CDAC Spotlight Redefining Historic Preservation

July 01, 2014
By  Cary Tyson

“Community Development” has a lot of different definitions. It is considered a function of banking, an aspect of economic development, a process, community organizing and more. In fact, there are at least 11 different definitions of the phrase in the Community Development Handbook. However, I have always believed that the phrase means exactly what it says—it is what we do to develop communities, making them healthier and viable in the 21st century.

As someone who has worked in historic preservation and community revitalization for more than 14 years, I believe that the practice of historic preservation and downtown revitalization are the best tools for communities facing the “shrinking cities” problem and brain drain—the loss of their younger demographic.

To build a successful and sustainable economy in the 21st century, it is critical for communities to differentiate themselves. They must create an environment that is compelling. While there is nothing wrong with chain or big-box stores, they are ubiquitous and can be only a part of the equation. What makes a community unique are its authentic assets—historic downtowns and neighborhoods.

Taking an asset-based approach to community and economic development also addresses the issues of aging and expanded infrastructure (roads, utilities, etc.), the sprawling expansion of which creates maintenance costs that often balloon beyond what the tax base can support. Concentrating a community’s efforts inward, supporting what’s long been in place, allows for a smaller footprint, keeping down fuel costs for police and fire as well as funding for overgrown utility expansion. Funding road maintenance, in particular, is becoming more and more challenging as cars become more fuel-efficient and gasoline tax revenue shrinks.

Preservation as a community development practice is burdened by its name and, perhaps ironically, its tradition. Historic preservation in the 20th century (and earlier) was portrayed and practiced as something close to monument protection, preserving homes of historically important figures, etc. Of course, this was not true in every case, but the perception stuck. It was, and still is, seen as a “culture of no”: no, you can’t paint your house that color; no, you can’t replace your windows; no, you can’t add a porch; no, you can’t tear it down. Again, while this is not necessarily the case, such events are reported in the press, and the perception is born.

Most new subdivisions built in the latter part of the 20th century included covenants or similar deed restrictions as historic districts where design review is regulated by law.1 Generally, buyers appreciate these controls, not for the limitations placed on their property but for the limitations on what their neighbor can do; it is considered a protection on investment. For example, Capitol Zoning in Little Rock, the preservation regulatory body that reviews the neighborhood near the Arkansas governor’s mansion, has a 98 percent Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) approval rating, but its perception is one of little more than another level of bureaucracy.

Perhaps part of the problem is the term itself—“preservation,” conjuring images of properties stuck in time, protected by proverbial glass encasements. And while there is too much truth in that approach for the comfort level of most “old school” preservationists, John Kenneth Galbraith’s comment remains true: “Preservationists are the only people in the world who are invariably confirmed in their wisdom after the fact.”

We shouldn’t be surprised that we’re facing an obesity and diabetes crisis when we have literally been building communities that encourage driving over walking for nearly 50 years. It is no coincidence that the drop-off traffic jam escalation at elementary and middle schools coincides with the suburbanization of America. If you are over 40 years old and reading this, the chances that you walked to school are far greater than they are for someone under 40. This is where the community-focused preservationist can make a difference. In fighting for the built environment—that part of the community that has long existed and has character of craftsmanship—they are fighting for walkable, liveable places. They are fighting for places that matter, that are unique and that can play a role in making a community a place where natives want to return and residents want to stay.

To be taken seriously in larger-scale economic and community development circles, it is time for preservationists to shift the conversation from “stop/don’t” to a discussion on how the existing built environment aids a community’s competitiveness in the 21st-century economy. Our historic neighborhoods are some place, not any place. Preservationists must do a better job of advocating the fact that oftentimes the most affordable housing is in traditional historic neighborhoods that have, perhaps, been a bit neglected but still maintain a strong character. We need a little less focus on being precious with the details and a broader focus on building communities, not just on “don’t do this or that.”

To paraphrase noted economist Donovan Rypkema, when a building of quality (usually a “historic” building) is standing, there are only four options:

  1. Do nothing
  2. Stabilize the building and wait
  3. Rehabilitate the building
  4. Tear the building down

If the fourth option is chosen, all the others are eliminated along with any flexibility; the neighborhood is most likely sentenced to be another weed lot, the downtown another surface parking lot. Both of these draw little to no property tax revenue, show a lack of community creativity and are uninspiring to visitors and residents alike.

We cannot let our communities, particularly our smaller and more rural communities, die the death of a thousand cuts. We also cannot afford to continue to falsely prop them up, hoping the population loss will magically stop or they will be saved via the illustrious spec building or industrial park. We must make sure our communities are of quality. Focusing on the existing built environment, the historic core, is a first and strong step toward that end.


  1. Suburban Land Development Practices, National Register Bulletin: Historic Residential Suburbs, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, [back to text]


Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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