationists, and a few other departments scattered in there.  During the first or second class, I had a moment when I thought to myself, “Wow, I live in Vermont.” Those who have lived here longer than a few weeks talked about living machines, cow power, towns without cars, wind farms, and so many environmentally friendly aspects of development. I, on the other hand, like the trained preservationist that I am, spoke of walkability and diversity in stores and living spaces. Some things, such as living machines, I had never heard of.

In addition to readings on sustainability, ecological design, and other topics, we draw maps, design towns based on topography and what we think is vital, all in preparation for our big semester projects: working with actual sites in order to design their future uses in a “sustainable” way.  Sustainable, huh – what does that really mean? Well, that’s what I’m getting at… generally I think of it as environmentally related, and for environmentally related I think of nature and green roofs and such things. But, now I’m realizing that sustainable is the big picture. It involves historic preservation, green building, communities where people want to live and can support themselves, machines and homes that use less energy and respect the environment. With one aspect missing, sustainability is not complete. Constructing LEED certified gold standard buildings when you have perfectly sound historic structures sitting next to it is not sustainable; it’s a waste of energy and resources. Storm water must have a place to drain that will not hurt other water sources. Vegetation should be native, not imported, in order to survive and to represent the unique environment.

Like historic preservation, sustainability can be a lifestyle that stretches far beyond one community. It would be impossible for one town to be completely self sufficient these days, but perhaps thinking locally, regionally will be much more beneficial than thinking internationally for certain products.

Many of these points are things I’ve known, some are things I’ve learned, but it still seems like a new way of connecting everything. Perhaps it is paying more attention to the ecological factors in connection with the built environment.  There are so many overlaps between my preservation classes and my sustainability class. In both we talk or read about Jane Jacobs and about the early era of urban planning and town design and the theories behind them. When designing my own town with only the topography given to me, I could think about Jane Jacobs’ theories or the Garden City movement (which, I should add, are very different philosophies). At first I hit a wall for designing a town. Design a town – as in put buildings there? I normally think of towns with existing structures. It was difficult and completely different to the majority of my education so far. But, it’s a great way to step out of the preservation box, while successfully melding it with another field (it’s also further assurance of how connected preservation is to other fields).

What do you think?

Coincidentally, while all of this was on my mind, a friend (thanks, Ellen!) sent me this link to a book review for Green Metropolis by David Owen.  From what I gather, the gist of it is how living in New York City is actually a “green” existence. Owens writes about how sprawl is driven by people looking for a “green” place to live. His book is based on an article he wrote for The New Yorker in 2004. Here’s how it begins:

My wife and I got married right out of college, in 1978. We were young and naïve and unashamedly idealistic, and we decided to make our first home in a utopian environmentalist community in New York State. For seven years, we lived, quite contentedly, in circumstances that would strike most Americans as austere in the extreme: our living space measured just seven hundred square feet, and we didn’t have a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, a lawn, or a car. We did our grocery shopping on foot, and when we needed to travel longer distances we used public transportation. Because space at home was scarce, we seldom acquired new possessions of significant size. Our electric bills worked out to about a dollar a day. [David Owen, The New Yorker, 10.18.2004]

You expect him to say some little known “utopian” community, right?  Me too. And then he writes, “The utopian community was Manhattan.” I’m hooked. It looks like a great read and very relative to this sustainability buzzword.

Southern Pines Long-Range Plan

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Click for larger image

At the local bookshop shoppers receive the above mini-poll, asking Southern Pines residents and others to voice their opinions regarding how the town should develop over the next 20 years.  As you can see, the poll asks about property rights, vacant lots, the heart of the town, walkability, development directions, town economy and job opportunities, among others. Participants are asked to respond yes or no to each question and then explain or elaborate if necessary.

To me, the poll seemed pointed very much in one direction. After all it does use terms like the “heart of Southern Pines”, “walkable” and “increase the need for car travel”.  However, it seems to be a preservation friendly direction, so I will not complain. After all, Southern Pines is a unique place. Horse people are drawn to this area because of the vast amount of open space and the fact that all of the farms connect, providing safe riding trails. Families enjoy the area because downtown is so friendly with a park, restaurants, schools, churches, and shops all within walking distance.  And of course, downtown is beautifully landscaped with azaleas, brick sidewalks, and other “charming” features.  You will be hard pressed to find a town as pleasant as Southern Pines in this area.  With the mild weather and relatively small population, it is an easy, comforting place to live.

