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Have We Forgotten The Foundation?

By Walter Rybeck
American Institute of Architects Conference on "The Vital Role: Historic Preservation in Livable Cities"
WASHINGTON, DC - March 17, 2000


Americans owe a tremendous debt to architects and others who led the movement to save and restore our nation's historic buildings and neighborhoods.

My thesis today is that it is equally imperative to restore our historic land policy that provided a founda-tion for the flowering of wholesome cities and towns. Otherwise, precious treasures saved by preservationists are in danger of becoming isolated islands in an unsavory sea of urban ugliness, misery and blight.

Land policy is rarely addressed in books by or about architects. For most of the past century, political, scientists, sociologists, planners and economists also typically failed to focus on land policy.

The 20th century beheld many things that should have boosted cities. Designers and builders had striking new materials and engineering capacities at their command. The city beautiful movement came on the scene. The planning profession expanded. Federal urban programs were launched. And at long last, citizen support for saving our heritage mobilized.

Despite all this, misconstrued land policies led to a sharp decline in the character and quality of life in our cities and towns. Sprawl ruined the landscape surrounding our communities. Sprawl promoters and apologists say this is merely an expansion of the American dream. To me, sprawl is more appropriately recognized as an American nightmare.

Apparently we have suffered a kind of amnesia about our initial and highly successful land philosophy. I'll try to sketch the essence of it and suggest how architects and others can help restore the foundation, as well as the superstructur