May 15, 2017
Here at Preservation Maryland we know that historic preservation can be a part of a larger world of reuse and revitalization, and we know that these projects are occurring all over the world. That’s why we brought in Storm Cunningham, a speaker, consultant, and thinker whose ideas have been put into practice all across the globe about his perspective on revitalization. Learn about the bigger picture of community revitalization and how we can make the most of our existing world in the 21st century on this episode of PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] I’m Nick Reading and you’re listening to PreserveCast. Storm Cunningham is an expert strategist for all things revitalization. An author, publisher, speaker, and consultant, he’s here to talk with us this week about his view of the restoration economy on the global stage. We aim to find out what role historic preservation can also play on that stage. This is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Reading, and you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today, we’re joined by Storm Cunningham, who for a lack of better words can be described as Mr. Revitalization. He is the publisher of Revitalization News and is a well-published speaker and expert on this topic of revitalization, which is critical to preservation efforts– not only here in The United States, but across the country. And so we’re going to be talking to Storm today about what it exactly means to be involves in revitalization. Thanks for joining us, Storm.
[Storm Cunningham] Oh thanks, Nick. Glad to be here.
[NR] So Storm, just to jump into this to give people some sense of who you are and how you got involved in this, how did you get into revitalization? What brought you to this field of study and this topic?
[SC] Well, at the risk of alienating all of these lovely historic preservation folks, it was actually my love of nature that got me involved in this. I’ve been a scuba diver my entire adult life and had gotten depressed over the decades as I kept returning to favorite sites and finding them dead or dying. And back in I guess it was [the] late 80’s, early 90’s, I volunteered to help a German scientist working in Jamaica on reef restoration. I spent a week down there helping him install his experiments and I saw them work. And I saw these reefs coming back to life again. And it just suddenly hit me that we don’t have to be satisfied with simply slowing down the rate at which we destroy the world, which is kind of the goal of a lot of the green and sustainability efforts. That we can actually undo the damage. And that was a real epiphany for me. And then I got a job as Director of Strategic Initiatives with the Construction Specifications Institutes after having been self-employed for over a decade. I figured I could probably last maybe five years in a nine-to-five before I went crazy, so I needed an exit strategy. I figured, well, I’ll just write a book and then when I leave I’ll have that as my platform to go into the usual speaking and consulting thing. I wrote The Restoration Economy that came out six years later. I left C.S.I. and had been working full-time in this restoration revitalization field since 2002 when that first book came out, which was called The Restoration Economy.
[NR] So why don’t you tell us a little bit about The Restoration Economy? What is the focus of that book? What does it tell us about?
[SC] Well, this was the first book to document the rise of all these new restorative disciplines and industries and to organize them in a way that people could understand why they were growing and what their future was. I broke them down into eight categories, or silos. You know, the kind of economic categories rather than scientific categories. These are the kinds of projects that get funded. There were four on the natural side which were fishery restoration, watershed restoration, ecological restoration, and agricultural restoration. And on the built side you had brown fields remediation redevelopment, infrastructure renewal, catastrophe reconstruction, and of course, everybody’s favorite, heritage restoration.
[NR] Interesting. And that book did pretty well, right?
[SC] Oh, yeah. Yeah. A lot of people credited it with the rise of a lot of the organizations and programs that start with R. E. One of the effects it had was to get people realizing the power of that prefix, and that this prefix was really the basis of the future of the planet.
[NR] So if you could describe revitalization, and obviously you have at length in many pages. But for people who aren’t familiar, or [if] you were talking to someone who had never heard of the term before, what is revitalization sort of in a nutshell?
[SC] Well, in many ways you’re putting your finger on one of the major problems. The reason more places don’t successfully revitalize is because there isn’t any rigorous, agreed-upon definition of revitalization. And as a result of that, people don’t think of it as an actual discipline…which is why when you go into most cities– even though they’re all working toward revitalization, and say they want revitalization– they hardly ever put anybody in charge of it. It’s one of those things where everybody’s in charge so nobody’s in charge.
[NR] Right, or it just falls into some other already existing position like economic development or something like that.
