The Past and Future City by Stephanie Meeks
Places bring people together and relate our history. While preservation is thought of primarily as ornate and important buildings, it is often the ordinary buildings and neighborhoods that are imbued with meaning through stories and memories. Our sense of self is defined by places, where we are from and what we have learned are all tied to place.
These memories are hard to share without the physical places still in tact. That is where preservation comes into play. It is not meant to tell people they cannot have something but instead to make sure the buildings that define cities are retained for generations to come. Historic Preservation is about deciding what we want to survive into the next century. Building new by demolishing old “steals from the generation that built the brick originally by throwing away their asset before its work is done and it steals from the future generation by using increasingly scarce natural resources today that should have been saved for tomorrow,” as eloquently put by Donovan Rypkema. It always upsets me when I see an old building demolished for a new building when surface parking lots are scattered throughout a downtown.
The author outlines nine steps to preservation which include: making data driven decisions, pursuing regulatory solutions, avoiding obstacles, ensuring old and new construction is compatible, making streets for people first, investing in Main Street, taking advantage of historic tax credits (which hopefully wont be cut anytime soon), finding and supporting other funding methods, trying new things, and being okay with starting small. What is interesting about all these topics coming from a planning perspective is that these steps overlap with the principles of good urban design. So preservation is not just a tool to stop development, but actually drive development. The final step, starting small, is a key principle of tactical urbanism. Testing ideas and permanently implementing the ones that work. It also aligns with trying new things.
Meeks also outlined five steps that preservation needs to take into the future. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is leading the way by preserving more diverse places. Instead of just telling the story of past presidents through their mansions, they are preserving and telling the story of the slaves that were the backbone of their operations instead of ignoring and pretending that part of our history did not happen. In addition to saving more diverse places, confronting our difficult history, and telling the full story at existing sites, Meeks recommends moving beyond buildings and ensuring all voices are heard.
Preservation was a movement of no, focused on stopping bad things from happening. It is changing to a movement that brings communities together and breaks down barriers. The bricks and mortar that generations built before us can be preserved and combined with new infill construction to support local businesses, contribute to sustainability goals, and create a Goldilocks density scheme that leads to more livable communities than the skyscrapers that drain city streets of activity.