Yet, outside of downtown there are big-box retail stores (including Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Petsmart, TJMaxx, Belk, etc.) and fast food chains, and booming development as people migrate from the colder northern climate and even from the Raleigh-Durham area.  Land is increasing in value and developers are moving in, adding more retail stores. Southern Pines and Pinehurst are very much based on tourism as well, mostly known for the resorts and world class golf courses. And it still an affordable place to live, whether you are a renter or a home owner (not counting the horse country estates and the historic Village of Pinehurst).

Thus, development will be more of an issue in the next 20 years as the area expands. It is nice to see that the town is interested in listening to its residents, hoping to maintain what people love about the area.  I only hope that there enough people who can identify what is special about this area (walkability, horse country).  One issue is that most people who live are married with families or retired; there are very few unmarried 20 somethings here.  It is a catch-22 situation: there are not enough jobs for the young folks, but there isn’t anyone to take the jobs.  Where to begin? I would guess that the last questions sort of relate to that.

I don’t know what the results of this survey will be or even how long the town is accepting replies, but the effort is promising and it shows that people do care about the future of Southern Pines. I hope other towns follow suit. Does anyone else live somewhere with similar issues? Please share.

Old? Green? Wasteful?

By now most preservationists and many more have probably read This Old Wasteful House, the April 5, 2009 Op-Ed piece in The New York Times written by Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Perhaps I am out of the loop lately, but I’ve heard little discussion about the piece. What does everyone think about it, preservationists and non-preservationists?

Let’s take a look at the first and last paragraphs:

NEVER before has America had so many compelling reasons to preserve the homes in its older residential neighborhoods. We need to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. We want to create jobs, and revitalize the neighborhoods where millions of Americans live. All of this could be accomplished by making older homes more energy-efficient.

Before demolishing an old building to make way for a new one, consider the amount of energy required to manufacture, transport and assemble the pieces of that building. With the destruction of the building, all that energy is utterly wasted. Then think about the additional energy required for the demolition itself, not to mention for new construction. Preserving a building is the ultimate act of recycling.

Good stuff, right? It’s the perfect combination of historic preservation and sustainability.  It seems very positive and encouraging for historic homes, as Moe explains that all houses can be just as energy efficient and green as new houses.  He writes that by improving these older homes, wages stay local, homeowners receive tax incentives, and overall the carbon emissions reduction is equivalent to 200 million barrels of oil (saved). 

One would imagine that because the messages of the first and last paragraphs place preservation in such a good light, that the body paragraphs would be just as encouraging. However, upon further reading, Richard Moe states outright that “older homes are particularly wasteful.”  What? Isn’t “wasteful” a word that the opponents of preservation throw at us all of the time? People are often convinced, whether justified or not, that older homes will always cost more money in terms of heating and cooling and upgrades and repairs.  But, does Moe mean “older” as in a few decades and not “historic” as in over 50 years old? A home built 20 years ago is entirely different than one built 90 years ago.  

To Moe’s credit, he does explain that older homes can easily catch up to being as green as the new homes and how it is actually cheaper to “go green”.  Still, while he is promoting the ease of it all, it seems to be too much of a slight towards older homes. Many people would rather have a new home with nothing to think about in terms of energy efficiency. 

On a similar line of thought, read EL Malvaney’s blog post, Green = Energy Efficient?, at Preservation in Mississippi, in response to Moe’s op-ed piece. Interpreting the piece in an insightful manner, he questions the depth and definition of “energy efficiency” while considering that being energy efficient is still consuming energy. Will anyone open a window rather than turn on the air-conditioning?  EL Malvaney also ponders the correlation between historic preservation and this new energy-efficiency/green fad: does being green mean that preservation standards are relaxed? Are preservationists wincing less at the multitudes of new developments if they are “green” building?  It’s a good piece to read and a good angle to consider, one that I had not looked at previously.

Overall, it’s a complicated matter – the balance between preservation and green building. Both going green and being a preservationist require a strong commitment and people who truly care about their natural and built environment.  It is a long process to prove to people that both are affordable, cost-effective measures.  While Moe had the best of intentions, this is probably not the piece that will change the minds of those against historic and/or older homes. It is fitting for those who understand, but I fear someone pulling “older homes are particularly wasteful” out of context.  All homes are wasteful if you neglect maintenance and choose to live with windows closed all year and lights on all day long. Perhaps, we preservationists should remember to highlight the benefits of historic homes (character, details, craftsmanship, established neighborhoods, etc.) while we are promoting the “green” factor.  Together they make a much stronger case for each other, preservation and environmentalism, than they would alone.

