Preservation ABCs: Q is for Quality of Life

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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Q is for Quality of Life

A historic, walkable downtown like this one of Barre, VT might fit your quality of life.

A historic, walkable downtown like this one of Barre, VT might fit your quality of life.

Historic preservation aims to preserve the quality of life which a community values and to help foster and improve quality of life where possible. It is important to understand that quality of life means different things to everyone. Some people prefer bustling cities with reliable public transit and walkable neighborhoods. Others prefer rural country living with a small center of town. Community events might be important. Or local restaurants. Or nearby playgrounds and schools. Some prefer the beach or the mountains or the plains. The bottom line is that everyone defines their quality of life differently.

How does historic preservation connect to quality of life? Simply put, historic preservation seeks to improve the local economy, maintain and rehabilitate the existing building stock, increase awareness of a community’s heritage, engage citizens, preserve the significant past for the future and identify what and why a community is important to itself and to others. By involving people with each other and the built environment around them, their sense of place will improve and people will develop pride in their place. When people are proud of where they live and can identify what is important to them, they are happier, and as a result quality of life improves. It’s a simple chain reaction that historic preservation helps to begin. Historic preservation does not force ideas onto communities or tell people what they should prefer; it hopes the community will speak up and citizens will say “This is important to us! This is who we are and what our community is!” From that point, historic preservation will find methods to improve and protect the quality of life.

So you see, anything can feed into quality of life. And quality of life feeds into historic preservation. My favorite chain reaction is this: people define where they live –> people improve their communities and protect their communities –> people have a sense of place –> people have pride in where they live –> people have a good quality of life –> everyone is happier … therefore … historic preservation is helping to make the world a better place and helping to save the world (as we flamingos might say).

Preservation ABCs: P is for Place

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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P is for Place

Not a historic site, but this place means the world to me.

Not a historic site, but this place means the world to me.

Place is not a standard vocabulary term that you’ll find in an architectural dictionary or preservation textbook; however, “place” is an often used term in historic preservation.

A place can be a town, a building, a field, a park, a bridge, a crossroads, a mountain range or anything really. When asked what is your favorite place, what’s your answer? Whether ocean, town, building, nature, any place can be special to someone, and it’s likely that every place has a dear meaning to someone. As the National Trust campaign says, “This Place Matters.” Identifying a particular place and appreciating that place allows the intangible ideas of historic preservation to make sense by connecting them with the tangible elements of our past and present. These places are important because they are the basis for everyone to understand significance. Not every place is a historic resource, but every place can be significant in someone’s life. And great places, loved places make for strong communities and a better quality of life.

We also talk about planning concepts such as “third place” – the idea that a third place is somewhere that people feel comfortable and welcome, beyond the home and beyond the office. This can be anywhere, though usually it refers to a restaurant, café or other gathering place (something that can be incorporated into new urbanism ideas).

What does “place” mean to you? What is your favorite place?

Dream Home or Perfect Location?

Who gets Preservation magazine and immediately flips to the Historic Houses for Sale section? Admit it, some of you do it. It’s not that the magazine isn’t fantastic; it’s just the draw of beautiful houses available to buy (you know, theoretically). It’s a similar thrill when perusing the Preservation North Carolina website, where all of the houses you could get for a song, as long as you rehabilitate or restore the building. Just imagine owning a beautiful house with so much potential hidden, waiting to be uncovered and cared for and loved. Or how about one of the immaculate properties featured in the magazine? We all love to imagine our dream home, right? Of course.

As I drive through Vermont and browse real estate listings for the fun of it, it leads me to ask myself: would I prefer the perfect house or the perfect location? What goes in your perfect location category? What about under the dream home category? Big house, small house, two stories, porches, floor to ceiling windows, acres and acres of property, mountain views, walking distance to the center of town, on the water, historic windows, fixer-upper, move-right-in, built in bookshelves, claw foot tub… and so on. What will you compromise on? What must be in any house you buy? For me, my house must have a front porch, lots of light, and a bathroom with a window. The perfect house: craftsman or Tudor style. The perfect location: walking distance to a small, active, viable downtown. Ah, we can dream.

