HD99 - The Impact of Aesthetics on the Economy and Quality of Life in Virginia and Its Localities

Executive Summary:
In 1996, the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) heard testimony that the visual environment-all that is visible in the physical environment whether natural or manmade-was a fragile resource that was deteriorating rapidly in some areas due to a combination of forces such as chaotic unplanned growth, environmental degradation, and neglect. As a consequence, the state and some of its communities confronted the possibility of the irreparable loss of valuable assets, including some of the very scenic, cultural, historic, and other visual resources that distinguish Virginia as one of the most beautiful states in the country and contribute to its communities' character and sense of place. In addition, the ACIR heard evidence that many of these resources also strengthen the economic base of the Commonwealth and its communities. As a result, the ACIR undertook as one of its major projects for the year, a study of state and local efforts to preserve and protect these valuable resources. In 1997, the General Assembly formally requested in House Joint Resolution 447 that the ACIR present its findings and recommendations to the Governor and the General Assembly in 1998. However, because of the breadth of this subject and its complexity, the ACIR recommended, and the 1998 General Assembly agreed, that the study should be continued for another year. This interim report serves to present some of the issues involved in this study for public consideration.

There is little question that a quality visual environment is a valuable resource. Scientific evidence has established that individuals experience significant physiological and psychological benefits from being able to view scenes of nature and other attractive sights. Moreover, when asked how much they value having access to such quality visual experiences, individuals consistently respond that it ranks as one of their highest priorities for quality of life. Visual quality, then, can be aptly characterized as a basic human need. Furthermore, research shows that such experiences are not just a matter of personal taste. Contrary to popular belief, there is evidence to show a high level of agreement even among diverse groups of people about what constitutes visual quality.

Evidence also shows that by undertaking initiatives to improve the appearance of their communities, local officials can not only improve citizens' quality of life but also their communities' potential for economic development. For example, research indicates that many communities which have launched historic preservation and downtown revitalization programs have benefitted from, among other things, increased property values, the creation of new jobs, and growth in tourism. In the process, they have developed a wide range of strategies that can serve as models for others with the same goals. In some cases, these endeavors have focused on removing negative features, such as visual clutter or obstructions that block the view of their communities' distinctive characteristics. Other efforts have concentrated on the addition of positive design elements, such as coordinated street furniture and visual amenities or tailor-made franchise architecture that respects community character and blends with the visual environment. Still other initiatives have focused on protecting historic landmarks or fragile scenic resources such as mountain ridges and rivers from various forms of degradation. Localities across the state have initiated such projects and many have reported positive results.

The state also benefits from such efforts. Tourism, for example, is the state's third largest industry and is growing, largely due to efforts to preserve and promote Virginia's historic character and beauty. This influx of new tourists increases the state's tax base through greater retail sales and the creation of new tourism-related jobs. In addition, the ACIR heard testimony that the visual appeal of communities and the quality of life they offer are among the most important factors executives weigh when deciding where to relocate a business. Thus, community efforts to preserve and enhance visual quality can also draw other new businesses in addition to those related to tourism, thereby further increasing economic opportunities for the state as a whole. More fundamentally, efforts to protect and improve the visual environment contribute intangible benefits to the state's citizenry such as an improved quality of life and a rich legacy for future generations.

Because of this strong state interest in visual quality, the state's interest in helping localities preserve and enhance the appearance of their communities is equally great. The ACIR heard extensive testimony about various state programs that provide substantial assistance, including historic preservation grants, challenge grants for the arts, and scenic byways assistance, to name only three. However, the ACIR also received testimony from local officials, citizens groups, and others who stressed that more can be done. Several testified that some state programs frustrate local efforts to preserve and enhance the visual environment. Others emphasized the need for greater authority to act in order to make needed improvements. By means of this report, the ACIR hopes to increase the awareness of these issues, to recognize leading communities, to document some of the programs presented to the ACIR as successful models, and to point out areas of continuing need.