Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Evolution of the Heritage Area Movement 

12-09-2015 17:35

Tracing the evolution of heritage areas in the U.S. is a daunting and inherently leaky task that calls to mind D.W. Meinig’s paper, “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene.”1 Meinig said that “even though we gather together and look in the same direction at the same instant, we will not -- we cannot -- see the same landscape. We will see many of the same elements, but such facts take on meaning only through association; they must be fitted together according to some coherent body of ideas.” Meinig added, “Any landscape is composed not only of what lies before your eyes but what lies within our heads.”

Heritage areas are like a view of the landscape in that everyone sees them, and their origins, differently because those involved have different values, goals, and backgrounds. The following description of the evolution of heritage areas is one view of the movement.

Origins and Influences

The heritage area movement began, arguably, in a dozen different places and points in time. The approach that is being used in hundreds of places evolved from a number of separate but related conservation, historic preservation, land-use, and economic development movements. Without question, heritage areas have evolved as a result of the 1949 creation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. For more than 50 years community leaders have worked first to preserve and conserve individual buildings and structures, and then districts, and then landscapes, and now entire regions. The heritage approach being used today, however, is much more than historic preservation and cultural resource conservation.

The major influences that created the first generation of heritage areas include evocative journalism, automobiles and the interstate highway system, cultural resource conservation, innovative approaches in park protection, historic preservation, and economic development. The keystone philosophies that hold these elements together and create the synergy that is a signature of these places include advocacy and civic engagement, a place-based focus, interdisciplinary approaches to planning and action, interpretation, and heritage tourism.

Heritage areas are an expression of the resurgence of democracy in America and the traditions of home rule. They illustrate the ability of economic leaders to broaden their focus to be able to integrate their goals with those of other interests and disciplines, thus creating a synergy with greater benefits to everyone.

Most importantly, the heritage area movement illustrates how the term “heritage” can be used as an organizing principle at all levels of government and in the private sector. In hundreds of regions the heritage idea is the unifying force that is strengthening communities and helping them successfully plan for their environmental, cultural, and economic future. It unifies because all people have a heritage that has meaning to them. Heritage gives people visions of the past, present, and future. Heritage areas have a heart, soul, and human spirit that many traditional master plans, and land use and zoning ordinances lack. Heritage areas allow people to claim these places and make our communities, landscapes, and regions relevant and special to the populations they serve.

Evocative Journalism

Author Chuck Little said, “Behind every successful conservation movement is a writer.”2 Writers, and their stories about places and people, have been important parts of the heritage area movement. The origins of the movement are obvious in the Federal Writers’ Project state and place guides of the 1930s. The project, created in 1935 as one of the New Deal’s undertakings, was a “government- sponsored national self portraiture.” The guides, which came before superhighways, television, and computers, presented an enormous amount of research on an array of heritage topics and turned the untapped wealth of local history into a lasting treasure.

Across the country talented local writers wrote more than 1,200 guides and pamphlets about landscapes and communities. The writers used the documents to capture the sense of these places in a readable, evocative, enduring, and endearing way. The early guides gave people information on their own areas as well as descriptions of other places.

Interstate Highway System

As people became more aware of their, and other, communities, the government was working on the federal interstate highway system, to give them access to these places.

In 1954 President Eisenhower formed a Committee on a National Highway Program to assess the transportation needs of the nation. This committee had key leaders with a strong interest not only in the road system but in the direct and indirect impacts of the 41,000 miles of road that were part of Eisenhower’s vision.

Although the president’s plan stressed solving safety, transportation congestion, and nuclear evacuation issues, the impact on tourism -- and access to the natural and cultural heritage was profound. The new highways gave people greater access to travel and the opportunity to compare and contrast other communities, landscapes, and cultures with their own.

Recognition of Special Places

The highways fueled land development, and leaders became concerned about the adverse impact of land-use change on special places. Between 1965 and 1977 state governments soon recognized that portions of the landscape were “sensitive areas.”3 This view emphasized the importance and uniqueness of place and led to state legislatures adopting nearly 100 statutes creating minimum development control standards for sensitive areas that included floodplains, wetlands, historic sites, and scenic areas.

Congress acted to help governments and the private sector conserve important values and improve land-use decision-making for special places. Not surprisingly, the management of the land-water interface was a major focus of these initiatives, as Congress enacted the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968 and the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1972.