[SC] Yeah. Right. And most economic development is just focused on jobs, which is just one tiny, tiny slice of what revitalization is all about. Or the mayor says, “I’m in charge of revitalization,” but of course has no background whatsoever in actually doing it. And no matter who takes it on, even though they might have tremendous personal skills and a background in one of the many silos. There are no degree programs in revitalization. There’s nobody– very few people out there who have any kind of framework in which to work, or any kind of process to bring to bear on it. It’s as if revitalization is just this kind of magic thing that happens if you do a lot of stuff. There’s a core definition that most people agree upon. It’s when a place has an increasing quality of life, a growing economy, and most people would throw in an environment that’s gaining more health. But in actual fact, revitalization can be stimulated and even predicated on other factors. Arts, for instance, or restoring local culture, which is happening in a lot of indigenous communities right now that leads to revitalization. Some communities are entirely basing their economy on the restoration of natural resources. So it’s kind of dangerous to try to be too firm about what the definition of revitalization is.
[NR] Right. And as you said, you’ve already broken it down into all these different silos and it can kind of take on many different forms and formats. And obviously, if someone’s really interested in this, we would encourage them to pick up The Restoration Economy and kind of get a more in-depth version of what you’re describing right here–
[SC] Well, that sounds like excellent advice.
[NR] Absolutely [laughter]. Let me ask you this, though. Talk about a successful revitalization project, and I suppose you could talk about it in broad terms, or maybe use examples. When does it go well? Because I think it’s easy to say, “Oh, we want to revitalize this place.” But what are the tenets, or the core principles of a successful revitalization project? What do you see across the board that makes it a success?
[SC] Well actually, the way you’ve worded the question puts the finger right on what’s probably the single most important factor in failure or success. You’re referring to a revitalization project. In actual fact for revitalization to happen, it needs to be an ongoing program. Human bodies, ecosystems, any kind of complex, adaptive system is in a constant state of regeneration. That’s how it grows and maintains its health. It’s constantly replacing, replenishing, reconnecting different elements of the body or the ecosystem. And that works in economies, too. So when revitalization is treated as a project, something with an end date, it’s almost guaranteed to fail. Now, you can have a redevelopment project, a restoration project, a renovation project, a remediation project. That’s fine. Those are the ingredients of revitalization. But for the recipe to work, to actually get the revitalization of the overall place that you want, that requires an ongoing program
[NR] So it’s almost like if you were in a community here in Maryland, or even beyond– anywhere really, for that matter. And people are at the grassroots level and feel like one of the “re-categories” as you say, could be helpful to their community, they shouldn’t approach it like a one-off. It should almost be approached like, “We have a public works department and we should have a revitalization department that is just always focused on how we’re doing this.” It can’t be just a one-and-done sort of thing.
[SC] Yeah, and you could create a brand new revitalization department. But maybe a more practical way of doing it would be to re-purpose an organization that already has a strong focus on revitalization and just make it more strategic and holistic. For instance, one of my big projects right now, I’ve got a new client where we’re working together to come up with the next iteration of land banks. And land banks are– they’ve only been around for a few decades in this country. There are hundreds of them. But most of them are kind of very tactical and transaction-oriented. They consider their mission primarily to be to take possession of vacant properties and then get rid of them as quickly as possible, hopefully to somebody who’s going to put them to a higher and better use. A few land banks are taking a more strategic approach and are considering their mission not just to be to get rid of blight but to actually revitalize the community. And I’m working with some of them right now to define what land bank 2.0 would look like.
[NR] That’s really interesting. And it obviously has a lot of value to the historic preservation community as well, because land banks have sort of been that double-edged sword. I mean, we like the idea of getting projects and properties out of the foreclosure process and coming up with some other way of handling them. But a lot of it has just been focused on demolition or clearance. And revitalization is an interesting and, perhaps, not all-too-used tool for the land bank community. So obviously there’s a lot of ways to integrate this.
[SC] Yeah. That’s one of the reasons the land banks I’m working with contacted me is they were tired of getting all this criticism from folks saying, “Hey, didn’t you learn anything from urban renewal back in the 60s ?” [laughter] You know, “Just destroy it and they will come” does not work.
