March 10, 2015

Why Do Old Places Matter? Community

Old places foster community.

One of the first people I interviewed about why old places matter was Dennis Hockman, editor-in-chief of Preservation magazine, who lives in an old neighborhood near Baltimore, Maryland. Dennis told me that one reason old places matter is because of community. Dennis described a cluster of ideas about how old places foster community, from a shared sense of place, to the storytelling that happens in old neighborhoods, to the way people meet and gather on common ground. “People matter more than buildings, than things,” Dennis told me, “but the spirit of the people—the heartbeat of the community—is in the old things.”

A vibrant area of South Pasadena, California, which was threatened by highway construction | Barry Schwartz

We see how old places foster community in the way many old neighborhoods seem to have their own personalities,1 in the way Main Streets and historic post offices act as the daily gathering place for people,2 and in the way people in some old towns seem to be able to run into exactly the person they need to see exactly when they need to see them. People are proud of where they live. They identify with where they live. They are able to run their lives efficiently where they live. They feel connected and interconnected and embedded where they live. And when they leave, they may feel homesick, as I was when I first left the Ramah community near Huntersville, North Carolina, to go to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I missed not only my family and our farm, but the whole familiar interconnected web of people and place that made up Ramah, from the taste of pound cake at dinners at our old, white frame church, to the cedar trees that lined the barbed wire fences at Mr. Ed Barnhardt’s farm.

But how do old places, old buildings, old cities and towns foster community? What particular role do old places play? The writer Wendell Berry says, “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared.”3 The architectural critic Paul Goldberger said, “In an age in which we travel from private houses in little enclosed metal boxes on wheels into private office cubicles and then back again…there is precious little sense of shared experience in our lives, or at least precious few times in which shared experience is expressed in terms of a common physical place.” 4

Old communities are often the places where people share a common space, a common experience, and a shared sense of what the space means to them. People in a community share a sense of its identity and character, which is often represented by the old places that serve as community landmarks. In 2014, graduate student Sandra Shannon (look for a post from her in the coming months) conducted a survey that asked people about their preferences for old and new buildings. In reviewing the results, Shannon concluded with the idea of “...most people believing that historic resources are community assets and preservation is an important community service, even in comparison to other services considered important, such as economic development and public landscaping.5

A great example of the way old places foster community is how we experience post offices. Local post offices, often architecturally distinctive and in the center of town, serve as both meeting places and community landmarks.6 That’s one reason people fight so fiercely to keep historic post offices. A recent newspaper article from Milton, Tennessee, captured the reasons that old post offices help give a sense of community:

  • Resident Michelle Eastman said, "The history is great, but the convenience of it being here is better."
  • “While Milton's strong families are still in place, the symbols they feel make the community are at risk of going away. In turn, the town and its leaders are willing to fight to try to keep its longtime identity in place.”
  • "When you don't have a gathering place to go to, you start to lose your identity."7

Post offices are but one of the many old places that foster community. Schools, churches, town squares, parks, streets, blocks of houses, all of these allow people to share a place. In planning lingo, these may be referred to as “community assets.” The planner Jeffrey Soule wrote about how communities can “map” these shared assets:

“A key way to engage the community and gather specific data regarding how people use space and ultimately what they value, cultural mapping starts by asking the question “Where are the places in your community that are important to you?”

The post office building in La Jolla, California, which continues to serve as a meeting place for residents | Adrian Fine/National Trust for Historic Preservation

This is first done as a list-making exercise to identify the places within a community that people value: local meeting places, locations which serve to build community cohesion, spiritual sites, places of visual quality, and others. Participants then go out into the community and actually map where these values and activities are found…[material omitted] …After the site visits, the group then goes through a process to discuss the values that these places represent and determine the threats to maintaining that place in the community.”8

In an older community, many of these community assets are already established, and the conditions that foster community already exist. The old buildings, streets, and parks may already be designed for walkability and interaction. These places may already have gathered stories over time, from the memory of the quirky family who lived in the house on the corner, to recollections about the crotchety old man who warned the kids off his lawn, to reminiscences about schools that generations of families attended. These buildings, streets, and even trees, serve as landmarks for telling stories that give people a sense of something shared—something lived together. The experience of living, working, shopping, exercising, worshipping, and playing in and around these old places builds a sense of shared community, and it is a sense of community that transcends generations.

For more than two decades, planners, academics, preservationists and everyday people have lamented the way sprawl has destroyed the American landscape, diminished the distinctiveness of places, and eviscerated the vitality of older towns and cities, essentially how it has destroyed community. New urbanists promote placemaking—the design of new places to foster a distinctiveness of place and a sense of community.9 Developers of new places advertise walkability, design (front porches, alleys, garages behind the houses), open space, squares, and a mix of retail, residential and work places (the very things that many old places already have), that are intended to allow people to interact with each other, to avoid getting in their car, and therefore create the conditions that foster community.10

I applaud these efforts. Yet something critically important is often overlooked, and that is the idea that the development of a real community takes time. Community develops through the interaction between people and place over time. We cannot build a community—we can only foster the conditions in which communities can grow and thrive. Community occurs in the organic interaction between people and place. And over time, these communities typically develop with a diversity of ages, incomes, and ethnicities. Charles Wolfe, in Urbanism Without Effort, suggests that real urbanism is best when it is recognized where it already exists and has developed organically. “I believe the best urbanism is often the urbanism we already have, and that understanding the organic nature of this 'urbanism without effort' is key."11 Old places have by their very nature developed organically, and in many cases have already developed the attributes that foster community.