Both the Coastal Zone and Scenic Rivers legislation defined federal policies to help all governments and the private sector plan for the future uses and enjoyment of these special landscapes. While federal legislation created frameworks for locally based work in coastal and river corridors, individual efforts were acting as the incubators of new ideas.

In 1968 the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation completed the “New England Heritage Study”4 to assess the feasibility of establishing the Connecticut River Valley as a national recreation area. The study report recognized “an outstanding array of historical, educational and cultural heritage, high quality scenic and recreational resources, and the need for a coordinated and interrelated program of public and private action.” New England’s “home rule” proponents disagreed with the recommendations and Congress never acted on the study. However, the proposal outlined a multiobjective approach centered on heritage values and an integrated partnership for implementation.

Growing Awareness of Cultural Resources

Heritage areas and people are inseparable and the combination is part of the intrinsic value of these places. But this view wasn’t always accepted. In the late-1960s and mid-70s historic preservationists, planners, and landscape architects began to change the way decision makers looked at the relationship between people, the land, and the built environment.

Heritage areas benefited from work in cultural conservation, human ecology, and cultural anthropology. As the historic preservation community broadened its context for cooperation, technical and financial assistance, and outreach, insights from these fields were used to help people outside of the movement understand the importance of the relationship between people and the built environment. Greater value was placed on traditional land uses, vernacular architecture, working and everyday landscapes, and the populations they serve.

In 1969 Congress created the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) as a way to document America’s engineering, industrial, and technological heritage with measured drawings, large-format photographs, and written histories. The work was used to promote awareness and recognition of industrial heritage and assist state and local historic preservation and heritage area efforts.

The HAER Program helped create one of the earliest heritage area efforts in the U.S., on the Lehigh Canal in Pennsylvania. Led by a team that included Alan Comp and Karen Wade, the Lehigh effort refined the heritage area idea and built support for collaborative action.

In 1974 the University of Pennsylvania’s (UPenn) Department of Landscape Architecture, under Professor Ian McHarg, brought a team of human ecologists and cultural anthropologists to teach graduate- level ecological planning and design. The team was challenged to integrate the “other ecology” into the planning philosophy. Practical approaches for using human ecology to help make land-use decisions, reflecting natural and cultural values and functions, were taught and demonstrated. Jon Berger and Dan Rose, two of the professors, published Human Ecology and the Regional Plan,5 and trained a legion of landscape architects who would become prominent leaders of the heritage area movement within NPS.

Congress reinforced this view of culture through the creation of the American Folk Life Center (AFC) in 1976 to “preserve and present the heritage of American folk life” through programs of research, documentation, archival presentation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, publication, and training. The Center includes the Archive of Folk Culture, which was established in 1928 in the Library of Congress, and is one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the nation and the world.

In 1990 UPenn and the American Folk Life Center collaborated in the New Jersey “Pine Barrens.” Mary Huffard of AFC, Berger, and Jonathan Sinton of Rutgers University used their human ecology methods to prepare a report for the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, Planning the Use and Management of the Pinelands: A Cultural, Historical, and Ecological Perspective.6 More so than any other heritage planning document, the report identified, explained, and illustrated the link between people, nature, and heritage in a form suitable for land-use management decisions.

Innovation in Parks, Preservation, and Development

In the 1970s leaders were searching for new ways to conserve landscapes. Land development outpaced conservation and preservation, land-use controls were increasingly unpopular, the cost of conservation far exceeded available budgets, and conflicts between protection and development were commonplace.

People were changing the way they looked at parks and special places. The public wanted these places close to where they lived for recreation, education, and to improve the quality of life. This changed view of parks and special landscapes -- as places to live rather than just visit -- dramatically expanded definitions of what was important to conserve.

These changes led to two new points of view. One placed greater emphasis on quality of life and land use, and firmly established “sense of place” as a national and community goal. The other was a greater value placed on living, working, and everyday landscapes and vernacular architecture. The new perspective shifted interest from distant natural parks and landscapes to those close to large populations and with a diversity of natural, cultural, and economic uses. The heritage area movement evolved in special places and in Congress. In the early 1970s, in response to a depressed economy and an exodus of young people, the leaders of Lowell, Mass., proposed a plan for revitalization. Patrick J. Mogan, an educator, insisted that any revitalization of the city should be based on its industrial and ethnic heritage. After study and debate on Mogan’s proposal, city leaders decided to make Lowell a new kind of national park based on labor and industrial history. In 1978 Congress established Lowell Historic Park and the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, a decision that proved to be a keystone of the heritage area movement. Nationally the movement was making a shift. In 1976 Congress directed the NPS to undertake the “National Urban Recreation Study”7 to conduct a review and produce a report on the needs, problems, and opportunities associated with urban recreation in highly populated regions. This included analyzing the resources available for meeting such needs. The report recommended establishment of a national system of landscape conservation reserves based on a partnership between local, state, and federal governments; creation of a new urban recreation funding program; and development of a series of specific place-based heritage areas.

