A New Language for Land—Land&People

Since taking the helm four years ago, Will Rogers has steadily navigated the Trust for Public Land through a time of unprecedented growth and change. In that time TPL's staff has grown by 30 percent to more than 400 people working in 40 offices around the country. Last year alone, TPL protected land valued at more than $400 million for parks and open space–as much in dollar value as it protected during its first 17 years.

Rogers, a native of Boston, worked in urban real estate development in Chicago prior to joining TPL's Western Regional Office in 1991. Before that, he was a commercial beekeeper in Colombia, South America. TPL benefits from both of Rogers's career tracks– his background in working creatively with the built environment and the holiday gifts of Will Rogers & Sons honey from hives that he and wife, Kate, and sons Wylie, 16, and Cooper, 13, keep in the backyard of their home in Kensington, California.

Under Rogers's leadership, TPL has become not just larger but also more strategic in its vision, building upon its urban roots–a niche that has always distinguished TPL from other national conservation organizations–while introducing programs that address drinking water protection, the loss of family farms and ranches, and unrestrained coastal development.

Now Rogers is looking to expand TPL's impact through "greenprinting," a continuum of services for communities coping with growth that encompasses strategic visioning, public finance, and land acquisition. TPL's Center for Land and People, created last year, brings writers, teachers, spiritual leaders, and other thinkers together to explore the relationship of land and people and how it affects culture and community.

As president of one of the nation's fastest-growing nonprofits, Rogers is often on the road, visiting TPL projects that range from gritty urban neighborhoods to pristine wilderness. He recalls a meeting at which the executive committee of TPL's board of directors approved two very different conservation ventures–one a Superfund site slated to become a park on the Los Angeles River, the other, as he puts it, a "drop-dead gorgeous" ranch on the Big Sur coast. "It's enough to give you whiplash, in a wonderful way," he observes.

This year is TPL's thirtieth anniversary. Can you describe the forces that influenced the creation of TPL and how the organization has evolved since then?

TPL was founded the year the first Earth Day took place, which is now seen as a watershed moment for the environmental movement. Existing organizations were dedicated to protecting land for endangered species, wilderness, and wildlife. But TPL's founders foresaw that the battle to protect the environment would be won or lost in the cities, where most Americans live.

One of TPL's founding principles was that connecting people to land where they live and work would not only enrich people's lives but would help people understand, appreciate, and–here's the key word–vote for the environment. In the years since, TPL has worked to create a network of parks and public lands that extends from the inner city to the wilderness. In our view, all these places play an important role in human experience and are vital to advancing a culture of conservation.

What do you mean by a "culture of conservation?"

Our culture traditionally views land as a commodity. A culture of conservation would reflect what the writer Aldo Leopold half a century ago called the "land ethic." It's a culture in which people recognize that we all are part of the natural world and behave as community members of the land, not consumers of it. Tapping into people's love of place is a very powerful way to engage them. That's why at TPL we're asking, "How can we strengthen the connection of people to land?"

We know how to be the technicians that make the land deals and public finance work. That's at the core of what we do. But I think the time has come when we need to become poets and storytellers as well. We need to harness the power of human affection for a place if our society is going to turn the tide of destructive growth in the next decade. The conservation movement's ability to draw on people's feelings about vanishing landscapes and quality of life will determine whether or not we can succeed. We've established our Center for Land and People in part as a way to bring these skills into the organization.

Why is the next decade so critical?

Census projections tell us that the U.S. population is expected to double in the coming century. Now is the time to redirect the juggernaut of poorly planned and unsustainable development. More and more people are realizing how much we stand to lose unless we can turn things around. The next decade will set the stage for what happens to the remaining open space in our country–whether much of our farm- and ranchland will remain viable, whether we will make cities more livable.

How is TPL changing to address these challenges?

TPL began as an organization focused on land transactions as a way to help government agencies and landowners bring land into public ownership for parks and open space. That's worked very well. But too often we find that we're doing "emergency room conservation"–the bulldozers are revving, and we get a call to rush in and try to save a property. Now we're broadening our transaction focus to encompass what we call "greenprinting."

