May 16, 2014

Stephanie Meeks on Preservation's Role in Urban Vitality

  • By: Stephanie K. Meeks
President Stephanie K. Meeks speaks at the Detroit Economic Club in May, 2014. Credit: Jeff Kowlasky
Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust, stresses the importance of preservation and its vital role in active and sustainable cities during a speech at the Detroit Economic Club in May 2014.

An occupational hazard of my job is that I tend to fall in love with every place I visit -- and I visit a lot of places! Granted, they’re generally among the most special places in the country, all living examples of how preservation contributes to dynamic, attractive cites.

Increasingly, the role of preservation in creating just these kinds of experiences is a topic of conversation that comes up again and again. And the National Trust is doing its part to respond. In fact, this post will be the first of many on this subject in the months ahead.

What exactly have we been doing? We’ve been working to collect the data and stories that will help support the message that preservation is key to creating economically strong and active cites. And, I must admit, the information is impressive.

We began by taking an in-depth look at three cities -- Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Our research quantified something we always believed to be true: Older, smaller buildings play a unique and valuable role in developing livable, sustainable cities. (See our recent toolkit summarizing the report.)

Credit: DewitaSoeharjono, Flickr
A study conducted by the National Trust shows how older, mixed-use buildings are beneficial to urban economies.

In some ways, this research continues an exchange we’ve all been having for many years. From anti-sprawl efforts to smart growth policies to developing a national network of Main Street communities, our movement has spent the past several decades working to strengthen and improve America’s urban landscapes using preservation-based strategies.

But we feel there’s a special urgency around renewing this dialogue. For the first time in history, people are predominantly gathered in cities. We have become an urban species. At a time when more than 80 percent of Americans -- and more than half of the world’s population -- now live in cities, our nation’s well-being is increasingly tied to the urban places we build.

Therefore, it matters more than ever how we develop and preserve our cities.

Our report, Older, Smaller, Better: Measuring How the Character of Buildings and Blocks Influences Urban Vitality, shows that areas with a mix of these building types perform better than districts with larger, newer structures when tested against a range of economic, social, and environmental outcome measures. It found, among other things, that young people love old buildings; the creative economy thrives in older, mixed-use neighborhoods; and older commercial and mixed-use districts contain hidden density.

Credit: Michigan Municipal League, Flickr
Preservation is not limited to historic buildings and structures, but rather encompasses a variety of spaces, including waterfronts, parks, and landmarks.

We certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but with nearly 65 years of preservation experience, the National Trust is uniquely qualified to contribute to this conversation.

There is much to do, including working to help reform outdated zoning codes, building regulations, and other regulatory barriers to promote preservation outcomes in communities and achieve the kind of vibrant and attractive places where people want to live.

What do you think we should do? We want this to be a dynamic conversation, and we value your input. Share your suggestions in the comments; we’ll use them to help guide us as we work to find additional solutions to shape our nation’s cities and enrich the places where Americans work, live, and play.

Stephanie K. Meeks was the president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2010-2018. She is the author of "The Past and Future City."

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