Author Chuck Little, then of the Congressional Research Service, prepared a report for Congress that summarized the need for a new approach to urban park acquisition and management, Greenline Parks: An Approach to Preserving Recreational Landscapes in Urban Areas.8 The concept, “greenline parks,”9 was based on U.S. and international precedents and it suggested that special landscapes could be protected using a combination of federal, state, and local means under a coordinated regional plan.

Although Congress never enacted legislation for this approach, many government agencies and private groups, with the assistance of the National Parks & Conservation Association and the American Land Forum, began to apply it in specific communities and landscapes.

In 1979 the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act program, in response to public support, was modified to create a technical and financial assistance program to help states and local governments conserve and protect important river corridors. Using a philosophy to help people help themselves conserve and protect resources, NPS created the Rivers & Trails Program. William K. Reilly, then president of The Conservation Foundation, in testimony before Congress, described the assistance as “in the best tradition of federalism and local initiative and a prototype for the next generation of land and water conservation techniques in America, one that adroitly melds federal, state, local, and private efforts into a cost-effective partnership.”10

The Rivers & Trails Program’s community-based view11 was responsive to requests that didn’t fit neatly into existing federal programs. Requests came from places where community, and often congressional, leaders wanted to coordinate historic preservation, parks, and economic development into an integrated approach. As a result of this approach NPS became a sought-after federal partner for many of the earliest heritage area efforts, including eight current federal areas.

Massachusetts and New York played a leadership role in heritage areas. Massachusetts developed a strategy, based on the success of Lowell, for conserving and promoting the cultural resources of aging and declining cities to build community pride, enhance the quality of life, and stimulate economic revitalization. In 1979 the state created the Urban Cultural Park Program” and designated 14 locally administered heritage parks located in 21 cities and villages.

Private sector historic preservation interests also adopted heritage approaches. 1980 the National Trust’s National Main Street Center began to work with communities to revitalize their historic and traditional commercial areas. The Main Street approach was developed to save historic commercial architecture and the fabric of American communities’ built environment by partnering with development interests and using economic tools. With inspired leadership, from people such as Mary Means and Scott Gerloff, Main Street brought historic preservation and cultural conservation into communities with an emphasis on empowerment, innovation, sustainability, and flexibility.

Heritage area elements also surfaced in the White House. In 1981 the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued a report, Landscape Conservation & Development: An Evolving Alternative to Public Land Acquisition12 to articulate the need to find a way protect nationally significant landscapes faced with urbanization. The report built on greenline park philosophy and examined alternative ways link protection and development, with appropriate federal roles. The effort sent a signal, from the Office of the President, that it was important find ways to make land-use decisions that would allow communities and regions protect important values and prosper economically.

Over time these efforts laid the foundation for the heritage area movement, shaping the principles that make it effective. These laws and projects proved be important policy and place-specific testing grounds new approaches to integrate different public objectives. The legislative and community initiatives also began to move government away from top down, single-purpose approaches to conservation, historic preservation, park and economic development assistance, and decision-making.

First Generation of Heritage Areas

In the 1980s the first generation of national heritage areas arrived. The movement surfaced in 1984 with the designation of the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor (I&M).

The I&M initially was an educational and identification program undertaken by the Open Lands Project, a private nonprofit organization that focused on a 25-mile segment of the corridor along the Des Plaines River. It began in 1980 and was unlike traditional state or national parks because it was located in one of the country’s most industrialized regions.

The I&M effort combined a diversity of land uses, management programs, and historical themes blended with economic development and grassroots involvement. With leadership from Jerry Adelmann and others, it was intended to encourage economic growth by preserving natural lands alongside of industries and historic structures within commercial centers. Project planners envisioned that the federal government would provide recognition, technical assistance, and coordination through a Corridor Commission.