Greenprinting is about implementation: we're not interested in seeing more plans gather dust on shelves. It's about getting land conservation out of the emergency room. It's a proactive, integrated approach through which we help communities identify and set aside places they wish never to see developed: watershed lands, forests, farms, ranches, de facto parks–places that give character or identity to their cities and towns.

We've created the capacity, through our Conservation Finance Program, to help generate public funds to set aside these lands. We work with communities to conduct polling and research, and advise them on how to set up and run successful campaigns to protect the places they cherish.

Ask someone if they want to pay more in taxes, and you know what the answer will be. Yet in the past seven years voters across the country approved more than $25 billion in new monies for state and local conservation. Ballot measures have been particularly successful. So people have strong feelings about conserving land. They're voting to fund conservation even in a time of economic uncertainty.

How does greenprinting apply to cities?

Our population is growing. The question is, where and how that growth is accommodated. How can we create cities and towns that are healthy, attractive places to live and work? How can we ensure that when it comes to land, water, and wildlife, we don't end up with the leftovers of development? That's where greenprinting comes in. It's not about stopping development, it's about thoughtful development.

There's new interest in creating "sustainable communities," which is very encouraging. The exodus to the suburbs is subsiding and people are beginning to move back to our urban centers. Making our cities desirable places to live and work can take some of the pressure off open spaces. We have a chance now to rework our cities where we didn't get it right the first time around.

How do parks help make cities healthy?

Great cities have great parks. Parks add vitality and character to a city. In addition, there's substantial research to show that parks bring significant economic benefits. Parks and recreation programs lower incidences of juvenile crime. Parks can be a magnet for businesses seeking to relocate, which in turn attracts residents. Real estate values are enhanced, providing a healthy tax base for city services. Parks also draw tourism dollars.

Often parks get steered to the more prosperous neighborhoods, however, and we need to address this inequity. City planners need to walk in the shoes of people who have never been to Yellowstone or even to a regional park. No one should be more than a ten-minute walk or stroller ride from a park–this should be a guiding principle as we rethink our cities.

It's estimated there are half a million abandoned industrial sites in America, and an awful lot of these "brownfields" are in low-income urban neighborhoods. With new federal legislation providing funds to redevelop brownfields, there are tremendous opportunities to reclaim and recycle land–whether it's Superfund sites or defunct ballparks–for new housing, parks, and other resources that bring communities to life.

How can land conservation have a greater impact in revitalizing cities?

There is no one perspective or solution to the problems facing our cities. It is critical for those of us working in conservation to embrace other disciplines and reach out to new partners or we're not going to be successful. We need to form partnerships with people working in housing, education, public health and safety, transportation, and economic development. We need to listen to one another and recognize we have common goals. That's what leadership is about–approaching traditional challenges in new ways and creating new partnerships. Finding ways to weave all these interests together can make our cities and communities not merely livable but lively and wonderful places to be.

What trends do you see in land conservation?

People working in redevelopment are starting to look at community building in a more holistic way. In past years, when TPL would ask foundations for help creating urban parks and open space, we'd be directed to the environmental program officer. That program officer would tell us to talk to the people in community development, who would say, "This is really much more about the environment." With the emerging idea of sustainable communities has come the recognition that parks and open spaces are part of the fabric of healthy communities. This opens the door to collaboration and enables organizations working in community development to achieve more than we otherwise could do on our own.

How can those of us working for conservation better engage public attention and support?

We need to offer inspiration. We need to appeal to people's sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. It's not about growth or the economy versus the environment. It's about finding common ground. It's about balance, about listening, about hope. We must take time to listen to the ideas and dreams people have for their communities. What are the landscapes they care about and want to have in their midst 50 years from now?

There's really good news out there that we can share–stories about how land conservation transforms and brings communities together; about the sweat equity, time, and energy people invest to create common ground in their neighborhoods, to protect a place they care for. Stories about people who just don't give up, despite incredible obstacles. Those stories speak to me of what land conservation at its best can do.

Susan Ives is vice president and director of communications for the Trust for Public Land. She is the editor of Land & People .