New Preservation Approach Aims to Save Cultural Landscape
Congress designates `heritage areas' to achieve environmental, economic, and historic-preservation goals
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* Large-scale natural or man-made resources that unify the region.Skip to next paragraph
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* A variety of land uses.
* Predominantly private ownership of land and resources.
* Local, regional, state, or national significance.
* A common goal or ``big idea.''
One could almost say (although it would make many proponents of the concept wince) that heritage areas are theme parks - except that the theme in each area is not imposed by a Disneyesque developer, but rather grows out of the unique geography, history, and living culture of the region.
In contrast to national or state parks, heritage areas - where most property remains in private hands - are an approach to resource conservation and management that emphasizes partnerships among all levels of government, environmentalists, business people, and citizen groups.
Pepper says that, in the Blackstone River Valley, he has seen the regional cooperation that is fostered by the national-heritage concept start to bridge divides between environmentalists, historic preservationists, and community planners on one side and business people and property owners on the other side.
``If you push the time horizon out a distance, most people all want basically the same things - livable communities, good places for their kids to grow up, places with a mixture of jobs and green spaces and recreation facilities,'' Pepper says. ``Once you have identified common goals, then it becomes a question of, `How do we achieve it?' That's when meaningful planning really begins.''
According to Pepper, planning for community development and resource management is often misunderstood. ``Too many towns just have a permitting process, not a true planning process,'' he says. ``When communities and regions develop real, long-term plans, there are fewer fights over specific permitting issues. And people feel empowered when they have effective planning tools in their hands.''
Pepper was hired by the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission in 1989. A career employee of the National Park Service who previously worked in Alaska, he cheerfully calls himself a ``pro-government liberal'' and says he came to the job with a wilderness lover's distrust of business people.
But Pepper says he has learned a lot about planning from corporate executives. ``Business types often are more skilled than bureaucrats and yuppie environmentalists at establishing long-range goals and setting up implementation schedules,'' he admits.
As Pepper wheels a van along the highways and byways of the Blackstone River Valley, the words rush out as quickly as parts of the waterway that once was called the ``hardest working river in America.'' In nearly every town and village he passes through, indeed, around almost every bend of the road, Pepper points to a historic site, a distinctive piece of architecture or Americana, a scenic vista or significant landmark, a restoration project, new heritage-area signage, or - and there are still many of these - evidences of neglect, disrepair, and pollution.
``The Blackstone River Valley, like many regions that are candidates for recognition as heritage areas, had been largely forgotten,'' Pepper says. ``There are many places in America that have become anonymous, that we don't see, and that have lost a lot of their own self-consciousness as an identifiable place with a history and heritage that are worth preserving.''
The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor extends 46 miles from the outskirts of Worcester, Mass., south to Providence, R.I., where the Blackstone River empties into Narragansett Bay. The 250,000-acre zone encompasses some 40 cities, towns, and villages, together with forest and farmland.
While the corridor includes wilderness areas like the rugged Purgatory Chasm State Park, its distinctiveness as a heritage area stems from what Pepper calls the ``cultural landscape'' more than from its natural features.
A National Park Service publication calls the Blackstone River Valley the ``birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.'' In 1790 Samuel Slater, an English mill boss, engineered America's first successful watered-powered cotton-spinning mill on the river at Pawtucket, R.I. Over the following decades, manufacturing spread along the swift stream and its tributaries, dotting their banks with textile mills and other factories, each surrounded by clusters of worker housing. These company-owned mill towns are the valley's most distinguishing feature.