Commencement Remarks to the American University School of Public Administration

Commencement Remarks

School of Public Administration

American University


William K. Reilly

May 9, 2015

            It is an honor to address the students graduating from the School of Public Administration, their families, and friends, and faculty.  Congratulations to the graduates and all good wishes as you begin the next phase of your life, whether starting a job or pursuing further education.

            I have had occasion over the past few years to spend time here at the University, with President Kerwin and Dean Romzek, and to work closely with Dan Fiorino, director of the Center for Environmental Policy.  I’ve also had a chance to meet and talk with students and have come away from these encounters impressed with their determination to make a difference in the world around them.  They and you will no doubt have significant roles to play. 

            I thought this morning I’d share some of the experiences and influences that shaped my career, which has focused a lot on the notion of place-making, of reconciling the needs of people and the natural world on which we all depend.  Serendipity and chance played a large role as I expect they will in your lives and your careers.

In November 2011 I was awarded the Vincent Scully Prize for contributions to the built environment.  The prize required me to deliver a lecture, and as such occasions do, stimulated me to think about my life’s choices and about those who influenced them.

            I attended Yale as an undergrad.  As the first in my direct line to go to college, I don’t know exactly why I fixed on Yale as the college of my choice.  My high school principal had gone to Harvard and pressed me hard to apply there.  But I was a Midwestern boy with a conservative father and I had a negative stereotype of Harvard.  I wouldn’t consider it. 

            At Yale, Vincent Scully was among the important influences in my life.  I signed up for his course my freshman year in order to comply with a distributional requirement.  To be honest, it wasn't my top choice.  Yet at the conclusion of his first lecture, I remember my reaction:  I was riveted to my chair, and late for my next class.  I hadn't known ideas could be so exciting.  Scully made an imposing figure up on the platform with his long pole, which he used to bang hard on the wooden platform to change a slide or wake up a sleeping student.  His course was an important starting point for my life-long engagement with place, place-making, and the centrality of good development to effective conservation.

            When I was 33 years old and newly installed as president of The Conservation Foundation, the great conservationist Sir Frank Fraser Darling guided me on a tour of selected landscapes in his native Scotland.  He described how the Benedictines had altered and improved, reshaped and cultivated the land.   In much the same way, René Dubos also inspired my appreciation of place.  Dubos wrote about the monotonous flat grey land that once characterized the Ile de France, an area I came to know as a student in Paris.  Try to imagine Paris and its environs as “a flat grey land.”  Dubos pointed out that thoughtful people had reorganized it, planted it, drained it, placed cities and towns in it, civilized it, and made it the premier landscape model for generations of great painters.  It has remained productive and accommodating of human settlements for centuries.  His key insight?  One can improve upon nature.  I believe that deeply.

            Another of the mentors I admired was William Hollingsworth Whyte—Holly White—best known as author of The Organization Man.  Later, he turned to the study of urban spaces and the ways in which people use them, and provided us with a stunning array of insights.  Using time-lapse photography, he established a number of counterintuitive truths.  Pedestrians choose the most heavily crowded and trafficked intersections to stop, chat, exchange reciprocal gestures, and cause people to detour around them as they engage in the long goodbye.  Lovers in public parks typically choose highly visible and exposed locations to show their affection.  Everyone who wishes to sit down in a public place will begin by moving the chair, if it is movable, even a matter of inches, to establish his or her own space.  Light can be assured in the canyons among skyscrapers by attending to bounce light from windows and building surfaces.

            Among Whyte’s insights was the value of density--of creating places in cities where other people are and want to be, where there are places to sit in chairs that can be moved, food available, people and an environment worth watching, and enough people to reassure women they are safe. 

            Whyte also wrote The Last Landscape, which examined the processes by which open farm and forest land was being consumed by development.  He was a believer in cities and in the serendipitous creativity that results from chance encounters that only occur in dense settlements.  He lamented environmentalists’ pressures, when new developments were proposed, for lowering densities.  He believed in streetscapes friendly to pedestrians, and so he made fun of banks, corporate headquarters, institutions, and other street-level activities that built fortresses walled off against people, the sidewalk and their surroundings.  Essentially, Whyte aimed for design that promoted pleasure in places and worked to identify the activities and design qualities that people enjoy.  His fundamental conviction was that urban settlements could create the conditions for creativity and delight.

