DAPA Public Service Reader

Why Public Administrators and Planners Should Love Historic Preservation

download PDF PDF icon

photo of Chrysler Plant, Newark, Del.Dear reader, I can hear you groaning now! Historically, as it were, the relationship between public administrators, planners, and preservationists hasn’t always been that warm. Preservationists’ attempts to save buildings and larger landscapes have sometimes been seen as an obstruction—an impediment to progress. 

For the time being, I ask you to lay aside your preconceived notions and hear my argument that preservation is not the enemy of progress but the face of progress in planning, public administration, and local and state government.

Actually, we have many of the same goals as do public administrators and planners—truly. Regardless of any past contentious relationships you may have had with historic preservationists, please understand that we dearly value responsible development, pleasant, character-filled environments, bustling Main Streets, architecture with integrity, context-sensitive streets, employed craftspeople, history-based tourism…. 

photo of Gilpin Covered Bridge, 1824, North East, Md.Historic preservation principals often butt up against development because preservationists, by nature, take the long-view and not the cyclical trend view that encourages offices and hotels to prepare for five-year peaks and then leaves communities hanging in the valleys that follow. The long view not only looks backwards at the extensive history of a property but forward, to the role that tangible, experiential history will continue to have in an increasingly global but sedentary society. New construction is now built to last 30 years, which is terribly wasteful of materials and tragically wasteful if a historic property has to be removed from the landscape in the process.

However, I am not going to deny that we preservationists can be difficult and slow things down, but taking time to examine all of the options and possible consequences is worthwhile. Indeed, as preservationists we are proud of our role in resisting some change and preserving important cultural resources. For example, it was protest over and resistance to the great urban-renewal clearance projects of the 1950s and 1960 that helped pass the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Without this protest and resistance, Mount Vernon, the French Quarter, and much of Charleston would all be gone, and Delaware would look very different. 

In this short article I will attempt to convey why planners and public administrators are suspicious of preservation and what preservation can and does contribute.

The suspicion of preservation lies in:

photo of Magnolia Café sign, 1935, Austin, TexasMany think of “history” as being fixed and about really old stuff. WRONG. History can be newer than you think. If you are eligible for AARP, then you qualify as historic, as does the first McDonalds, as does Disneyland. More importantly, we learn that our older views of what is historically significant are limited, as we witness the growing appreciation of twentieth century history such as Art Deco, early suburbs, and all things associated with the Automobile Age.

Many think preservation is about preserving the great buildings associated with recognized periods of the past, like the Colonial-period buildings of New Castle or Odessa. Freezing a building in time is only one form of preservation. Preservation is also about preserving those structures and landscapes that represent very important trends, pivotal events or people, periods, or a type of architecture in our society at the local as well as state and national levels, which is really less pompous than it sounds.

When most people think about “preservation,” they think about a building that has been restored to its original use, such as a house museum like the Amstel House in New Castle. This is only one type of preservation. The best preservation, and the goal of preservationists, is adaptive use, or maintaining continual use for contemporary activities in historic buildings, keeping them a “living” part of the working community. Consider that one of your favorite restaurants is probably an historic building.

Preservation contributes to:

photo of Main Street, Helena, MontanaSome think of preservation and economic development as opposites. WRONG AGAIN. Increasingly, preservation is a key element in local economic-development strategies. Specifically, there are three areas where this is exemplified—The Main Street Program, Heritage Tourism, and rehabilitation of historic buildings.

There is no form of economic development that is more cost effective and successful at leveraging resources than the Main Street Program. It was established in the 1980s to help revitalize the main streets of towns and small cities through adaptive use of historic buildings. This program has proven to be the most successful local economic-development program in the country, with involvement from several thousand towns and cities. Specifically, Delaware has an active and successful Main Street program with eight communities currently participating.  As the economy has shifted from manufacturing to services with a greater emphasis on tourism, the historic quality of places is critical to the growing popularity of heritage tourism. Heritage visitors spend more per day, stay longer, and visit more places than tourists in general.

photo of Kuumba Academy in a 1908 Bank buildingWhile the basic goal of preservation is to maintain our historic heritage for present and future generations, that goal has taken on a new urgency, as we must create a more sustainable society.  Sustainability is about conserving resources and doing things in more efficient ways. Historic buildings contain what are called embodied materials and energy, and they also reflect irreplaceable skills and craftsmanship. Smart-Growth programs, which focus on already built-up areas, are preservation programs. New Urbanism is predicated on the notion that historic urbanism of the nineteenth and early twentieth century is the most sustainable.

From a planning perspective, the population of the United States is expected to grow by 100 million people in the next 30 years. To accommodate this, we must double the size of our built environment, and we simply can’t afford the cycle of demolition and new construction as the preferred means of development. We must reuse and continue to use as many existing buildings as possible.  Historic buildings, which are sounder than recent construction, are the best and most flexible candidates for reuse. Thus, while you may think of preservation as the restoration of special buildings, in the face of our combined growth and sustainability challenges, it is becoming a necessity to find compatible continuing uses for as many buildings as possible. So, as a planner or administrator, you will find yourself needing to save buildings because it is the responsible thing to do.

Also critical to our present economic downturn, preservation is countercyclical. At a time when new construction is way down, folks can’t afford new homes, and builders don’t have a market, rehabilitation is doing well.

So as a planner or public administrator, you may not learn to love preservationists, but perhaps you can drop some preconceptions and see how our goals are converging with the need to move to a better-planned, more sustainable society.

—by David Ames, Center for Historic Architecture and Design, University of Delaware