In February, I faced a new challenge—explaining the mission and programs of PEC to millennials. I was asked to give a guest lecture to an audience of undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, which included my daughter Caroline, a freshman.
Millennials, the next generation to come of political and economic age, care a lot about identity and quality of life. But like every generation before them, they have much to learn about the places where they live and the issues that ultimately determine that quality of life.
As a community-based nonprofit, PEC is best known for its work and programs impacting rural areas and residents of the Piedmont. Since our founding, we have advocated for local, state and federal policies and incentives that help landowners choose long-term conservation options over potential development.
So, how does PEC, or an organization like us, speak to millennials? On the whole, they are a generation that prefers to live in the urban core of metropolitan regions, taking advantage of the larger supply of rental housing, a greater diversity of restaurants and entertainment, and the possibility of a job that doesn’t require a car.
I decided to start my lecture with smart growth. I spoke to the students about PEC’s role as founder of the DC-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. And I spoke about the importance of good planning, and its impact on reducing sprawl and vehicle miles traveled. I highlighted key benefits of walkable communities such as reducing air and water pollution—through both reduced energy consumption and the opportunity to address failing stormwater infrastructure.
I spoke about the need to encourage diversity of housing options, ranging from more affordable units such as those that are being developed in Middleburg, The Plains and Marshall to recent redevelopment projects in Charlottesville and Warrenton. And I shared with them the potential for transit-oriented development around the new silver line metro stations in Loudoun.
Another amenity that is highly valued by millennials is easy access to recreational opportunities. So, I described our work throughout the region to encourage trails, local parks and preserves and increased access to rivers and streams. I also told them about our efforts to encourage sustainable rural zoning and conservation of private land.
I found that one of the more challenging subjects when talking to a room of 18-22 yearolds, is that of historic and cultural resource preservation. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that, overall, millennials are more racially and ethnically diverse than the generations that preceded them. And for the millennials that are foreign born or first generation descendants of immigrants, how do we make the historic and cultural landscape of the Piedmont and the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area relevant?
Certainly, educational materials and interpretation of significant sites, including the current context of the locations, is important. But it’s no longer enough to post a solemn, cast-iron marker stating the names of battles and generals. We have to foster an understanding of the struggles those armies faced. And we have to be willing to recognize that appreciation will come from a combination of education with recreation and entertainment.
At the end of the night, there was polite applause and tough questions about whether Smart Growth and sustainable development are really being pursued outside of a few communities. And afterward, my daughter said she was proud of me and that her classmates were inspired.
But like always, you have to wait and see if that inspiration produces results. I hope that our message will continue to have a lasting impact, as it has on 9 years worth of PEC fellows, many of whom have gone on to careers in conservation.
Chris Miller, PEC
This letter was featured in our Spring 2016 Member Newsletter, The Piedmont View.