[NR] Yeah, we’ve seen that over and over again. Well Storm, we’re going to take a quick break. And then we come back, let’s talk about the future, which you’re sort of leading into here; talking about land bank 2.0.; what can we expect in the future; and what are the challenges? We’ll be right back, here on PreserveCast.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] You might have noticed Storm mentioned earlier he’s a scuba diver. Can you guess what that means? That’s right. I’m about to share with you a little bit of underwater history. Some listeners may be aware the first American submarine was built during the Revolutionary War. David Bushnell, while studying at Yale College, discovered that gunpowder was capable of exploding under water. And after news of the battles at Lexington and Concord in 1775, Bushnell felt moved to contribute to the war effort in some way. He invented the Turtle, a one-man, bell-shaped, submersible vehicle powered by a hand-crank propeller. The Turtle ultimately failed at its military goal of drilling a hole in the hull of enemy ships and then planting an explosive. But only because the hand-powered drill was unable to penetrate a ship’s hull in practice. Bushnell’s basic design of air chambers filling and draining with water to submerge a vehicle was essentially sound. What listeners may be a little less familiar with is the first U.S. Navy commissioned submarine. In the 1860s, the latest and greatest in naval technology was the ironclad. Wooden-hulled ships of the line were slowly becoming obsolete through the mid 1800s. [They were] being replaced by steam-powered ships lined with metal armor that could defend against explosives and incendiary shells. Plus, with their heavy armor, ironclads could simply be used to ram through wooden ships. The first battle between two ironclads happened during the American Civil War. On March 9, 1862, the U.S.S. Monitor was used to defend against a wooden Union fleet from the C.S.S. Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads and signaled to the world that wooden ships were a thing of the past. But where’s the submarine? Perhaps appropriately, hidden just below the surface. You see, before this momentous battle, the Union foresaw trouble. In the fall of 1861, the U.S. Navy was willing to try anything to prevent their comparably massive navy of wooden ships from becoming obsolete. And so they commissioned from the Philadelphian firm of Neafie and Levy a submarine based on the design of the French engineer Brutus de Villeroi. The craft was built to carry eighteen men and was originally designed with sixteen hand-powered paddles sticking out of the sides. The U.S.S. Alligator, as it was later dubbed, was intended to sink the C.S.S. Virginia, later the centerpiece of that naval Battle at Hampton Roads. While it was still under construction at the Norfolk Navy Yard, the Alligator took much longer than expected to construct and it’s paddle-powered system proved pretty slow. After the Alligator was towed to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, naval Commander John Rodgers felt it was too risky to use in case it were captured and ordered the Alligator back to safer waters. Truth be told, the Alligator spent most of its life being tested and experimented on at the Washington Navy Yard. On July 3, 1862, the paddles were replaced by a hand-powered propeller. And in March of 1863 the craft was observed by Abraham Lincoln. Soon after, it was decided that the Alligator would get towed south to help a Union attack on Charleston, South Carolina. However, it was cast adrift in the midst of a storm before ever reaching its destination. Now, we could stay with this topic for hours. But I don’t want to run out of air. Be careful not to go too fast as we resurface and get back to PreserveCast.
Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast you’ve thought of a question that you have for us, or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an email to Podcast@PresMD.org and we’ll try and answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding and you’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined here by Storm Cunningham. When we left we were just kind of getting into what the future of revitalization holds and Storm was talking about a new client that he has working on the future of land banking and how to integrate revitalization better into that community. But Storm, broadly defined, how do you see restoration moving forward? Is this a bright spot? Should we be optimistic about what the future holds for revitalization?
[SC] Oh, absolutely. I mean, there’s really no choice but to see a growth of all these “re-disciplines,” because we’re on a finite planet with a growing population. And we’ve already severely damaged our natural resources and depleted them. And we’ve already developed most of the best places to put cities. So if we want to have any choice other than paving over viable farmlands and ecosystems, we don’t have any choice in the future but to redevelop the cities we’ve already developed and increase their capacity and their sustainability and to restore the natural resources that are the basis of every economy.
[NR] Where do you think it’s brightest, though? I mean, do you think legislators are finally catching on to this? We see fits and starts of it here in Maryland, right? I mean we have tax credit programs that help people restore and rehabilitate historic structures. But then at the same time, we see the General Assembly not investing in those programs like we hoped that they would, or certainly not even where the need is. So do you see more people catching on to this? Or where are the stumbling blocks? What are the challenges associated with this?