My (Misguided) Preservation Induced Psychosis

Historic houses and modern houses are easy to distinguish from each other, right? For the sake of this argument, historic means the typical 50+ years-old home. I tend to scoff at modern homes, particularly brand new construction because generally it seems like it is only enormous, ostentatious, energy sucking McMansions being built or condos in terrible locations.  And I’m spoiled where I live now, because my running routes and the places I tend to walk are all historic and beautiful. Lucky for me, I don’t have to worry about coming across new development with its huge front lawns, double car garages, vinyl siding, out of proportioned architectural features, etc. While this is a generalization, it tends to be quite common in housing developments.

Knowing this, imagine my shock when, on a few occasions, I have found myself running past a house, thinking oh I like that… but the gable looks too big and those windows are odd and that brick looks too perfect… and oh my goodness, that is NEW construction!! I feel like I’m cheating on the historic houses. How could I actually like a house that is only a few years old? As a preservationist, I never intend to own a house of non-historic construction and I like to believe that people who live in historic houses enjoy them more than new houses. Call me naive, but let me live in this personal bubble for just a bit longer.*  This psychosis of not being able to look at modern houses or feeling guilty when doing so is probably mentally connected to other crazy things of mine like an addiction to running, and the need to drink a lot of coffee.

But, let’s get back to the houses. Because of this preservation induced psychosis (however misguided), I have been considering “historic” 1950s suburban development, and even all houses when they were new.  At some point in time, these houses all looked similar, like cookie cutter houses. As obvious as this is, one of the reasons that these houses and yards are now distinguishable from their neighbors is because decades of owners have added their own personal touches: renovations, paint colors, landscaping, porches, windows, shutters, whatever the case may be. The houses have weathered and been lived in; trees have grown and shade the yards, and the neighborhood has come to belong to itself. It no longer looks like it was just stuck on top of the earth.  And those neighborhoods are now acceptable, in my mind.

Thus, I have reminded myself that my generalization of new development is entirely too narrow. It is not all evil, obviously. It can’t be; people need places to live and not all construction is made to last forever. Hence, new housing is necessary. And when new housing is sensitive to its surrounding structures and landscape, then it can blend in just as well and fool even those of us who scowl at it. Does this mean new development is acceptable because one day it will no longer be “new”? No. All development should be sensitive to the exiting surroundings and the scale should be within reason.  But, when development is done correctly, it is okay to like it.  I want to like it. You can’t build something old, so it should at least be respectful of the context and design. Hopefully architects, developers, and preservationists are reaching a common ground where they communicate needs, wants, and can create functional, appealing houses. I think we’re on the right track.

Maybe next time I pass a new house that I accidentally like, I’ll look at it a second time and silently thank the architect and construction company rather than be horrified with myself. Anyone want to go for a house gazing run? Or perhaps someone would like to confess their own preservation induced psychosis…

*Disclaimer: I do not believe that all preservationists should feel how I feel. This is part of the personal standard that I set for myself, which may vary from the general preservation tenets. This can be turned off and replaced with rational, trained thought about preservation, rather than the amateurish views.

Change is Inevitable. Ugliness is Not.

Scenic America is the only national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated solely to preserving and enhancing the visual character of America’s communities and countryside (quoted from the “About Us” on Scenic America).

Have you noticed that some highways and interstates are more littered with billboards than others? Or that the older highways meandering through the country are being rerouted or dotted with new billboards and developments that seem to disrespect the scenic view? What about the new cell phone towers or windmills – what are they doing to our natural environment and views, or what is left of them?

scenicamerica

Issues (click above) such as these are what Scenic America cares about and works to solve and educate the public through advocacy, publications, workshops, and an online resource center. Read Scenic America’s mission statement and its principles and you will understand that they fit in with the rest of us preservationists and environmentalists and planners. Succinctly, (adapted from the Principles page) Scenic America hopes to protect the distinctive character of existing communities, foster respectful new development, encourage regulatory approaches for scenic protection, improve transportation systems aesthetically and environmentally, prevent mass marketing such as billboards, educate the younger population, and engage other entities to promote a more scenic America.

I had never heard of Scenic America until I was perusing the links on PreserveNet, and I’m surprised to learn that pieces of this organization have been around for over a decade (under a different name in the beginning). And it addresses some of the exact issues that many of us discuss time and time again. Scenic America identifies the tangible and intangible aspects of why some people prefer the old meandering highways than interstates and why some places are more eye appealing than others.

And as for “Change is inevitable. Ugliness is not.” – it is the catch-phrase of the organization. The brutal honesty is just what we need. Scenic America is not tiptoeing around its goals. Keep your eyes open for Scenic America in the news. I look forward to hearing of their success. Read long range plans here.

