Historic Preservation IS Smart Growth

Adaptive reuse of downtown Victorian cottage for commercial office

I love professional conferences…all of us cause-oriented, interested (fanatical) people all in same place at the same time! Those of us that attended the Alabama Preservation 2010 Conference last week got a real “shot in the arm” as preservationists and old house lovers convened in Montgomery. The real cheerleader keynote speaker was Donovan Rypkema, internationally known as an expert on using historic preservation as an economic development tool. He specializes in the economic revitalization of downtowns, neighborhood commercial centers and the rehabilitation of historic structures. As he delivered his keynote address on sustainable development, the mesmerized audience was as full of nodding heads and positive murmurings as a Baptist church during a revival. Some of the points he presented to the very focused audience were,

  1. Sustainable development is crucial for economic competitiveness.
  2. Sustainable development has more elements than just environmental responsibility.
  3. “Green buildings” and sustainable development are not synonyms.
  4. Historic preservation is, in and of itself, sustainable development.
  5. Development without a historic preservation component is not sustainable.

Sustainable development has several components including environmental, economic, and cultural components. There is far more to sustainable development than just green buildings. For example:

  • Repairing and rebuilding historic wood windows create jobs for local craftspeople and would mean that the dollars are spent locally instead of at a distant window manufacturing plant.
  • Maintaining as much of the original fabric as possible maintains the character of historic neighborhoods with living, working and social spaces. That’s cultural sustainability.

If a community does nothing but protect its historic neighborhoods it will have advanced every Smart Growth principle. Historic preservation IS Smart Growth. A Smart Growth approach that does not include historic preservation high on the agenda is missing a valuable strategy and is bad growth. The new Smart Growth movement also has a clear statement of principles:

  • Create range of housing opportunities and choices
  • Create walkable neighborhoods
  • Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration
  • Foster distinctive, attractive places with a Sense of Place
  • Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
  • Mix land uses
  • Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas
  • Provide variety of transportation choices
  • Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities
  • Take advantage of compact built design.

Adaptive reuse of concrete warehouse renovated for commercial space.

Rypkema was emphatic that historic structures, by the sheer fact that they still exist over several generations, are the perfect examples of sustainability. How long will our newly constructed buildings actually last? I especially like this quote from Patrice Frey, the National Trust’s sustainability deputy director: “People sometimes think of historic preservation as an effort to freeze buildings in time. But preservation is by its very nature future-oriented — it’s about finding innovative ways to respond to modern needs, protecting and leveraging the unique character that defines a place, and ensuring that these resources will endure for future generations.”

Carole King (not the singer, just the hummer) enjoys midtown living from South Capitol Parkway in Capitol Heights where she has lived for 25+years. Carole has been the historic properties curator for the Landmarks Foundation that manages Old Alabama Town for 28 years and is passionate about neighborhoods, their architectural character, their people, and their preservation!

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  1. Will Stanford says:

    This article is so poignant in a time where “Green-Washing” (e.g. the marketing of products as sustainable) is increasingly prevalent. To quote one of my favorite architectural writers,”Preservation is environmentally correct and the most sustainable thing you can do” – Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor in Chief of “Archiectural Record” magazine. In today’s global economy, the answer is not to look “west, young man” (or in the case of Montgomery east) in an expanding sprawl, further and further from the city center. The answer is to look at the beautiful and historic treasures that are located in Capitol Heights, Cloverdale, Cottage Hill and the rest of Midtown/Downtown, remember the hands that crafted them and give them the honor they deserve by breathing into them life anew. I appreciate the efforts of the HatTeam in their commitment to these endeavors very much!

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