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Economic Change and Park Policy

By Eleanor Mahoney May 26, 2015

The upcoming National Park Service centennial in 2016 offers an ideal moment for those interested in the past, present and future of protected areas in the United States to assess the policies that have most affected conservation and preservation priorities over the course of the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries. While the rise of environmentalism in the 1970s certainly had a tremendous impact, as did earlier New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, it is imperative that transformations in economic regulations, including seemingly arcane issues such as tax rules (so important in determining the rise of suburban sprawl), not be left out of the discussion. Indeed, one might argue that political economy shaped the direction of park planning and development more than any other single factor, often determining both where new parks were located as well as the type of land management strategy pursued in a particular location by federal, state or local park agencies.

Two examples from the post World War II period highlight the significance of political economy and the need for it to be at center of critical, historical discussions during the centennial year. First, consider the example of industrial heritage parks – what I very roughly define as protected areas without clear (i.e. immediately visible to a visitor) boundaries or significant public ownership, but with an area of emphasis, whose prime interpretive and preservation focus are the human, environmental and economic stories of steel, textiles, mining, and other mass production industries. In the urban Northeast and Midwest, more two-dozen industrial heritage parks, also sometimes called urban cultural parks or heritage areas, gained either federal or state recognition between roughly 1977 and 2000. They represent a milestone in both conservation and preservation history in that the stories and experiences of working people often (though not always and perhaps not enough in covering more recent decades) took center stage in interpretative activities. (Note: Not all heritage area or urban cultural parks would fall under my rubric of industrial heritage parks, but many do).

Industrial heritage parks, whether in their earliest, neighborhood-centric form such as what eventually took shape in Lowell and the other Massachusetts state heritage parks, or in their later incarnation, the more regional-in-scope national heritage area model, were a response to swings in both corporate and government spending. By the 1970’s, most War on Poverty-era urban programs had been phased out, with only a few outliers continuing to operate beyond the early years of the Nixon administration. Civic leaders and activists in economically hard hit areas searched anywhere and everywhere for even small amounts of federal and state funding, hoping it might be the spark both to ignite economic growth and to preserve important places and stories. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly for them, local leaders soon discovered that parks could, in fact, be a potential source of support, especially with an Interior Department and, for a while, a Congress willing to invest in urban parks. Whereas industrial production once dominated these landscapes, now, it was hoped, parks and tourism might lead the way. Industrial heritage parks are thus a significant marker of the U.S. economy’s broader shift from an industrial to post-industrial focus. They also are an example of the move in protected areas towards a smaller degree of public ownership and a more partnership-oriented approach to management.

The second example from the postwar period worthy of further study is the “greenline park.” This is complex term encompassing many types of projects. For my purposes, it refers to the use of a mix of land protection strategies, including zoning, easements, and occasionally fee-simple purchase to protect “lived-in” landscapes threatened by rapid development. Thus, at the same time that cities in the nation’s industrial heartland turned to parks as a possible remedy to economic decline, other communities, particularly those located in coastal areas and rapidly expanding suburbs, sought to limit new investment and building via designation as a park or protected area.

By the 1970s, community opposition to highways, sprawl and second home construction in sensitive locations was no longer new. What had changed, however, was the federal and state regulatory environment. Bills like the National Environmental Policy Act and its state counterparts, the so-called little “little NEPAs” as well as legislation addressing historic resources, like the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, offered those seeking to protect landscapes a host of new tools and strategies. In addition, the implementation of zoning and other land use restrictions, once under the almost exclusive purview of local government, had begun to garner attention at the state and even federal levels, a move often referred to as the Quiet Revolution in Land Use Control after an influential Council on Environmental Quality report published in 1971.

Given these changed conditions, it is perhaps not surprising that the administration of protected areas would also take on new forms and functions. Advocates drew, for example, on European models, such as the English National Parks and the French Regional Nature Parks, programs that not only regulated development on largely private lands, but also sought to ensure some degree of continued public access.

In the United States, public regulation of private lands is typically seen as a political lightening rod. Yet, for a brief period, running from roughly 1960 – 1980, with its highpoint in the seventies, jurisdictions in rapidly growing areas across the country, frequently with the aid or direct oversight of the federal government, attempted to pursue just such an innovative approach to landscape protection. Prominent examples that took shape during this period include the Pinelands National Reserve in southeast New Jersey, Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve in Washington State and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in California to name only a subset. In these places, different types of zoning, rather than fee simple purchase or condemnation, emerged as a prominent land protection strategy, as did the use of federal, state and even citizen- run commissions.

The two types of protected areas I all too briefly describe above – industrial heritage parks and greenline parks – both took shape, in large part, in response to shifts in the geography of American capitalism – forming in regions most impacted by connected patterns of disinvestment and speculation. By better understanding the origins, the possibilities and the limitations of these non-traditional parks, scholars and practitioners can reveal much about late twentieth-century planning, environmental policy and public space as well as how our contemporary economic moment – one characterized by funding austerity as well an increasing reliance on public-private partnerships – may be affecting the types of parks we both imagine and eventually create.

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