What Will Save the Suburbs?

It is not the practice on Preservation in Pink to post random news articles, but I think that “What Will Save the Suburbs?” by Allison Arieff from January 11, 2009 in the New York Times is worth posting and reading. Arieff discusses the fact that while urban development can often find new uses, suburban development simply sits abandoned without any hope for a new use. Thus, we are left with abandoned big-box stores, tracts of land cleared but undeveloped, and massive amounts of building material that no one knows how to use.

A quote from the article:

In urban areas, there’s rich precedent for the transformation or reuse of abandoned lots or buildings. Vacant lots have been converted into pocket parks, community gardens and pop-up stores (or they remain vacant, anxiously awaiting recovery and subsequent conversion into high-end office space condos). Old homes get divided into apartments, old factories into lofts, old warehouses into retail.

Projects like Manhattan’s High Line show that even derelict train tracks can be turned into something as valuable to citizens as a vibrant public park. A brownfield site in San Francisco has been cleaned up and will house an eco-literacy center for the city’s youth. Hey, even a dump (Fresh Kills, on Staten Island) is undergoing a remarkable metamorphosis into a recreation area.

But similar transformation within the carefully delineated form of a subdivision is not so simple. These insta-neighborhoods were not designed or built for flexibility or change.

So what to do with the abandoned houses, the houses that were never completed or the land that was razed for building and now sits empty?

Arieff goes on in her article to discuss literature about big box reuse and then switches to how President Obama’s new policies could affect suburban infrastructure and development.

It’s a good, thought provoking read and there are hundreds of comments posted by readers as well.  Enjoy! Share your comments, if you are so inclined.

Big Box Retail & Historic Resources Debate

After last Friday’s post, Hey Wal-Mart! Ever Hear of “Historic Significance”?, Missy left a great comment that I think, should spark a healthy debate between many of us. Here is her comment:

Allow me to counter that petitioning Wal-Mart is not going to stop the real problem, nor is it really fair to blame Wal-Mart. They are doing nothing illegal. If people were concerned about this issue or preserving the battlefield they should have done something before that land was zoned to allow commercial development or any large scale development. Just because what is being built there is not what people wanted is not a valid argument. Even if Wal-Mart is stopped, won’t save the battlefield. Who’s to say Target or Whole Foods or Giant won’t try to locate there instead. Also, I wonder how much of a buffer is needed around historic sites in order for their integrity to remain?

For debate, my response to the comment:

It’s true that the umbrella issue of the story is that any big box retailer or developer is capable of doing the same thing that Wal-Mart is doing in Orange County, VA. It is not illegal to build on that site since it is zoned commercially. And yes, the county should have rezoned the land to protect historic resources, especially a national battlefield. (Similarly, many National Parks are faced with encroachment issues).

However, I imagine that it would impossible to keep up to speed with rezoning and development at the same time. Therefore, I consider this issue to be about more than Wal-Mart. It is about corporate America and developers who feel that they can build anywhere and will not consider other options, or only pretending to consider options, pacifying the “little people”. Fighting the law or big business takes money, which is what such national retailers have, whereas the general population and local governments often do not have.

But, if we are to consider Wal-Mart: as one of the largest corporate retailers, they should assume some responsibility as a representation of how businesses operate. While some businesses are choosing to not follow Wal-Mart’s practices, many are because of the fact that Wal-Mart has been so successful. So, if Wal-Mart will build anywhere, then other businesses will build anywhere because that is how to be successful. And maybe Wal-Mart doesn’t want to be a model for American business, but when you get to the top, it’s hardly avoidable. The same goes for leaders, bosses, owners, oldest siblings, captains, etc. By rising to the top, you have automatically earned the position of a successful model. Just because it is not against the law, does not mean that practices should be overlooked. Change is necessary as society progresses.

And no, petitioning will not help initially, but a solution has to start somewhere. Someone has to take that first step. And sometimes petitions and small news articles are the only ways to get attention. If enough people voice their opinion and are proactive about change, then the small beginnings will have made a difference. If the town or county can stand up to Wal-Mart, then perhaps other businesses will shy around from that area because of the fact that a group actually said no to Wal-Mart and won.

Perhaps, the general population needs a better example on how to bring about change to business and the local government. Clearly, we need to promote rezoning and be proactive, rather than reactive towards protection of historic sites and resources. Any suggestions?

In regards to how much of a buffer is needed to protect historic sites: that seems like an unanswered question. My gut feeling would be the viewshed, but of course that is debatable.

And those are just my thoughts. Anyone else?