Preservation + Smart Growth + Environmentalism = Friends?

In the historic preservation line of work, we want to save old (i.e. historic) significant buildings. The environmentalism (green and sustainability) movement wants to maintain and improve existing buildings, because the buildings previously constructed automatically require fewer resources than new construction. Smart Growth involves new development that is on par with values such as walkability, economic and building ranges, mixed land use, open space, and predictable development, among others. Note, however, that Smart Growth is not opposed to demolition, as preservationists often are opposed. Thus, these three movements, or fields, concerning our built environment (preservation, sustainability, and Smart Growth) are similar, but different. Theoretically, these philosophies and practices overlap in many instances, yet in practice, not as much.

On the Greater Greater Washington blog, David Alpert, discusses these issues in his post, Preservation and Smart Growth can be friends, not rivals.  In this post, Alpert reflects on a blog post by the Director of the Smart Growth Program in Washington DC, Kaid Benfield. Benfield’s post, In sustainable communities, architecture, and preservation, does beauty matter? Should it? Both writers bring up too many discussion points for one post on Preservation in Pink, but I’ll start with an overview of their written thoughts, and then pose some discussion topics, which can be explored in upcoming posts.

Benfield begins with a discussion on the fact that many buildings are approaching the “historic” mark of 50 years old, which means that it can be evaluated for significance, for possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. And because this building, such as an ugly grocery store that the community does not like, is now 50 years old, possible demolition and replacement causes a stir. He asks, will we preserve Wal-Marts just because they are 50 years old?  Shouldn’t beauty and lovability of buildings be considered when determining what is worthy of preservation, what deserves our support? He touches on the idea that without standards other than “historic” at 50 years old, preservation can actually be a hindrance to sustainability practices.  In other words, sometimes, “historic” buildings without significance can actually hurt new, sustainable development because people are so afraid of what might go in its place (NIMBY).

Alpert, continues on this idea that there is not a designation between buildings worthy of preservation vs. those that should not be preserved.  If an entire community wants change, then preventing it is not helping the community. Thus, proponents of historic preservation and Smart Growth tend to be wary of one another, even though these fields go hand in hand. After all, historic communities are often the most walkable and illustrate the concepts of Smart Growth.  To this, Alpert adds that preservation is a political movement, as is environmentalism and one should not consider itself superior to the other. Everyone needs to work together.

As you can see, there are days of discussion topics here. Here are some questions to consider:

1. Does preservation, in fact, have methods of determining what is significant, i.e. worthy of preservation? It does. So, how are people abusing this? Are preservationists fooling those who are unaware? Do we sometimes forget about the National Register‘s standards for evaluating historic significance?

2. Will we ever get to the point of preserving Wal-Marts (and similar places)? How many of them? All of them or just examples?  What about suburban development tracts? Do we need to preserve every 1980s colonial revival house when they turn 50?

3. Does the 50 year mark need to change? Why was 50 chosen in the first place?

4. Why is there mistrust between preservation, Smart Growth, and environmentalism when they all speak of similar ideals? How can we create a friendlier discussion? What are the benefits and disadvantages of each of them? What would be an ideal situation for all three to work together and showcase their best efforts?

5. Aside from significance, is it ever okay, by preservation standards, to demolish a building for the construction of a new one? What about by environmental standards?


This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it is lively enough to spur some discussions and thoughts. If you find other topics worthy of discussion, please share. All opinions are welcome. To clarify, I don’t pretend to be any expert on any of these issues. First and foremost, I identify myself as a preservationist, but one who is interested and believes in preservation working with movements such as sustainability and Smart Growth. And now, I feel like I have given myself homework…


Thank you to Andrew Deci for sending the blog links and suggesting a discussion on PiP.