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Property Rights and Civic Responsibilities: Balancing Tangibles With Intangibles 

12-09-2015 17:35

Imagine that you live in a community in which you are absolutely free to do whatever you please with your property--and so is everyone else. Your house is situated in a quiet residential neighborhood--until your neighbor sells his corner property to a twenty-four-hour gas station. Your home is a solid investment--until a neighbor devalues it by cutting down all of the trees in his or her front yard and turning it into a used-car lot.

Your children walk to school along tree-lined streets--until one of the roads is widened to eight lanes and sidewalks are removed to accommodate a new shopping center. Your downtown, in which city residents have invested millions of tax dollars for streets, parks, and other public facilities is healthy and vibrant-- until the construction of a regional shopping mall out by the interstate kills the downtown because the region isn`t big enough to sustain two major retail centers.

You take pride in showing off your city`s landmarks to out-of-town friends--until these beautiful buildings are razed to make way for "development" that turns out to be surface parking lots. You picnic in the nearby countryside--until its peacefulness is degraded by a jumble of car dealerships, fast-food outlets, and ugly strip development.

Your property taxes are reasonable until the cost of duplicating public structures and services--roads, water and sewer lines, schools, libraries, police and fire services-- in the now depressed downtown and the sprawling suburbs so strains the city budget that taxes must go up.

The scenes just described--or variations of them--are sadly familiar to most Americans. For many of us the places where our parents lived and worked are now shabby vestiges of the thriving neighborhoods of our youth. For many young people now growing up, it does not occur to them that urban development need not be ugly and dysfunctional.

The way that buildings are built and communities are laid out is not just a matter of aesthetics--although beauty in our world is important to our spirits. Our surroundings, both man-made and natural, have a profound effect on the way we feel and treat one another. They affect our health, our outlook on life, and our productivity. They affect the things that sustain and bond us together: neighborliness, civic involvement, peace of mind, social cohesiveness, and community spirit.

Today these values are frustrated. "Nothing coalesces in our public spaces, which increasingly are freeways," observes David Dillon, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News. "There`s an absence today of social contact in our urban developments."

"We have lost--or at best gravely diminished--the variety and excitement that once characterized much of American culture," laments Constance Greiff in Lost America, a book on landmarks destroyed. "No one can view our major cities today without alarm. Even . . . the most prosperous sunbelt cities . . . no longer provide even the most elemental functions of community life," comments Arthur Frommer, the author of the travel guide series that began with Europe on $5 a Day.1 And Virginia architect Jacqueline Robertson regrets that the simplest of social activities is frustrated by poorly planned development: "If you and I are having lunch in Tysons Corner [Virginia] . . . we have to get in a car and drive through some crazy network of streets to get to a place that we could walk to in three minutes in any properly planned town."2

It is no accident that American communities are becoming uglier, more disorienting, and more dysfunctional every day. In the past citizens have been able to use a variety of tools--historic district ordinances, local comprehensive plans, urban design guidelines, land-use policies--to determine how their community should grow, how it can best serve their needs, how it can retain the places they value and want to preserve. Yet these mechanisms for preserving the beauty, livability, and cultural heritage of our communities are now threatened.

The threat comes under the guise of an argument that sounds plausible and consistent with our social and political traditions. It passes as a property-rights argument that runs something like this: My home is my castle. No one has a right to tell me what I can do with my property. People should be free to use their property however they please. If the government wants to impose regulations that restrict the use of my land, or if it wants to designate my property as historic, that is unconstitutional. Government was created to protect our property rights and it should pay me for reducing the value of my property through regulations. Frivolous environmentalism and needless regulations are weakening the economy and costing us jobs.

Our homes are our castles. Our government should not infringe on individual rights in its efforts to protect the public interest. Government should treat people fairly. But that does not mean we can use our property without regard to the consequences for our neighbors, our fellow citizens, and our posterity. It is also the job of government to protect property rights. We have the right of free speech, too, but this does not mean we can shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there is no fire. As Robert E. Stipe, one of the nation`s foremost experts on historic preservation observes, "As a nation, we have always regarded the use and enjoyment of private property as a fundamental, protected right, and we must continue to so regard it. But individual property rights and values can exist only so long as we recognize and accept our personal responsibility to balance our private ambitions with the needs of the larger community of which we and our property are a part."

The issue, however, goes beyond that of personal responsibility. It is also the responsibility of each community, through its representative government, to enact laws to protect the rights and interests of all citizens from unbridled actions by any one individual.