So, please, write about your dream house and location!!

The Best Place to Live?

The concept of the 10 best places to live in America or the 100 best towns in Americamust be incredibly subjective.  After all, everyone’s opinion on quality of life is different. Right? Some people may like wide open spaces and not mind driving to town, whereas others may want to walk everywhere and have constant activities available and public transportation.

MSNBC.com based its 2004 top 20 best places to live on quality of life.  Unfortunately, the link for the methodology of this study and conclusions cannot be found. Still, we should ask: what determines quality of life? Rather, who gets to determine quality of life for everyone else? Is it good schools, good hospitals, cultural activities, sports, shopping, geographic location, weather, housing prices, job growth, demographics, air quality?

CNNMoney.com has based its 2008 list “best small cities” on affordability, income level, commuting times, temperature, age of citizens, fitness of citizens, and clean air. The 2007 list ranked small towns.  You can also sort through the list based on your preference of the factors (i.e. low home price or high home price, hot weather or cold weather, etc.)  There are the “top places” to live for business, relocation, families, small towns, metropolitan areas, and so on.  It makes sense that there are different lists for different people.  

In many of these lists, I have seen Cary, NC near the top or at least in the top 100.  This constantly astounds me as Cary is just a suburb of Raleigh. I’ve been to Cary and would not want to live there. I would not rank a suburb as the best place to live. But, apparently some people do. And that is just fine.  I would also prefer to avoid deserts and the humid, muggy weather of the southern states.

Perhaps a misconception towards or about preservationists is that we do not want people to live anywhere but “perfect” towns and cities, that suburbs are appalling and people who live in them couldn’t possibly be happy. Granted, some of us (i.e. I) occasionally give that impression. However, that is far from the truth. As a preservationist, I want people to love where they live, but to appreciate its past, present, and future.  When neighborhoods, whether suburban, urban, or rural are appreciated then the existing structures and fabric can be incorporated into the future and progress will be smart and planned.  When this happens, quality of life is high because the community is proud of itself.

Overall, I don’t put much stock in these lists, but that doesn’t mean the lists can’t serve a purpose.  Hopefully people who are looking to relocate will be able to identify what they like in certain areas and consider the overall factors that will produce their own, personal highest quality of life.  The U.S.A. wouldn’t be itself without diverse areas. In historic preservation, we aim to highlight such qualities and improve quality of life by appreciating character, culture, and history.

How do you rate your quality of life? Where would you live? Take a fun quiz, Find Your Spot, to find out. This eight section quiz (it’s fun!) asks about your preferences in terms of activities, geography, weather, schools, politics, and more.  In the end, just provide your email list and you’ll get your top 25 list. Enjoy!

The Good Part about this Bad Economy

The economy isn’t pretty. One glance at a newspaper or a few seconds worth of watching the news will tell you that. It’s not a fun subject, politics aside.  Prices are rising, jobs are being cut, and people are faced with making difficult economic decisions. What this economy leads to or how long the slump lasts is unknown to everyone. What we can control is our own actions and our ways, as a community and as a nation, in which we navigate through the economy.

If you browse through the New York Times collection “Picturing the Recession”, comprised of reader submitted photographs, you’ll see abandoned storefronts, people job searching, and other signs of these tougher times.  Evidence that the once thriving businesses are closing, perhaps earlier than they should have, likely prompts those with successful local businesses and downtown districts to do all that they can to increase and maintain local customers.  But, things are looking up. People are deciding to take a stand and keep their towns and counties from feeling too much of an economic backlash.

Lately I have been pleasantly surprised to hear a lot of talk about shopping locally and what people can do in their backyards and towns in order to save money and help others save money, too.  The local radio station features an ad about shopping in the county, the local magazine features catchy, well designed ads from all local businesses, and editorials in the paper encourage residents to frequent the businesses.  This morning, a listener called in to the radio station to encourage people to do their best to stay local that way dollars will remain in the community.  She said that with the big conglomerates, it’s easy for details to be lost and for business to go bad.

