Monday, September 23, 2013

What Historic Preservation Can Do


Hello Everyone:

I'm back.  I took a few days to get over my bad allergies and get some rest.  Now I'm back in action.  When I get asked what I do, my usual response is blogging about architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design.  I tell them that I have training as a Historic Preservationist.  The latter usually elicits a eyeroll followed by all sorts of negative comments about being anti-development or how we just want to take people's homes away from them etcetera.  At one point, it got so bad that I was telling people I was a flight attendant or a supermodel.  There is a lot of misconceptions about historic preservation and what people involved with do.  About two and half years ago, Johanna Hoffman wrote a wonderful piece for Next City, "Misunderstanding Historic Preservation," in which she explains not only what preservationists do but also how preservationists can be partners in development.  It sounds better than being labelled as someone who throws themself in front of a bulldozer or a blue-haired old lady in a big hat.

It so painful being misunderstood.  You feel so isolated, like the whole world is against you.  Hey it's tough being a historic preservationist.  Let's face it, to the rest of the world, we're just a bunch of radical, Not-In-My-Backyard anti-development crazies.  The rest of the world just doesn't realize that some us, including your truly, actually went to school for this and don't exactly feel the burning urge to landmark everything.  Randal Mason, the Chair of PennDesign historic preservation program unequivocally states, "I hate that 'preservationist' label...because it suggest you're an ideologue, that   a preservationist is always going to say 'don't tear it down.'"  See what I mean.  The best definition of Historic Preservation I heard came from my esteemed thesis advisor and former professor Jay Platt, who probably got it from another source.  On the very first night of class he said "historic preservation is about managing change."

What does this mean?  As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, change comes in the form rising populations, depleting natural resources, and tenuous energy resources.  All of this requires a plan for wise economic development called, smart growth.  Care to guess who is smart growth's best partner?  According  to Donovan Rypkema, a nationally known consultant on historic preservation economics, it's people like me, the preservationist.  Mr. Rypkema has a lot of reasons, chiefly, preservation is good for examining and valuing our assets.  Why start from scratch when all the building infrastructure you need is already in place?  Makes sense doesn't it?  An older building can be especially great for helping to reduce our dependence on uncertain energy supplies because many of these buildings were put up before the widespread use of the automobile, thus the building is more pedestrian access.  Therefore, a good place to start.

As a revenue generating source, an older building can be a cost-effective enterprise.  According to Donovan Rypkema, good growth requires sufficient funding and a rehabilitated building generates tax assets.  In typical new construction, the cost break down averages about 50% materials and 50% labor.  The rehabbing process averages about 60-70% in labor costs.  The amount of dust and particulants that result from new construction is minimized, thus reducing the building and environmental cost.  See, "the greenest building is the one already built."

Johanna Hoffman asserts that people like historic places.  Historic settings have a certain charm and elicit an emotional, if not, physical connection.  In terms of urban planning, as more people move to the cities, the demand for space in historic districts has jumped.  According to Helaine Kaplan Prentice, an author and former preservation planner for the city of Oakland, California, "Architecture is a cultural expression."  Further, "...because it's designed for use, it's responsible for shaping the experience within the culture.  Preserving buildings is not simply about the appearance of a city.  It is about protecting the buildings that give daily life more meaning."  The emotional connection.  People relate to the stories within a building not the bricks and mortar.  This what connects people to a building's past and future

When Randal Mason speaks to non-professionals about preservation, he tries to convey his message by personalizing the issue.  He asks his audience if they have something of value that was given to you by a family member or ancestor.  My answer, the watch I wear, jewelry, and a pair of candlesticks.  the point here is that each artifact that a person owns acts a binder from one generation to the next.  Buildings serve the same purpose.  An older building holds acts as a cultural tie within a community.  Thus, preservation becomes a social function.  Consider, if you will, the older buildings in your community that are being taken down and replaced by new construction.  When an older building is allowed to fall into decay and eventually taken down, another connection between the past and future is severed irrevocably.  The difficulty is in what to maintain.  One example is the High Line in New York City.  The success of that project proved that with the right amount of care, attention, and funding, a once neglected space can be brought back to life as an economic generator.  Realistically and logically, because of the scarcity of resources, not everything can be saved.  What to save is a matter of policy.  This creates the impression of "strong hand" and the question "who are we to decide what to save?"  The older buildings have value.

It's not easy being in a misunderstood profession.  I hope I've shed some light on what preservation can be.  I find it to be a multi-faceted line of work.  I'm especially intrigued by the way it overlaps urban planning and design.  It's a tough job but someone's got to do it.

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