Historic Places are Livable Places: A Conversation from the PastForward Conference

By Cristina Davia

The National Trust for Historic Preservation hosted their annual PastForward Conference in Houston in November 2016. A TrustLive session called Preservation Livability was a highlight. The moderator Susan West Montgomery, Vice President of Preservation Resources at the National Trust, asked what livability meant to the panelists and how the reuse of historic buildings contributes to livability.

Panelists in the discussion included Rick Lowe, a community activist, artist and founder of Houston-based Project Row Houses; Claudia Guerra, Cultural Historian for the Office of Historic Preservation in the City of San Antonio; and Mike Powe, Director of Research at the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab.

Livability is a broad term that encompasses many aspects of a community, and its meaning can vary depending on place and person defining it. Each participating panelist discussed how their work in their respective cities tackles the challenge of creating livable places.

Affordable housing

Lowe, who works on the revitalization of Houston’s historically African-American and low-income Third Ward, said he believes “livability starts with affordability.”

With that in mind, in 1993 Lowe founded Project Row Houses and set out to save the Third Ward’s 22 shotgun houses from demolition and restore them for affordable housing.

Shotgun houses in Houston's Third Ward after restoration by Project Row House (Source: glasstire / Pinterest)

Shotgun houses in Houston’s Third Ward after restoration by Project Row House (glasstire / Pinterest)

Local artist John Biggers highlighted the historical significance of the shotgun houses in relation to the African-American experience in Houston through visual art. Lowe saw the homes as architecturally important and envisioned how they could contribute to sense of community.

Lowe’s idea was to create “a living John Biggers painting” by restoring the shotgun houses for low-income people and families to live in.

“Once I started talking to people about this, people from all walks of life had interest in how these houses could come to life and reflect a particular kind of culture,” Lowe said.

By restoring the shotgun houses, Project Row Houses created a public space and a private neighborhood.

“Some houses were used as artist work spaces, some as private homes, some for education purposes, some as transitional housing for single mothers,” Lowe said. “They had a huge impact on how people in the Third Ward think about their neighborhood.”

The shotgun houses encapsulate the spirit of the Third Ward and bring people together in a historic setting.

“The shotgun house speaks to how people are starting to think about building for the future, and building in ways where the street means something and public space means something to people,” Lowe said.

The small, tight knit homes foster a sense of sense of community in the Third Ward. They allow residents to feel close and connected to their neighbors in a place where people rely on each other more than in wealthier communities.

Sense of place

“Livability is the spirit of a place because that’s what gives a place life and makes a community thrive, and it’s often created by people,” said Guerra.

Guerra made it her mission to determine the spirit of San Antonio by starting a cultural mapping program. Maps, she said, are important because they not only tell us where we are, they tell us who we are.

“A building may not have architectural significance but what happens in that building might be very significant,” Guerra said. “It’s what happens in a structure and who uses a structure that determines a sense of place.”

Guerra realizes the only way to find out the significance of a place is by talking to people. At community meetings, Guerra conducts oral histories on their Missions. Guerra asks people to tell their stories and requires them to hand draw maps to make their stories tangible. People also provide historic photographs, which are archived by the city.

Many of the photographs are strung on fences as large banners in places that need beautification. “It’s a way to explore and discover and ultimately to celebrate our history,” Guerra said. “We use those terms to counter some of the terms typically used by in historic preservation which are identify, document and designate. Our way is to celebrate.”

Guerra talks to people, listens to their memories and hears what livability means to them.

“When we talk about livability, the result is people feel engaged,” Guerra said. “They feel like their story is being told.”

The City of San Antonio received an inscription from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for World Heritage for their Missions one year into Guerra’s term.

Sustainability

“The greenest thing you can do is use a building that’s already been built,” said Powe.

With the Preservation Green Lab, Powe worked on The Greenest Building report which shows the environmental value of building reuse, and Older Smaller Better which shows the social, economic and cultural value of building reuse.

Most recently, the Preservation Green Lab released The Atlas of Reurbanism, a tool for urban leaders and advocates to better understand and leverage the opportunities that exist in American cities. The previously mentioned reports show the value of building reuse, and the Atlas was created to make reuse more likely to occur in cities.

“Ultimately, it’s about making building reuse the default option instead of demolition and new construction,” Powe said. “That’s just logical I think.”

The Atlas looked at 50 U.S. cities and found that there are 40 million people living in those 50 cities. Twenty-four million of those people live in areas with a high character score (a mix of old and new, big and small buildings), including 12.5 million people of color. There are more jobs and small businesses, greater population density, greater density of housing units in areas with a high character score in all 50 cities. There are higher percentages and greater counts of women- and minority-owned businesses in areas with a high character score in 48 of the 50 cities in the Atlas.

The Atlas takes the massive amount of data currently available about cities and makes it more accessible, allowing users to explore connections between older buildings and economic, demographic and environmental measures. Users can access data about cities to connect the character of the built environment to positive outcomes.