Sustainability Begins with Preservation

A few notes from Donovan D. Rypkema’s presentation, Sustainability, Smart Growth and Historic Preservation, given at the Historic Districts Council Annual Conference in New York City, on March 10, 2007.

The Smart Growth movement has a clear statement of principles, and here it is:

-Create range of housing opportunities and choices

-Create walkable neighborhoods

-Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration

-Foster distinctive, attractive places with a Sense of Place

-Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective

-Mix land uses

-Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas

-Provide variety of transportation choices -Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities

-Take advantage of compact built design.

But you know what? If a community did nothing but protect its historic neighborhoods it will have advanced every Smart Growth principle. Historic preservation IS Smart Growth. A Smart Growth approach that does not include historic preservation high on the agenda is missing a valuable strategy and is stupid growth, period.

Historic preservation is vital to sustainable development, but not just on the level of environmental responsibility. Remember that the second component of the sustainable development equation was economic responsibility. So let me give you examples in this area.

A frequently under-appreciated component of historic buildings is their role as natural incubators of small businesses. It isn’t the Fortune 500 who are creating the net new jobs in America. 85% of all net new jobs are created by firms employing less than 20 people. One of the few costs firms of that size can control is occupancy costs/rents. In both downtowns but especially in neighborhood commercial districts a major contribution to the local economy is the relative affordability of older buildings. It is no accident that the creative, imaginative, small start up firm isn’t located in the corporate office “campus”, the industrial park or the shopping center – they simply cannot afford the rents there. Older and historic commercial buildings play that role, nearly always with no subsidy or assistance.

1. Sustainable development is crucial for economic competitiveness.

2. Sustainable development has more elements than just environmental responsibility.

3. “Green buildings” and sustainable development are not synonyms.

4. Historic preservation is, in and of itself, sustainable development.

5. Development without a historic preservation component is not sustainable.

In the last three decades of the 20th century, we lost from our national inventory of older and historic homes 6.3 million year-round housing units! Over 80 percent of those units were single-family residences. A few of those burned down or were lost to natural disasters, but the vast majority of them were consciously torn down – were thrown away as being valueless. And today millions of American families are paying the cost by paying for housing they cannot afford. 

Historic preservation is a responsibility movement rather than rights movement. It is a movement that urges us toward the responsibility of stewardship, not merely the right of ownership. Stewardship of our historic built environment, certainly; but stewardship of the meaning and memory of our communities manifested in those buildings as well.

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