Building Community though Historic Preservation

Not Your Grandmother’s Historic Preservation

Rhonda Sincavage presenting her remarks at a TEDxCLE Talk.

"Preservation is more than just saving buildings, a house museum here and there.  It’s about creating and enhancing environments that support, inform, and enrich the lives of all Americans. “ -  Richard Moe, National Trust for Historic Preservation

When people ask me what I do and I say “historic preservation,” I pretty much know what immediately comes to mind – house museums, old mansions, velvet ropes, being bored on your 3rd grade field trip.  People feign interest and ask, “Well, what buildings have you saved?” They don’t really understand that historic preservation is about much more than chaining yourself to buildings to stop the bulldozer. 

I’m hoping to challenge this traditional and misunderstood view of historic preservation.  I want people to know that historic preservation isn’t just about saving individual buildings; I like to think it’s more about community.  By “community” I mean historic preservation is about people, economics, environment, and, most importantly, how these factors relate to places where we live and spend time every day as well as our personal well being.   

Historic Preservation is about PEOPLE

The first misconception I’d like to address is that historic preservation is primarily an activity done by wealthy, blue-haired women in tennis shoes trying to save the big mansion in town.  I’m not saying that this isn’t where the movement may have gotten its origin, I’m just saying that historic preservation has, hopefully, come a long way since then.  It is no longer your grandmother’s historic preservation.

Today, historic preservation goes beyond the elite and is about everyone’s history.  This can be seen in what people are choosing to save. Increasingly, it’s not the architectural icons that are the subject of modern day preservation, but the vernacular places – the old schools and factories that once played a major role in community history and holds meaning to the people living there.

Historic districts also tend to be the most diverse neighborhoods in a city. This is partly attributable to the variety in the types and sizes of building in older and historic neighborhoods, which therefore attract diversity in age, race, and income.  Older and historic neighborhoods are where you are most likely to find the students living next to the older couple who has lived there for 50 years, next to young family just starting out.  In short, there is something about historic neighborhoods that appeal to just about everybody.

Historic Preservation is about ECONOMICS

The second misunderstanding is that historic preservation is too expensive, when actually it is good for the economy and makes economic sense.  Working on historic buildings is more labor intensive than new construction and therefore comparably creates more jobs.  And, if a greater percentage of money is going toward labor instead of materials, that means more dollars stay in the local economy. The economic impacts don’t stop with the completion of a single project. Think about a place you know – an “anchor” project may likely have sparked the reinvestment, but chances are, there were several projects that contributed to revitalization of an area.  What about when these projects are completed?  Historic buildings attract small business.  Since commercial rents tend to be more affordable in older and historic buildings, historic preservation acts as a natural incubator for small and start-up businesses, which currently are the biggest sector for job growth.
Finally, on the economic front, historic preservation leverages private investment.  Arguably the most successful preservation program in existence is the federal rehabilitation tax credit, which allows owners of historic structures to receive a 20-percent federal income tax credit on rehabilitation costs.  According to research conducted by Rutgers University, the historic rehabilitation tax credit leveraged private investment five times the cost of the program.  Since its creation, $16.6 billion in these federal credits has spurred $85 billion in rehabilitation across the country.  Additionally, that $16.6 billion cost of the program is more than offset by the$21.1 billion in federal taxes these projects have generated. So not only does this program reinvest in communities across the nation, it more than pays for itself – few other federal programs that can make that claim.

Historic Preservation is about ENVIRONMENT

I’ve seen slogans that boast historic preservation is “the original green,” and I agree with this wholeheartedly.  “Reduce-reuse-recycle” is historic preservation in a nutshell.

But, I’m also aware of popular opinion that thinks if you are comparing a big, old, drafty, and what is usually considered inefficient historic building, with a brand- new LEED certified building that has all the bells and whistles, most people won’t agree with me about “original green.”
While I won’t take time to do a side-by-side comparison, I will throw out a few things about energy efficiency worth consideration.  Historic buildings were most likely designed for their specific environment and location, taking into account site design considerations like relationship to natural landscape and vegetation, orientation to the sun and wind, and incorporating architectural elements like operable windows, natural light, easy and natural airflow, and overhangs for shading.  Although historic buildings work well when they are used how they were originally designed, it doesn’t have to be an “either/or.”  Historic buildings perform extremely well when adapted to support the same green technologies that are being used in the new, fancy green buildings.