[SC] Well, one of the big problems is when these restoration/revitalization/regeneration programs become too dependent on particular political leadership. Political leaders can be great at getting things started, but if you become too heavily identified with them, then the next administration that comes in, especially if it’s of the other party, will tend to just put a stop to it. I guess they don’t want any new successes being credited to their predecessor. So we’ve seen that over and over again. Like in Maryland where you had great progress towards Chesapeake Restoration under Parris Glendening .And then he was replaced by somebody who is apparently in the pocket of the chicken industry and all the other polluters and the program almost came to a halt. And now, we’re seeing the same thing again with The Chesapeake Bay. So the important thing is to use politicians where they’re best used to get things going, to get things funded. But to build capacity outside of the political process, so that you’ll have that resilience during changes of administration.
[NR] How do you do that though? I mean that sounds wonderful and I agree, but in light of what’s happening in Washington right now. Where we’re seeing the skinny budget come out that talks about doing away with a lot of these critical programs for the kind of work that you’re talking about, whether it be natural revitalization or community development programs, how do you build that kind of capacity beyond the political sphere? And have you seen examples of that, or is there some place that you could point to?
[SC] Part of it, obviously, is getting the private sector more geared towards the opportunities in revitalization and restoration and doing whatever is necessary policy-wise to make it easier, more profitable for them to redevelop rather than sprawl. But maybe the most important thing is to put more attention on municipal, county, and regional government bodies rather than federals. The Federal Government, obviously, is a mess, pretty dysfunctional. But you don’t see as much of that partisan dysfunction the smaller and smaller you get. So when you get down to the neighborhood level, people are mostly focused on their neighborhood and really don’t care about political parties. They just want to get things done. And cities have traditionally been the birthplace of almost all good ideas. You look at anything that’s been adopted at the federal level that’s been progressive, and positive, and restorative, it’s started somewhere at the city level and was simply adopted by federal government. So we need to shift the focus of these programs down to the local and regional level as much as possible and we’ll see a lot more resilience then.
[NR] I mean it sounds like you’re hopeful about the future here just because of the sort of bump in the road as far as federal support. You’re just sort of seeing that maybe will push us to do even better things at the local and the state level then?
[SC] Yeah, and that can only be good. The more local self-reliance you have, the more resilient the entire country is. You never want to become too dependent on small focal point places that get too much leverage. So it’s good for everybody. That said, you still need strong policy support from the federal level in order to, if nothing else, get the government out of the way.
[NR] Just curious on that point, on the policy side, for the policy-wonks listening to this. Is there a policy wishlist that you wish you have? I mean, are there things that you would like to see changed at the policy level that would make this work simpler or would make this work more attractive to the private sector?
[SC] Well, a couple of things and these are both points that I made in the first book and the second book, the McGraw-Hill book that came out in 2008 called ReWealth, which focused more on revitalization. Whereas, The Restoration Economy, it was more focused on restorative projects. And the points I was making there is, number one: I’d make the same argument that people involved in sustainability and green efforts have been making for decades now, is we’ve got to have full-cost accounting. Right now the GDP measures virtually everything as economic growth. Hurricane Katrina was good for the economy. Pollution is good for the economy. Every time a pedestrian gets run over it’s good for the economy. That’s the way our GDP works right now. Any bookkeeper knows you’ve got to have checks and balances, debits and credits. And that’s not the way the GDP works. Right now, if we suck all the water out of the ground or all the fossil fuels out of the ground, the loss of those natural resources isn’t debited, it’s just considered a pure win. And when we do something damaging it isn’t debited. So full-cost accounting is the single most important thing we can do. Because when that happens, not only will it cut down on destruction but it will properly measure the value of restoration. And both of those are important because when you properly measure the value of destruction it enables you to put proper fines in place so that when somebody does do something destructive they pay a fine that’s appropriate to the cost of restoration.