What we are witnessing today is a national debate over concepts of freedom, fairness, economics, law, quality of life, stewardship, and the condition of the world we leave for our children. It is being played out all over the country, in big cities and small towns, in suburbs and rural counties. The debate is especially heated in rural areas facing new growth and development pressures.

The debate is not over the retention or forfeiture of property rights. It is over the assertion that landowners have a right to do anything to their property regardless of the consequences to other landowners and the public at large. It is over the presentation of property rights and historic preservation as an either/or proposition. It is over the idea that the enjoyment of property rights requires the degradation of our cities and landscapes.


Although sometimes seen as narrowly focused on the protection of outstanding landmarks, preservationists are really futurists concerned about the quality, continuity, and diversity of our society. Preservation is a broad philosophy that takes a stand on such matters as history, stewardship, and most importantly, the impact of change on people and the environment in which they live. It is essential that preservation values be both understood and clearly articulated.


With respect to history, people take an interest in the accomplishments of their community, society, or culture for various reasons. Some are instructional. Others are inspirational.

On one level we preserve things from the past for purely utilitarian reasons. We record our ideas in books and preserve them in libraries or in our homes so that we and our children won`t have to struggle unnecessarily searching for solutions to life`s many challenges.

Although ideas can usually be expressed in the written word, most of us find it easier to comprehend what we can see. The preservation of historic sites and structures helps us do this. It is one thing to read about the travails of early immigrants to America. It is quite another to visit Ellis Island and wander through the Main Hall, where immigrants were processed upon landing on our shores. It is one thing to be told that people once got around without depending on the private automobile. It is another to see that even today, in places like Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, people still carry out essential commercial and social activities without the car because historic town planning, urban design, and land-use principles enable them to do so.

In this sense, then, historic places act as teachers and animators. They bring history to life, and they show us how to solve problems.

A second reason for preserving our history is inspirational. Historic sites and structures have a way of transporting us from our world into realms in which we see the value of setting higher goals for ourselves and the possibility of reaching them. We are sobered when we walk the grounds at the Antietam National Battlefield and think about the sacrifices young men made for our nation. We are moved when we step into New York`s Carnegie Hall--recently restored, but once destined to become a parking lot--and reflect on the grand musical parade this building has witnessed. In a televised celebration of this historic landmark`s restoration, Isaac Stern, the great violinist, said that Carnegie Hall symbolized "America at its best." This, in many ways, is what the "history stream" of the preservation movement wants to preserve: symbols of America at its best.

If there is one thing America needs today it is the belief that we can overcome seemingly intractable modern problems. We need models and leaders. We need inspiration. And we need examples of ordinary people doing things to make our world better.

Historic preservation is more than an attempt to preserve the memory of famous people. The events and accomplishments we seek to remember may indeed reflect great ideas, great influence, great talent or creativity. But they may also reflect the bravery, selflessness, or generosity of ordinary people. They may reflect the doggedness of individuals who beat all odds to solve a problem. They may reflect a person`s inventiveness, eccentricities, or even sense of humor characteristics that make our lives easier or more interesting. The point is this: We cherish and preserve our history because it enriches our lives.


The historic preservation movement also seeks to avoid the unnecessary waste of limited resources in order to preserve a world our children can enjoy. Here the interests of preservationists and environmentalists coincide in that the preservation and reuse of older buildings not only helps to save old neighborhoods and cities, but also aids in the conservation of natural resources and the protection of the countryside. If cities are preserved, new settlements that despoil the natural environment don`t have to be created.

During the 1950s this country experienced the beginning of an ongoing exodus of homeowners from older cities and towns as new suburbs sprouted up across the American landscape. During the sixties and seventies department stores and other commercial enterprises followed homeowners to the suburbs. During the seventies and eighties corporations and offices began moving to the suburbs and beyond. Today more Americans commute from suburb to suburb than commute from suburb to downtown. Like a piece of clothing, the city has been turned inside out.

This country can no longer afford this exurbanization, if ever it could. Functionally sound, often beautiful older buildings are boarded up and abandoned in the old city, the natural resources that were extracted for their construction effectively wasted. Urban schools, libraries, post offices, and municipal buildings sit vacant or are underused, while the very same facilities are re-created--usually in nondescript ways--in the suburbs. Compact, walkable streetscapes are left behind for new lowdensity, land-consumptive settlements in which few social and commercial activities can occur without trips in the private automobile. This sprawling development degrades our air and water, turning natural landscapes into blacktop. It isolates the elderly. It forces parents to spend hours commuting that could be spent with their children. And it means financially strapped governments must cut back on teachers` salaries, police protection, social services, and other important programs in order to finance and maintain new roads and other infrastructure improvements for badly planned developments in the wrong locations. Just as we recycle bottles and newspapers, we must recycle buildings and cities and land.