The I&M’s goal for linking and maintaining the balance between nature and industry, and encouraging economic regeneration, caught the attention of many states and communities within the eastern U.S. In 1983 Congress directed NPS to assist Massachusetts and Rhode Island with a strategy for the future conservation, management, and use of the Blackstone River corridor. In addition, Congress directed NPS to assess whether the valley should be included in the national park system.

The Blackstone study13 did not recommend traditional national park designation. However, the report indicated that “there may be a role for federal assistance in the area of resource interpretation,” and “federal recognition of the valley may be appropriate given its historical significance.” The report spoke to the need for shared responsibility by indicating that “such recognition should follow an increased commitment from state and local governments to environmental improvements, protection of the valley’s cultural resources, and protection of its rural setting.” Given that Massachusetts had already designated its part of the Blackstone as a state heritage park, that Blackstone was Rhode Island’s highest priority, and that NPS had good relations with both states, the study recommendations were supported. Federal legislation modeled after the I&M was enacted in 1986, creating the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor.

The heritage area movement also surfaced in Pennsylvania. The commonwealth was well versed in integrating state environmental, cultural, and economic programs in cities and communities and had been exploring the state heritage park approach. In 1984 the commonwealth developed a framework for a Pennsylvania Heritage Parks Program “to preserve cultural resources in a manner which provides educational, recreational and economic benefits.” 14 The commonwealth and NPS formed a partnership and the two governments worked in tandem to collaboratively support a series of state and federal heritage designations.

Heritage area interest in Pennsylvania, as well as other eastern states, surged when the population turned its interest, and disposable income, toward heritage tourism. In the late 1980s Americans were more educated, older, and willing to spend more money on travel and recreation. The baby boomer “back-to-the-city movement” was beginning and public demand for shorter, less strenuous, and more authentic vacations was increasing. Heritage tourism expert Richard Roddewig described the situation by saying, “The U.S. was mature enough as a country to have a varied and rich architectural, cultural and social history that makes every corner of the country fascinating.”15

Heritage tourism increased the forces of fundamental demand and supply for heritage areas. As these forces were converging, the human spirit, public and political support, technical know-how, and legislative precedents were all available to meet the demand. Heritage areas began to multiply exponentially each year, as this community-based movement became a publicly supported approach to meeting environmental, cultural, and economic goals.


1 D.W.Meinig, Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes. “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene,” Oxford University Press, New York, 1979.

2 Charles E. Little, personal communication, 1994.

3 Fred Bosselman and David Callies, The Quiet Revolution in Land Use Control, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1972.

4 U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, New England Heritage: The Connecticut River National Recreation Study, Washington, D.C., 1968.

5 Jon Berger and Dan Rose, Human Ecology in the Regional Plan, Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. 1974.

6 Jon Berger, “Planning the Use and Management of the Pinelands: A Cultural, Historical, and Ecological Perspective,” New Lisbon, N.J., 1980 (unpublished report).

7 U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Urban Recreation Study, Technical Reports, Volume 1, Urban Open Space: Existing Conditions, Opportunities and Issues Washington, D.C., 1978.

8 Charles E. Little, Greenline- Parks: An Approach to Preserving Recreation Landscapes in Urban Areas, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1975.

9 Marjorie Corbett, Glenn J. Eugster, and others, Greenline Parks: Land Conservation Trends for the Eighties and Beyond, National Parks & Conservation Association, Washington, D.C., 1983.

10William, K. Reilly, Statement before the Subcommittee on the Interior and Related Agencies of the House Committee on Appropriations, Washington, D.C., 1985.

11 Frederick Steiner, “Special Issue: River Conservation,” Small Town & Rural Planning, American Planning Association, University of Washington, Pullman, Wash., 1986.

12 Council on Environmental Quality, Land Conservation and Development: An Evolving Alternative to Public Land Acquisition, Washington, D.C., 1981.

13 U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Blackstone River Corridor Study: Conservation Options, Philadelphia and Boston, 1985.

14 Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Heritage Parks: A Concept with Applications, Harrisburg, Pa., 1984.

15 Richard J.Roddewig, “The Economic Value of Heritage Tourism, Remarks at the Arkansas Governors Conference on Tourism,” Jonesboro, Ark., 1989. Additional Source: Glenn J. Eugster and Deirdre Gibson, “Heritage Areas: An Approach to Integral Landscape Conservation,” National Preservation Conference, Philadelphia, 1989.

Publication Date: Summer 2003


Author(s):J. Glenn Eugster