In addition to energy efficiency, something else to consider is the avoided impact of reuse versus building new.  Historic buildings were typically made with high-quality materials.  The reuse of quality materials conserves not only the raw materials themselves, but also the energy required to manufacture materials for new construction, as well as other associated costs like the transportation of those new materials, and the energy needed for the new construction.  It also avoids some the impact of demolition and construction debris, which currently accounts for about 25 percent of landfill waste. Finally, when thinking of environmental impact, we have to again go beyond the building-by-building approach and consider the bigger picture. Historic preservation directs development to existing places where public infrastructure like roads, sewers, parks, and schools, is already in place.  Most historic buildings are located in dense, transit-friendly, walk able communities that feature mixed uses.  By comparison, many new construction projects rely on the automobile, are built on greenfields, and often require infrastructure or road improvements.

Historic Preservation is about WELL BEING

The emotional or social benefits for preservation can sometimes be hard to understand. But this is the reason I became involved in preservation, and can remember a very specific incident that sparked the type of emotional response that leads one to entirely change their career path.  I was home from college, driving around town on a nice summer day with the windows down, sunroof open (probably with the radio too loud), and was stopped at one of the main intersections in our downtown.  Above the loud music, I heard construction noise, and looked to see the demolition of the empty shoe factory on the corner.  Now, this factory had been vacant for a while, and may have been considered an “eyesore” to some. But it wasn’t just any factory.  It happened to be company that is the namesake of our town, and the place where my grandfather, who moved here from Italy, worked for 40 years. Seeing this, I felt a huge sense of loss – not only for the cool industrial building, but a loss of something that was a symbol for our town.  It being a company town, I’m pretty sure nearly everyone in the community had some sort of connection to that building.  And, not knowing the political or economic reasons behind the decision, it just seemed wrong.
I knew that the economy was struggling, and times were tough in my hometown.  Younger people like me didn’t even consider sticking around– we all moved away.  What those who made the decision to demolish the factory didn’t know, and what hasn’t been studied until recently, are the type of factors that keep, or attract people to a certain place and how preservation plays a role in this.

A three-year study conducted by Gallup and sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation looked at “attachment” factors.  After surveying 43,000 people in 26 cities across the country, the conclusions were a bit of a surprise.  Education, safety, and the economy weren’t the top ranking considerations in measuring one’s attachment to a place.  Instead, aesthetics, openness, and social offerings were leading drivers.  And, these preferences didn’t change from place to place.  What is even more striking is the study found a significant connection between emotional connection to place and the area’s local economic growth. This supports the theory that “when a community’s residents are highly attached, they will spend more time there, spend more money; they’re more productive and tend to be more invested.”

The name of this study is “Soul of the Community” and I think that could also be used as a description for the “new generation” of historic preservation. 
So what does all this have to do with the relevance in everyday life?  We are at a crucial juncture in the rebirth of our cities where this new generation of preservation work can make a difference – especially in the rustbelt where places like Detroit and Youngstown are looking at untraditional planning practices, including “rightsizing” of cities.  Sometimes, this means large-scale demolition or transformation of entire neighborhoods.  New and large funding streams are going toward making cities more livable, and preservation has to be an integral part of any strategy.  The value of historic preservation -- to people, to the economy, to the environment, and to the well being of communities needs to be considered and communicated. 

Sometimes I like to compare historic preservation to a great vintage dress. At first, it might seem outdated, dowdy, or even impractical.  But with a careful eye you can see the benefits it holds - It has style, it’s unique.  It can be a bit rare.  It is well made and made to last.  It is cost effective, and it is environmentally friendly.  It can be altered to fit you better.  It may have been something that was once your grandmother's, but now you can make it your own.

For other TED talks on community revitalization, including one by Heritage Ohio's Jeff Siegler, please visit the TEDxCLE page.