[NR] Right, and I guess on the other side, it would allow you to appropriately measure the value of restoration work, too. Because I think a lot of times…we face this here in Maryland, where our tax credit program– and I focus on that because that’s one of our principle policy pieces– the legislature and our legislative services folks look at it just as purely a cost. “Well, it’s going to cost us $9 million a year to do this thing.” And they don’t look at the return value to the economy. Where we’ve done studies and we can show that it’s 8 – 1 return on investment for the state. But the state is only looking at that first-year cost. And they say, “Oh, well, this is a program that costs us money.” When in reality it’s doing nothing of the sort.
[SC] Right, and that gets to the second point. You remember I said there were two points I was making policy-wise, and you’ve just put your finger exactly on the second one, which is (aside from the full-cost accounting revolution) the easier thing to do would be to start at least reporting on all this reactivity. Because right now, our entire budgeting and reporting process, at every level of government, only acknowledges the first two portions of the economic development cycle. The first one being the sprawl and resource extraction– what you could call new development. And then in the middle of the life cycle, you’ve got the maintenance and the conservation; the maintenance of your built environment, the conservation of what’s left of your natural environment. But the third part of that life cycle, all the “re-stuff,” is invisible to budgeting and reporting. So all you ever hear from the federal government is, “New housing starts last month were…” But there’s no report on building renovation, reuse, restoration, and that’s the best news in the economy. So people aren’t hearing the good news.
[NR] Yeah, and that’s insane. You’re right. I mean, that’s just pure policy insanity. I mean, that we don’t really account for that at all. People rehabbing homes or doing any of that kind of work, and that’s probably, I would imagine, a larger share of the construction world than just new starts.
[SC] Yeah. I mean, the numbers are in the economy; they’re just not broken out in a way that people can perceive them. So these major redevelopment projects get tossed into capital improvements or something like that.
[NR] Well, we’re drawing towards the close, here, and we’ve sort of talked about policy challenges, your wish list, examples of good ones, what the future holds. And I just wanted to know, we try and ask everyone who comes through PreserveCast about their favorite historic building. And in this case, I think what we want to ask you is, what’s your favorite revitalization effort with an old building at the center of it?
[SC] Wow. I mean, I’ve been running all around the world for 15 years now…full-time, doing talks and all kinds of places whose economy is almost entirely based on the restoration of historic buildings…gorgeous cities like Lisbon, Portugal. And it’s really hard to choose one since I’ve seen literally hundreds of spectacular ones. But probably the one I’ve got the closest personal connection to is New Lanark, Scotland. This was built back in the dawn of the Industrial Revolution by a guy named David Dale and his son-in-law Robert Owen, who was a Utopian industrialist. And they created a cotton mill and various other industries in a way that actually became the birthplace of a lot of what we consider progressive policies. They were the first daycare [providers], the first healthcare program for workers, first housing for workers. They invented all these kinds of things and the site is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The buildings have been beautifully re-purposed and reused. And it’s not just the heritage either. They are restoring the forest around them, replacing invasive species with native species, and they do a tremendous job of historic education there. It’s just one of the most spectacular sites you’ll ever see in your life.
[NR] That’s a perfect example. That’s awesome. Storm, if people want to get a hold of you or they want to hire you to work on a project, how can they find you?
[SC] StormCunningham.com is my primary website, and RevitalizationNews.com is published every two weeks or so, on the 1st and 15th of every month. And it documents all this re-stuff that’s going on all around the world. There’s also, if you go to RevitalizationNews.com, you’ll see on the top menu a Strategy Guide, which is my latest writing on how to overcome a lot of these impediments to revitalization that we’ve discussed here.
[NR] Great. Well, Storm, I want to thank you for all the great work that you do and for proselytizing across the world about the value of the “re-economy” because we need a whole lot more of re in every corner of this world. So thank you, Storm, and thank you for joining us on PreserveCast today.
[SC] Well, thank you, Nick. It was great, thank you.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving.
Storm Cunningham was recently the keynote speaker at Preservation Maryland’s annual statewide historic preservation conference — if you missed it, we have a recording! Storm joined the group of preservationists, planners and heritage tourism and museum professionals to show the group how they can think differently about who they partner with and what benefit comes from those partnerships. If we want to make the world a better and more sustainable place, we need to breakdown the silos each discipline has wedge themselves.