            Nor was this mere theory.  Jim Rouse understood Holly Whyte perfectly when he redeveloped Quincy Market in Boston.  I got to know Jim well as he served on the Rockefeller Task Force on Land Use and Urban Development, and later on the Board of The Conservation Foundation.  Best known as a shopping center developer, he pioneered the festival marketplace, Quincy Market his first.  He gave me a tour of the fruit, meat, vegetable, and flower market to which he had given over the entire ground floor of the historic building.  His decision to do that was inexplicable to other big developers, some of whom openly mocked him as "not really oriented to the bottom line."  As we made our way through the hordes of shoppers eyeing the low-margin foods, Rouse explained to me that what the critics didn’t get was that "the market is the magnet, it's what draws the crowds."  And later the Rouse Company reported the highest per-square-foot revenues there of any urban commercial development in the country. 
            Following my Army service, I began my career as a land-use lawyer.  I was hired just 2 weeks before the first Earth Day by the new Council on Environmental Quality, established at the White House in 1970 during the Nixon Administration after passage of the National Environmental Policy Act.   I was asked to draft a national land-use policy law.  Our then-small staff of five or six was sent around the country to carry the White House flag and express our environmental commitment—and I drew West Virginia.  In my talk there, I tried to convey the principles of good land use and building policy.  I said that steep slopes and floodplains were to be avoided.  When I had finished, an old timer spoke out from the rear of the hall.  He said, “Young feller, how much of West Virginia have you seen?”  Not much, I confessed.  “Well, steep slopes and floodplains is about all we got.”  At that moment, I had not yet been exposed to Whyte or Rouse—and I surely could have used their help in knowing how to craft a message appropriate to West Virginia.

            The land-use statute I drafted for CEQ created a federal grants program for states to identify and protect “areas of critical environmental concern,” and to establish laws to assure that “development of regional benefit” was accommodated.  In the surge of new suburban growth that characterized the late ´60s and early ´70s, the challenge was two-sided.  It was to protect the countryside, wetlands, and historic buildings from alteration and destruction, but it also sought to ensure that with population and economic growth, and the reaction against that growth in many communities, we would and could accommodate new residential and commercial development while not excluding needed facilities such as housing for low-income households, wastewater treatment plants, and airports.  The bill passed the U.S. Senate but failed by one vote in the House.   The principal elements later were incorporated into the Coastal Zone Management Act.

            I was proud of my work, and pleased that President Nixon had embraced it and proposed it.  I learned only five years ago, as my boss at the time, Russell Train, recounted the experience of meeting with President Nixon to discuss his environmental program, including my explanation of the land-use law.  Nixon looked at Train and said, “Who is the son of a bitch who wrote this?” 

            I put my experience at CEQ to good purpose as Executive Director of the Rockefeller Brothers Task Force on Land Use and Urban Growth, which in 1973 produced the report, The Use of Land:  A Citizens’ Policy Guide to Urban Growth.  This report sold 50,000 copies and had a long shelf life as it laid out basic principles for accommodating growth in environmentally responsible ways and offered new tools with which to approach the challenge across the country.  For me, with its opening gambit, “There’s a new mood in America,” the book captured the spirit of Earth Day, applying it to urban development.

            When I became EPA Administrator some years later, I drew upon the experiences with Holly Whyte and Jim Rouse.       Perhaps no action of mine at EPA was more respectful of place than a decision I made to prohibit Two Forks, a $500 million dam in Colorado that would have destroyed “The St. Peter’s of Trout Fishing,” a beautiful canyon on the South Platte River.  Not long after, at a “Save the Bay” conference in Rhode Island, I noted the variety of interests present—leaders in business and civic groups, restaurant operators, fishermen, boaters.  It wasn’t just environmentalists who turned out to champion protection of Narragansett Bay.  All of them had a stake in protecting the Bay.  By getting together, we learned that a study of the sources of pollution pointed to the silversmiths.  No one wanted to put them out of business, but everyone wanted to control the pollution.  And people finally came together around a common plan—because they all cherished Narragansett Bay.