Part of our job as responsible citizens is to act as stewards, to use but not use up our resources, to convey to our children a world that is not only physically sound but also one that gives them a sense of where they came from and where they are headed. They, like us, will need a baseline for measuring their progress as a society.


The preservation movement also takes an interest in the psychological impact that change and beauty in the environment have on people--on how people feel about their world and how they treat each other. Many of our most thoughtful citizens have noted a link between one`s physical and mental health and the character of his her surroundings. "The destruction of things that are familiar and important causes great anxiety in people," the anthropologist Margaret Mead once observed.3

Several years ago elderly New York City residents complained that the proposed massive redevelopment of Times Square would destroy familiar and reassuring daily sights and drive out proprietors and social institutions known and relied upon for many years. In an article on the controversy, Jerold S. Kayden and Scott Levitan wrote of the need to recognize "the emotional meaning of our physical surroundings. Bricks and mortar can be material repositories of stability in an ever-shifting world. Precipitous change in our physical fabric that cuts the connective tissue between people and place may unwittingly upset our mental well-being."4

Sociologists, physicians, and labor specialists have long recognized the relationship between beauty in the built environment and mental health, physical well-being, and happiness in employment.5 Some courts have recognized similar relationships. In a 1972 court ruling, for example, a Michigan judge observed that "a community`s aesthetic well-being can contribute to urban man`s psychological and emotional stability."6

The preservation of beautiful, familiar, and historic places is a vitally important way of anchoring an uprooted and unpredictable twentieth-century society.7


Those seeking to dismantle our system for protecting culturally or architecturally significant places often dismiss historic preservation as a mere aesthetic concern that hardly compares to freedom. In doing so they present us with a false choice. To suggest that Americans must forfeit their cultural heritage and quality of life for the sake of unfettered freedom debases the concept of freedom itself. Freedom to do what? Destroy the neighborhood? Defeat the efforts of one`s fellow citizens to enhance their community? Squander our resources, both human and natural? Deprive our grandchildren of the opportunity to see and understand the surroundings and way of life of past generations?

When people enter society they inevitably surrender the absolute freedom to do whatever they please whenever they want. We moderate our impulses and desires in dozens of ways every day. We obey traffic lights to avoid chance encounters between moving cars. We restrict noisemaking at night so people can sleep in peace. We stand in line to let those who come first be served first. Yes, we are generally free to do what we want. But when exercising that freedom abridges the freedom or rights of others, we draw a line.

All rights--be they property rights or civil rights or the right to free speech--exist in a context. That context determines the extent to which one person`s rights must be balanced against the rights of others, or the interests of the public. The limits for people living on the American frontier of the 1700s were very different from what they can be today in a crowded world--assuming, of course, we want to live together in harmony. If freedom were absolute, we would have collective ruin and people would not really be free.

Rights imply responsibilities--to our neighbors, to our community, to our grandchildren. It is a central tenet of the historic preservation movement that we all have a responsibility to use limited resources wisely, to preserve and protect important embodiments of our culture, and to pass on to posterity a world that is in as good a condition as, if not better than, the world we inherited.


  1. Arthur Frommer, "Historic Preservation and Tourism," Forum, Vol. 2., No. 3 (Fall 1988), pp. 10-12.
  2. John Lancaster, "Area Development Angers Architect," The Washington Post, March 24,1988.
  3. Margaret Mead, "Mainstream: An Interview with Margaret Mead," American Preservation, February/March 1978.
  4. Jerold S. Kayden and Scott Levitan. "What Cities Can Mean." Unpublished manuscript.
  5. See, e.g., Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).
  6. Sun Oil Co. v. City of Madison Heights, 41 Mich. App. 47-54,199 N.W. 2d 525, 529 (1972).
  7. In an article entitled "Taking: Real Estate Owners` Rights and Responsibilities," Ronald E. Voogt writes: "The combined psychological, social, intellectual, and emotional effect that inappropriate and unnecessary alteration of public space has on people often goes unrecognized. But given recent events in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. we hear tales of forced demolitions of whole neighborhoods, villages, and even large areas. Is it not telling that one of the most effective tools of the repressive state is demolition?" See The Responsive Community (Spring 1992), p. 9.

Publication Date: July/August 1993

#ForumJournal #Legal

Author(s):Constance Epton Beaumont