The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Historic preservation: an integral ingredient in solving the contemporary urban plight

In discussing the scope and meaning of historic preservation, Gabrielle M. Peterson reminds us of how it can help solve multi-dimensional urban plight.

Gabrielle M. Peterson

Gabrielle M. Peterson

Cities: Chicago

Topics: Integrated planning, Place promotion, Arts and culture, Architecture and urban design

It is a compulsion that has pervaded practically every facet of the manmade world: the impulse to protect the past from the inevitably approaching future. Ever since humans collected enough years to feel the tingling of a sentiment we now know to be nostalgia, we’ve done just about everything in our power to prevent the past from dissolving: we’ve saved heirlooms, repaired works of art, held onto bygone eras unrelentingly… The fact of the matter is, the world has made a sweeping effort to grip tenaciously onto the pillars of the past, operating under the assumption that if not for the glow made possible by salvaged artifacts, earlier centuries will recede into darkness.

Within this endeavour sits historic preservation, a camp of remembrance perhaps most relevant to the modern human, as it, unlike other fields, involves the physical settings we habitually occupy: the buildings, towns and regions in which we conduct our daily lives, organise our communities.

There are a number of concerns regarding the practicalities of historic preservation. Is it necessary? Is it beneficial? If so, to whom? But there is also a great deal of evidence that supports this facet of urban planning often considered trivial and irrelevant, lending itself to suggest that preservation may be a likely component in the solution to the contemporary urban plight.

Why preserve? 

It would seem humans are innate antiquers, the impulse to cradle the significant within us since there were things worthy of keeping. With this desire to preserve objects however came some stipulations, one begging the question of what specifically we are trying to preserve, the other asking us why? Victor Hugo claimed in his 1825 article, “De la destruction des monuments en France” that architecture represented the essence of that very era, the genius of that age. But a developed discourse wondered if that meant we are only to preserve the “genius” buildings, and if so, how are we to know what constitutes genius, and is this standard not inordinately subjective? It was then asked what would come with the absence of standards, and the attempt to preserve everything despite its quality or historical merit. Cities would undoubtedly be full of decrepit buildings, some rehabilitated into new and relevant spaces, others carrying on their original and increasingly impractical features, no matter the obsolescence. It was understood that the built city would continue to grow, and couldn’t manage the maintenance of an ever-expanding stock of buildings. These questions therefore became particularly pressing, as it was acknowledged that each individual building could not be indefinitely preserved, for there would always be many that were structurally unstable, or spatially nonsensical, or just plain outdated. For example the United States’ National Register of Historic Places for the most part aptly determines when a building is of historical significance or architectural novelty. However even once the motivation for preservation is established, what exactly is being preserved? Is it the role and function that the building initially served? If the building under consideration was built to be a steam factory, is it dishonourable to use it as anything else? Or is it the mere edifice we are preserving, and if so, can we call that true preservation?

Nick Kalogeresis, historic preservationist and vice president of Chicago-based urban planning firm The Lakota Group seems to think so, and disputes the notion that preserving a building through adaptation is historically disloyal. “No building is going to have the same use for all of its existence. All buildings, whether you construct them new or old, are at some point going to change. Even big boxes. Walmart could be around in a hundred years, or it could not be. At some point, what are you going to do with these buildings? If you ultimately end up saving something, you’re going to need to use it in a new way eventually.”

Historic preservation, as Kalogeresis puts it, is the management of important places, whether commended for their historical significance, their reputable architecture, or their mere representation of a venerated era. Despite beliefs that preservation is merely a field concerned with architectural aesthetics, historic preservation is very much an integral piece in the larger organisation of a city, and bears an impact that goes beyond its aesthetic captivation.

Preservation as community building…

The phenomenon of “neighbourhood creation myths” described by Sarah N. Conde in her 2007 paper, “Striking a match in the historic district: opposition to historic preservation and responsive community building” is one example of preservation-inspired community building. Places speak to people in different ways, the impressions they impart varying from person to person based on the biases we carry. These different perceptions ultimately contribute to community tension; if different interpretations are at play regarding a place’s history or sense of neighbourhood pride and belonging, a divergence in opinion of local economy, politics, and social structure is sure to exist as well. Neighbourhood creation myths help to break through the differences among residents, as the commonalities of shared spaces and neighbourhoods are emphasised through a folklore-style narrative. Often combining fact with fiction, creation myths expand upon a town’s real nascence and administer a dosage of enchantment into the local perception of how a town or community came to be. Suddenly, the creation of a town is recalled whimsically, nostalgically, serving to unify disagreeable residents through a collective memory. In essence, through the use of old buildings, communities can create an opportunity for common ground that reinforces a conceptual infrastructure in the city’s narrative landscape.

…or gentrification?

Extending beyond the emotional, however, when preservation widens its perimeters it becomes a series of steps rather than a single endpoint, highlighting preservation’s more tangible benefits such as investment opportunities, increased property values, neighborhood stability, heritage tourism, and job creation. Towns and regions that place a solid emphasis on historic preservation are statistically more likely to have a steadily growing economic sector with the new industries, jobs and resource conservation that preservation promotes.

This is the point at which anti-preservationists take the stand. Yes, all of these economic opportunities are arising from preservation, but are they necessarily good for the community, and if so, which community? It is ignorant to presume we are one body of people living in one town, with identical aspirations and circumstances, but somehow, this is what we infer when we both uncritically attribute the wealth of a community to the sole effort of historic preservation, and also assume that a community’s affluence is reflected in all incomes of that community.  Not only are there a number of people NOT affected by this economic development, but there are people whose histories are not even represented by the strategies used to achieve said development. Even though every piece of historical perception is elastic, transforming with social interest, this picking and choosing of histories highlights the risks that the preservation field takes in telling a biased and single-minded story of a neighborhood’s historical roots.