More and more associations are visible in web searches on shopping local, including Stay Local! New Orleans.  This is an extensive organization that lists the businesses, provides media kits, explains what shopping locally means and the benefits of doing so, reports news stories, and much more.  CIBA, or the Corvallis Independent Business Alliance, located in Washington, is a smaller organization than the one in New Orleans, but also provides compelling reasons to shop locally and includes a member directory of businesses. Search for one in your hometown or county. Local businesses don’t have to be in a downtown district; they can be anywhere and can range from restaurants to hardware stores to bookstores to auto repair and more.

Maybe it’s a partial result of First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden and her discussions on eating healthy and at home and the importance of community. Granted, that is food and not everyday shopping, but it is all connected and one good effort can lead to another. But something is sparking everyone’s interest and it brings hope to me.

I doubt that people are considering this a historic preservation related effort, but we preservationists know what the local economy can do for quality of life. And just maybe this economic loop will bring everyone back to focusing on community efforts and life. It will take some time, but every step in this general direction is a good one.  Not everything can be accomplished locally, but hopefully everyone will try for just a few more for themselves. It will save the community, in terms of energy, vitality, and the economy.  

Start with something easy, like a cup of coffee, and go from there.

Living and Working, One Place or Two?

As many of you, I have today off from work for President’s Day (though technically it is officially designated as Washington’s Birthday. See here for an interesting fact check about this holiday).  In recent months I have spent my days off getting ahead on grad school applications, GRE studying, other random writing projects, going for a run, and of course, drinking lots of coffee from my favorite local shop. I consider my time spent running and drinking coffee as time spent enjoying my town. (And as you can read in Friday’s post, I do try to make an effort to always enjoy where I am).

For whatever reason, the town is currently undergoing sidewalk repairs. To me, this seems rather silly in the chilly February weather, but I suppose they have their reasons.  While walking home from the coffee shop this morning, I realized that I tend to always walk the same way, unless something changes my routine.  Today it was the sidewalk repairs. I also walked a slightly different way to the coffee shop this morning, but I’ve walked that route at other times. However, on my way home, in order to avoid the concrete dust and the drilling noises, I cut down a different street and through the library parking lot, essentially one block down that I normally walk. And, as silly as this sounds, I remembered that it’s sometimes fun to take a new route.

Maybe it’s just me, or does everyone tend to stick to the same routes? In college, I never did. I always liked to walk home from classes or work or practice a new way and wander through the less traveled paths on campus. And on road trips or bike rides, I love traveling down unknown roads. So why would that change now, here? I’d guess that it is because while I live here, I do not work here, meaning most of my time is not spent here, walking around. When I am in town I walk the routes I know I like and past the stores because there is always something interesting to see.  Call me a creature of habit.

This self analysis reminds me that I am one of those people who would love to work in the town where she lives. Of course, factors such as walkability and a short commute come into play as well, but mostly working and living in the same would give me the greatest connection to where I am, and maybe that would solve this geographic commitment phobia (maybe).  Not everyone wants to live and work in the same place – many people want to get away and keep those parts of their lives completely separate. Not me. Being a preservationist ties together every part of my life and makes me want to keep that strong connection. It all reflects back to people having pride where the live – sense of place, quality of life. You can’t escape this discussion.

I’ll come up with a plan for the next adventure in life. What about you? Does it matter to you?

Genius.

Billy Joel is a genius. [Don’t believe me?  Study some of his lyrics and get back to me.]  Moving on, it wasn’t until recently that I started to understand the political analysis and social commentary of his music [aside from We Didn’t Start the Fire, but that’s plain obvious.]  No Man’s Land, a song from River of Dreams album, didn’t top the single charts and it’s not played at parties or on the radio, but it definitely one of Joel’s great commentaries.  [Vinny can elaborate on such topics at a much greater length.]