            At the EPA, I asked our Regional Administrators to identify a series of geographic initiatives different from the traditional factory-specific or pollution-point-source regulations and programs that preoccupied us so much, and to propose needed place-based measures—and funds—to protect valued resources.  New EPA priorities resulted, from the Great Lakes to the Everglades and to wetlands everywhere.  We used our enforcement authority to protect wetlands and carry out the President’s “No net loss of wetlands” policy.

            We needed to think anew, in Lincoln’s phrase, where nature and its functions were concerned.  In the field of conservation, Americans had done it before.  Consider Yosemite, our first national park dating from the Lincoln Administration.  It was, wrote Simon Schama in his book Landscape and Memory, America’s first sacred garden.  But unlike all previous gardens “Yosemite’s protectors reversed conventions by keeping the animals in and the humans out.”  We needed to revive that spirit for 20th-century America, and we did.

Americans today confront a new imperative to rethink how we live, an even more transforming determinant of our lives and culture.  Harbingers of climate change are undeniable.  It may seem that climate change is last year’s news—forgotten and overtaken by understandable preoccupations with the economy.  But inexorably, measurably, it is progressing even as the Congress and the country sleepwalk through it. 

            Rising sea level will confront states like Florida and Alaska with especially serious decisions regarding relocation, armoring the shorelines, whether to build big levee systems, and so on.  Yet in Florida, as in many parts of the country, mention of climate change or global warming is politically incorrect.

            As you all no doubt have been reading, cities across the country, and especially in the Southwest, will have to rethink water use.  California is confronting the worst drought since records have been kept.  Yet there is hope:   Los Angeles, Seattle and San Antonio have added millions of new residents while maintaining water use constant.  Not just new roads and bridges and airports may be needed, but elevated airport runways and sewage treatment plants, air-conditioned schools, energy-efficient and sun-reflecting buildings, water catchment and green roofs. 

            For America, as we transform and armor our cities against severe floods and extended droughts, against killing heat waves and snap cold spells and winter storms, against water scarcity and stressed power generation, we have choices.  We can learn the lessons of successful placemaking and combine them with the imperatives of preparing for a new climate. 

            As I look around America now I am struck by how powerful are the portents of change, and how Americans’ responses to those portents can be so different.  All of this will require new urban and land use policies.  Our response to climate change is not solely the province of environmental or energy policy.  It is very much place-based policy, in the best sense.  And it will require a change not just of city planning but of the culture of cities, supported by citizens and all of the wisdom and creativity of the public and private sectors alike.  Another of my mentors was the distinguished Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who knew something about cities and about architecture and about wise government and getting hard things done.  Moynihan’s is a succinct expression of my outlook:

            “In some forty years of government work I have learned one thing for certain. . . . the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.  The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.  Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”

            My life’s interests, my career interests, for I have not written of my family where life’s deepest satisfactions lay, have been in conservation and environmental protection, pursued vigorously but in a manner that seeks to inform and build upon consensus, on bipartisanship, on negotiation and is grounded in respect for differences.  I have looked to find a prudent course through passionate times.  And my work has often put me in contentious issues so I have acquired critics and adversaries.

            Through 45 years my choices and directions have been sustained by my wife Libbie.  We met at Harvard, she in the college and I in the law school.  Her values, strength and perspective have been a critical compass.  I cannot imagine that I would have had the satisfactions and success I’ve had without her.  Her aesthetic take on the world is a source of constant revelation, she sees things as I do not, and often more deeply.  Her gifts for singing and for making art are full and rewarding to me in a way that feels like completion.

As one completes a half century beyond graduation one looks forward as much as backward, even as there is less runway.  Libbie and my daughters and their children make me very happy and I can say, for me, the future and the past are in harmony.  

I wish you all the same as you leave the university and set about to create your own lives.

Thank you.

William Reilly