Conserving American character, town by town

As a conservationist, Ed McMahon wants to protect American communities from a creeping sense of sameness.

No, this Ed McMahon isn't Johnny Carson's old sidekick and TV pitchman. He's director of land-use programs at the Conservation Fund, which acquires and protects open space, wildlife habitat, and historic sites. It also assists business, government, and nonprofit partners with projects that integrate economic development with environmental protection.

While many people associate conservation with wilderness protection and environmentalism, Mr. McMahon says it's really about preserving any special place. That might be a vast tract of land in Alaska or the 3-1/2 acres of open space his organization just purchased near its Arlington, Va., headquarters.

What initially opened McMahon's eyes to the challenges facing the American landscape was a military stint in Germany 30 years ago.

"Virtually everywhere you'd go was different from every other place," he recalls. "Here [in the United States], you can be assured that every place is almost exactly like the place you just left."

Because of that experience, McMahon has devoted himself to land-use issues and advocacy. Progress may be slower than he'd like, but he sees the situation gradually changing for the better.

"It's a little hard to see in some parts of the country," he admits, "but we've become more focused on community, on neighborhoods and town centers. Local organizations made up of community members are trying to preserve what is special about their own backyard."

Chain stores, with their cookie-cutter visual sameness, are a major contributing factor to the homogenization of towns.

The Conservation Fund supports approaches that coax chain stores and shopping centers to respect local character.

"We are working with national corporations all over the US to get community-friendly buildings, ones that fit their communities," McMahon says.

Freeport, Maine – popular with tourists because of L.L. Bean and a host of outlet stores – offers an example of the possibilities. All of the town's fast-food restaurants operate out of restored historic buildings.

But even when they are building new stores,many chains are becoming more sensitive about respecting the style of local architecture.

While the boom in superstoresis not an encouraging sign, McMahon points to a pair of countervailing trends that illustrate a craving for more neighborhood character.

One is the revival of small towns' main streets, whose vitality was often sapped when shopping moved to the outskirts of town. This is being achieved with the assistance of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's successful Main Street program. "This is one of the most powerful revitalization tools in the US," McMahon says. "In fact, Boston has adopted this strategy to revitalize neighborhood commercial areas."

The other promising trend is the rebirth of town centers. New and remodeled town centers are springing up around the country. Forty have either just been completed or are under construction in the Washington, D.C., area, an especially fertile ground for this trend, says McMahon.

"In the far suburbs like Gaithersburg, Md., and Reston, Va., they are actually building new downtowns," he says. "In other communities, town centers are being integrated back into mostly existing neighborhoods."

In the newly constructed town centers, a parklike square or public gathering area is a common feature. These are viewed not as charming anachronisms, but as models for how to build in the future.

The benefits of going green

Conservationists consider green space just as important in defining community character as distinctive buildings. This is where Montgomery County, Md., in suburban Washington, has long been ahead of the curve. Immediately after World War II, the county, which is now the state's most populous, started buying up land along all its streams.

"As a result of that, they have one of the finest public park systems in the world and more permanently preserved green space than any urban county in the country," McMahon says.

Why is this important?

Because natural open space is innately appealing to people, a fact underlined by statistics showing that proximity to green space rates as the single greatest factor in a home's value.

Parkland isn't just a priority of suburbanites, however. When California's Proposition 40, the largest parks bond issue in US history, passed last March, the support of Latinos in urban areas was a major factor in a resounding victory for $2.6 billion in funding for the preservation of open spaces.

Because lower-income city residents have less access to parkland than suburbanites do, they are emerging as strong green-space advocates. "I think you're going to see more of this kind of thing," McMahon predicts.

He acknowledges that retrofitting green space into established urban landscapes can be a tall order. Still, he says, it's never too late. Boulder, Colo., has succeeded in establishing a 40,000-acre green belt around the city.

When it comes to determining a community's character, McMahon says that's for residents to decide by inventorying.

Sometimes the assets are obvious, such as in Jackson, Wyo., with its world-class scenery and wildlife, or in Annapolis, Md., with its wealth of period architecture.

In Fredericksburg, Va., a plan to build a Wal-Mart store on the site of George Washington's boyhood home was averted by a land acquisition.

But even when towns have less obvious assets, a careful inventory can open up a world of possibilities. Two of McMahon's favorite examples are Lowell, Mass., and Chattanooga, Tenn.

In the mid-1970s, Lowell was a dying industrial city, with high unemployment. Since then, the downtown has been transformed by converting abandoned textile mills into housing, museums, offices, and university buildings. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has just named the city a 2002 national award winner for its downtown revitalization efforts.

Chattanooga once had a reputation as one of the most polluted cities in America, but it, too, has enjoyed a rebirth. The renaissance focused on one of the city's major natural assets, the Tennessee River. Now people from around the world come to see the results.

How you can help

A community's character is not strictly its physical imprint, though. "It's about saving what matters to people from a psychological and cultural standpoint as well," McMahon says. "It's about memory and mental imagery and our own feelings about that place."

What can one person do to help protect the character of his or her community? Among McMahon's suggestions:

• Help conduct a visual assessment of what's in your town or city (from billboards to street trees).

• Form an appearance commission to plan the future look and feel of development in your community.

• Promote good design in commercial and historic districts.

• Become active in local government, because sprawl doesn't happen by accident. People can help make choices.

• Reduce the impact of automobiles by taking public transportation and carpooling, by living closer to where you work, and walking or bicycling occasionally.

• Plant and protect trees in public areas.

• Ensure that there is a strong state scenic byways program.

• Stop the construction of new billboards and encourage on-premise signs to be attractive.

• Support local businesses instead of national chains and franchises, unless they are community friendly.

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