Preservation is Good for Your Health

Mark Fenton, the keynote speaker for the Rhode Island Preservation Conference delivered one of the best talks I’ve heard. He linked public health and historic preservation, in a way that makes the connection seem so obvious. Read on to learn more from Mark’s conference talk.

Preservation is good for your health, plain and simple. Preservation improves quality of life, which likely includes health. Many of us know this, but have we thought about it enough to put it into words?

How is preservation good for you? Historic towns and cities were built for human scale, often prior to our auto-centric designs. This means that buildings are closer together, the streets are not filled with vast parking lots and strip-mall style setbacks. Streetscapes include sidewalks, street furniture, mature shade trees. Cars are not what connected people. Instead, people walked or rode public transit.

The problem with our auto-centric suburbs? Our transportation design and development patterns do not encourage walking (i.e. exercise). Every task requires a car. Bike paths don’t necessarily link neighborhoods to a downtown core. The destinations need to be functional, with the trailheads at our front doors.

The solution? Better design that allows passive exercise for all ages. Meaning that people are encouraged and able to walk for errands. Not every task requires a car. Networks are safe and user friendly. How? Vocal concerned citizens need to speak up and alert their elected officials that design matters. Their town doesn’t have to settle for the typical corporate big-box chain look. Schools should be built in towns, rather than off in the middle-of-nowhere. Zoning needs to change.

We need to stop building a world conducive to inactivity, and recognize that our historic development patterns made more sense. Telling people to exercise is not going to work. It’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Instead, we need to change how we design, how we build.

Transportation design, building design, and community planning must be improved. Step up to the plate and negotiate. Make your community healthy and believe that your community deserves the absolute best, not the run-of-the-mill design.

Need smaller steps in your community? Add benches. Add shade trees. Buy a bike rack. Be an active role model. If you can, try walking for just one errand. Businesses are looking to locate in healthy communities.

Doesn’t it make perfect sense? Of course historic preservation is good for you. And that is another tool in our preservation toolbox.

Want to hear the entire talk? Watch it here – begin at 23 minutes for Mark.

Providence, RI. A healthy city block.

Providence, RI. A healthy city block.

Preservation ABCs: Z is for Zoning

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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Z is for Zoning

Alexandria, VA zoning. Click image and zoom in to read the map.

Zoning is a land use control and planning tool that dictates the types of buildings and their uses for a defined area. Elements under zoning control can include setback, height, density, appearance, parking, etc). There are pros and cons to zoning, as well as different types. All of this could be an entire book or an entire class, so let’s go over just a few pieces. 

A (Very Brief) History: In the late 19th century and early 20th century, American cities passed laws that governed aspects such as height and use of buildings. New York City adopted the first citywide zoning ordinance that identified residential, commercial, and unrestricted areas. The basic form for zoning began with the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (1924/6) and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act (1926/8), both published by the U.S. Department of Commerce.  In 1926, the Supreme Court upheld that zoning was constitutional in the case Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Company (272 U.S. 365). Here the village prohibited industrial development that could change the character of the village. The parcel of land had already been divided into parcels of land with height and density requirements, which is why industry could not be developed.

There is more than one type of zoning, and how zoning is applied varies across the United States and the world. The important point to know is this: Zoning and historic preservation can be good friends or foes.

How are they linked? A zoning plan divides an areas into different sections/zones. A zoning overlay is often a historic preservation district overlay that can cover more than one zone. In other words, the residential, commercial, and  industrial zones might all have some parts in the historic district, which is the historic preservation overlay.

How can they be friends or foes? Zoning can help historic preservation by aiding in controlling and directing growth to the appropriate areas. This has the benefit of protecting density and character of an area. Consider the Urban Growth Boundary of Portland, OR. However, zoning and preservation can interfere with one another. Zoning might restrict the rehabilitation of a building. In that case, zoning would need to be revisited for revisions or amendments or a special permit (conditional use) requested.

A lack of zoning will can harm historic preservation. Perhaps the National Register Historic District has not been expanded, therefore the historic district overlay not expanded. (Districts that were listed decades ago are often smaller than districts we would list today.) Inappropriate development could be  a threat because retail/commercial could be allowed in an area where it shouldn’t be. Consider a Dollar General built within an eligible historic district, simply because zoning has not been revisited in decades.

Despite changes that might be required, having a zoning ordinance is a better place to start than no zoning ordinance. If your community does not have zoning, it is a necessity. It is easier and better to be proactive than reactive. Check your town’s zoning districts, historic districts, and ask preservationists (check with your State Historic Preservation Office) if the districts could be increased). And preservation planners, feel free to add advice in the comments.

An excellent, easy-to-understand booklet from the NPS about Historic Preservation and Zoning. Alexandria, VA map found here.

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And just like that, we’ve made it all the way from A to Z. Thanks for following along with this series. If there are letters that you would change, please share.