This isn’t so hard to understand, as unflattering stories of discrimination, corruption, or poverty aren’t particularly endorsing for towns. However, the faults, along with the attributes, are what comprise a complete and real human place, and though it isn’t very sparkly, the bad deserves just as much acknowledgement as the good.

The wealthy and white are historically the ones whose pasts have been highlighted; whose events and eras have been elevated and sustained. This selective history however propagates a very specific national identity and promotes a false representation of what America was then, and how it continues to be today.

This theory, although valid, fails to view preservation as anything other than a desire to hold onto a collection of ideologies. The argument that gentrification is fueled by preservation is similarly single-minded, rooted in notions that link preservation efforts to a consequently “better,” “more desirable,” and therefore “more exclusive” place to live. True, there is much to oppose with gentrification, however we have to consider the possibility that preservation does not inherently perpetuate gentrification; rather it is how we employ preservation, the areas we seek to initiate it in and the functions we give to the buildings we save. Of course if we are only instituting preservation in upper-middle class communities, the community’s demographics will remain status quo, if not grow even more disproportionate. However, what if we expend those energies in lower-income areas? What if we use those old buildings for low-income housing? What if we convert an old section of a middle-class neighbourhood, rehabilitate it and dedicate it to community apartments? Over the past few years, there have been tremendous leaps to direct the eye of preservation towards diversifying as opposed to its traditional and indirect preoccupation of further contributing to segregation. Preservation critics must acknowledge that although there have been past projects that have not necessarily catered to an all-inclusive social betterment, things are changing, and just as the world is not as it was ten years ago, preservation isn’t either.


But could historic preservation be aiming to preserve something other than architecture? Could it have a goal independent of the community-building it seems to foster; the increasingly diverse neighbourhoods it has a hand in? It seems we’ve heard endlessly about urban sprawl and its eventual lead-up to the degradation of the American town. “Infilling” or the process of filling empty lots or vacant spaces in pre-existing settled regions is one way to counter sprawl, which is perhaps too infrequently not connected to preservation. In actuality, preservation began a wave of thought that accentuated the utility of pre-existing infrastructure. This means that to restore, to rehabilitate, to infill, and repurpose are all commandments pioneered by preservation, representing its large-scale objective in preserving perhaps the most basic urban concept that exists—the centralized space.

Do you recall hearing at one point or another the comments of elderly people, renouncing the way cities have evolved and nostalgically recounting the days when everything was closer together? Typically, we dismiss comments like these and nod our heads politely, chalking it up to the changes that so naturally accompany the passing of time. Yes, most towns grow, necessitating an expansion that inevitably destabilises the centralised node that communities are built around from their inception; however urban sprawl does not stem from this organic growth.

On the contrary, it begins with developers seeking a cheap and profitable method of building. Interested in maximising their gains, they use inexpensive and ill-lasting materials, in addition to unsettled and remote land. Sprawl is a haven for unilateral, single-use developments, adding to the artificial nature of its existence. Still, with cheaper and usually larger homes with more backyard space and updated amenities, homes in these developments often sell fast, creating a demand. Slowly, the development grows, warranting an expansion of infrastructure, ultimately funded by taxpayers. Economically, this doesn’t make much sense, as the entire community is essentially paying for these private developers to turn over a profit, but from an environmental standpoint, this is a similarly irrational way of settling. With more infrastructure comes more roads, more traffic, more pollution… Urban planner F. Kain Benfield, argued in a Huffington Post article titled “The environmental impacts of land development depend largely on where we put it” that even if these developments are high-quality, well-built facilities that boast the approval of both planners and architects alike, they will never foster sustainability by nature of their “leapfrog” distance from the other inhabitable areas of the region. The larger the development gets, the greater the incentive is for big-box stores and strip malls to line the growing number of placeless, arterial roadways.

Sustainability, quality of life, infrastructure, community health, and economic development are all components that are greatly affected by urban sprawl, a detriment potentially avoidable if a community is to grow organically outwards as opposed to being stretched thin like a piece of old chewing gum. This natural development would most certainly require the use of preexisting structures, meaning rehabbing and repurposing already constructed buildings, while also taking the space between said buildings and infilling. Of course, this would be a more initially expensive process, but would ultimately create a system for natural and precipitous urban expansion, and in turn, grant historic preservation the capacity to save the US from abandoning its original impulse to nurture a community centred around none other than itself, and its prime hubs of livelihood.

An equalising solution

Historic preservation is often misunderstood. Whether seen as instrumental in the gentrification of an area, or deemed trivial for the common takeaway that its primary effort be to save and showcase pretty buildings, preservation is not typically celebrated or even recognised for its multi-pronged approach to improving communities. It is commonly viewed as an incidental hobby for bored housewives and retired businessmen, and is regarded with the flippant assumption that it merely embodies a manifestation of the yearning we humans have to pocket the past, save it for posterity or an afternoon snack. Historic preservation may or may not contain any combination of these convictions, but it certainly is buttressed with a larger and more resonating goal: to bring together humans and communities through a multifocal and non-discriminatory philosophy that places equal emphasis on all facets of time, all kinds of places, and all types of people.

Gabrielle M. Peterson is a Chicago-based writer and urban-space enthusiast. She received her B.A. in studio art and creative writing at Carleton College.