 

Preservationists, do yourselves a favor and listen to No Man’s Land or at least read the lyrics.  To hear the song, click “launch player” in top right of the page.  From here, choose River of Dreams from the Albums tab.  No Man’s Land is the first song. You can listen to the entire song. [Beware that music plays right away.] Without posting the entire song, here are portions: 

 

I’ve seen those big machines come
rolling through the quiet pines
Blue suits and bankers with their
Volvos and their valentines
Give us this day our daily discount outlet merchandise
Raise up a multiplex and we will make a sacrifice
Now we’re gonna get the big business
Now we’re gonna get the real thing
Everybody’s all excited about it
Who remembers when it all began
Out here in no man’s land
We’ve just begun to understand
Out here in no man’s land
Low supply and high demand
Here in no man’s land
I see these children with their
boredom and their vacant stares
God help us all if we’re to blame for
their unanswered prayers
They roll the sidewalks up at night,
this place goes underground
Thanks to the condo kings there’s cable now in Zombietown
Now we’re gonna get the closed circuit
Now we’re gonna get the Top 40
Now we’re gonna get the sports franchise
Now we’re gonna get the major attractions…

 

Now isn’t that a cry against suburbia, if there ever were such a thing? Maybe it’s not as entertaining as some of his other songs.  Maybe this song rings true for too many people that it just never became a favorite. Of course, there are many people in this country who like strip malls, subdivisions, shopping malls, fast food chains… or do they do?  Do they just not know otherwise?  Is society brainwashed?  Well, another issue for another time.  After all, some might say preservationists are brainwashed. 

 

Speaking of brainwashing, here a few reasons as to why I love listening to No Man’s Land:

 

1. Hearing a famous musician who happens to be from Long Island speaking out against the new Long Island and what suburbia has become, offers a refreshing glimpse of hope.  Billy Joel likely has everything thing he could ever need or want, but, at least in this song, he is still concerned with the trends of society.  [Please, this is not time to bash Billy Joel. Substitute any appropriate celebrity name here.] 

  

2. It undeniably sings to preservationists.  Any form of inspiration is appreciated, and if it’s a great song, then it’s even better.  It reminds of the effect that Big Yellow Taxi has on us preservationists, even if slightly different.  The lyrics don’t offer instantaneous understanding, but upon closer examination it is so obvious what they are actually saying.

 

3. The descriptions of suburbia, while to one extreme, are just accurate enough to further my own personal case against suburbia.

 

4. And simply, I have always loved Billy Joel, as previously implied. 

 

Thank you, Billy Joel, for helping our quality of life and sense of place case.

 

Accessibility to Historic Preservation

Normally I shorten “historic preservation” to “preservation,” and I’m not sure when this habit began; perhaps, it was a result of not having enough time to study for, let alone pronounce my major.  Two other reasons: 1. to make “historic preservation” more people friendly and accepted by the masses or 2. Anyone who is a historic preservationist understands what I mean when I say preservation. 

 

By making something more people friendly, I don’t mean bending the rules to appease the naysayer; rather, just offering accessibility to the field.  That is one reason why, to me, historic preservation can be defined by the term “quality of life.”  The term will have a different definition to every single person who answers, but the general idea is that quality of life isn’t uniform and that’s what makes it important.  Rural dwellers as opposed to city folks will value divergent aspects of their environment, yet the roots do converge.  What do people like about their environment?  What intangible aspects distinguish that area from another area?

 

Perhaps it is the appearance (i.e. architecture, landscape, combined restoration and planning) or the culture (i.e. folk traditions and new traditions / museums at work) or the sense of belonging and the history (i.e. historical, archaeological research at work presented to the public).  Every aspect of historic preservation complements the others, which in turn provide citizens with a place that they love and respect, thereby improving their quality of life.  If they were to take away even one of the aforementioned aspects, for example, the appearance, then the affect would change.  Without appealing sites and gathering spaces, it takes away respect for the built environment and subsequently the historical environment.

 

Being a preservationist is an uphill battle, one that we have all willingly and knowingly dedicated ourselves to conquering.  Our best bet to reaching the public is to continue to do what we’re doing, but to present it in less daunting terms.  If we lived in Utopia, everyone would eventually see the light, but we need to concentrate on teaching people how to preservation friends, one by one.  Intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with an audience being familiar with preservation; even the smartest college graduates need an introduction to historic preservation. 

 

For all of these reasons, the connectivity and the accessibility, that is why, “quality of life” fits historic preservation.  I believe it has the greatest potential engage interest in our field.