Yet not all old places are successful communities. Some old neighborhoods are unsafe, undervalued, and (for the moment) undesirable on the real estate market, and do not provide their residents with adequate economic, educational or other opportunities. In these undervalued neighborhoods, a focus on old places as community assets can play a role in turning these communities around so that they are increasingly valued by their residents and by newcomers. In fact, one of the factors that suggests success for a community, if there is re-investment, is the presence of old places that give the community a sense of shared history, identity, and memory. The Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust has studied neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Baltimore to identify the neighborhoods that are likely to be successful if government programs invest in them. A key factor is the presence of older smaller buildings.12

Little Havana in Miami, Florida, is a living community | Steven Brooke Studios

The flip side of the coin is also true. If older, smaller building can foster success, the loss of old places can lead to a lost sense of community. Former National Trust president Richard Moe wrote in Changing Places, “Like individuals, a community can fall victim to amnesia, can lose the memory of what it was, and thereby lose touch with what it is and what it was meant to be. The loss of community memory happens most frequently and most dramatically in the destruction of familiar landmarks that are themselves familiar reminders of who we were, what we believed, and where we were headed.”13The loss of familiar landmarks means the loss of a community asset that may be most helpful in reversing the decline of a community, and may diminish the identity that remaining residents share.

Old places foster community by giving people a sense of shared identity through landmarks, history, memory, and stories, by having the attributes that foster community, such as distinctive character and walkability, and by serving as shared places where people meet and gather. In her report on the survey of Americans about historic preservation, Sandra Shannon wrote, “community satisfaction has been found to be significantly associated with a person’s overall quality of life. Its effect on quality of life is second only to marital satisfaction. It might be easy to brush off preference as something that is a low priority to people in the grand scheme of things, but it appears to actually matter to people in a deep way, and from a planning standpoint, this humanistic element should be an important consideration.14 If community is “shared experience … expressed in terms of a common physical place,” old places are crucial. Old places are where people, time and place intertwine to form community.

Let me know how you think old places foster community.


  1. Just ask people from Takoma Park, an old town near Washington, D.C., or Georgetown, D.C. or the neighborhood of Capitol Hill. Each has a distinct personality.
  2. See the website, Accessed February 28, 2015.
  3. Berry, Wendell. The Long-Legged House (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press 2012) Google e-book, 61.
  4. Goldberger, Paul. “Cities, Time and Architecture,” A speech for the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, MO 2007.
  5. Shannon, Sandra. “A Survey of the Public: Preference for Old and New Buildings, Attitudes about Historic Preservation, and Preservation-Related Engagement.” Master’s Thesis, University of Southern California. December, 2014.
  6. For more on the important role that post offices play, see the website, Professor Steve Hutkins, who operates the website, emphasizes the meeting place aspect of post offices, as well as their historic and artistic significance. See his interview in the Gothamist. Accessed February 28, 2015.
  7. Wilson, Brian. “Milton residents fight to keep Milton's community identity." Accessed February 15, 2015.
  8. Soule, Jeffrey. “Using the Historic Urban Landscape Approach.” Accessed March 8, 2015. For more on communities defining their identity, see “Hatcher, William. “Building and Selling Community Identity, PATimes, 2013, "Building and Selling Community Identity." Accessed March 2, 2015.
  9. See the Charter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which includes the statement, “We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.” Accessed March 2, 2015.
  10. In the rush to focus on the excitement of new places, planners and government officials often have not paid sufficient attention to the real communities—the older places that already exist, which may not be as architecturally sophisticated or aesthetically pleasing. Yet community may exist there. One of the conundrums of the interaction between the preservation field and the smart growth movement, is that the smart growth movement did not seem to acknowledge the reality that many older suburbs function very well, and are successful communities where people love to live.

11. Wolfe, Charles R. (2013-05-02). Urbanism Without Effort (Island Press E-ssentials) (Kindle Locations 426-429). Island Press. Kindle Edition.
12. National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Green Lab. “Place Based Metrics for Older Neighborhoods,” Accessed February 28, 2015.
13. Moe, Richard and Carter Wilkie. Changing Places Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl. New York: Henry Holt and Company 1997, 261 (citations omitted).
14. Shannon, Sandra. “A Survey of the Public: Preference for Old and New Buildings, Attitudes about Historic Preservation, and Preservation-Related Engagement.” Master’s Thesis, University of Southern California. December, 2014.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Tom Mayes, chief legal officer and general counsel, has worked on the full range of National Trust legal issues since he joined the National Trust in 1986. He received the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation in 2013 and is the author of the book Why Old Places Matter. @thompsonmayes

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

Learn More