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The Future of the Past in Our Cities

Posted on June 03 2017


Stephanie Meeks and Kevin C. Murphy provide a guest editorial. Meeks leads the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Murphy is a speechwriter there. Together, they wrote THE PAST AND FUTURE CITY.

Today, they discuss proven evidence that historic cities can add to the happiness of citizens. They connect data about populations that are migrating toward historic cities with indices of economic prosperity and healthy well-being. Along the way, they dispute the notion that preservationists are the “paint police.”

Find out more about how they are overturning the stereotypes of their profession:

"For decades now, Americans have been working to save the places that enrich our environment and tell our story. Indeed, just as cities are experiencing a renaissance, so too has the field of historic preservation. Our research at the National Trust shows that 65 million Americans, led once again by the [younger] generation, believe that saving historic places is fundamentally important. Nearly a fourth of those—15 million—are already taking action in their communities to protect and preserve places that matter.

Yet preservationists themselves are often viewed as stuck in the past, unwilling to change—an archaic movement fond of doilies, plaques, and velvet rope. . . .  portrayed as fickle at best, crazy at worst.

This unfortunate perception of preservationists as the “paint police” is partly because the first thing that comes to mind when many Americans think of our field is their local architectural or historic preservation review board.

These stereotypes simply do not reflect the ways in which preservation has grown and evolved over the years.

Rather, preservation is about managing change and helping ensure a smooth continuum between past, present, and future. It is about working to find new uses for the old buildings in our midst, so that generations to come can experience the special places that move us and tell our story.

Preservation is about ensuring that our urban landscape reflects more than just profit margins or the whims of developers and real estate speculators— that they address the real needs and concerns of communities. It is about working to see that we honor and reflect the full contours of our past, including the complex and difficult chapters. It is about unleashing the enormous potential of historic buildings to address the critical problems we face, bring us together, and make us happy.

Happiness may seem like too abstract a concept to build a city around. But, in fact, there is a growing movement all over the world to reorganize the way we live so as to maximize contentment and community. . . . One critical component guiding and accelerating this urban renaissance: the power and potential of older buildings.

Historic buildings can spur economic growth, nurture start-up businesses, and create jobs. They can reduce energy costs and environmental impact and can encourage healthy living practices like walking and cycling. They help provide solutions to critical challenges like access, affordability, displacement, and climate change. They help turn diverse neighborhoods into communities and help us know who we are, where we come from, and where we must continue to go to achieve the full promise of the American dream. They are building the foundation of America’s future and keeping our communities vibrant and strong.

These changes are already taking place all over the country, and [show] what we can all do to see that the urban America of tomorrow is made up of happy, walkable, equitable, sustainable, thriving, and yes, historic cities."

-- Meeks and Murphy are co-authors of The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation is Reviving America's Communities

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