The Past and Future City: Q&A with National Trust President and CEO Stephanie Meeks
By Stephanie Meeks via Saving Places
The National Trust for Historic Preservation (in collaboration with Island Press) published The Past and Future City, a book by Stephanie K. Meeks and Kevin C. Murphy about the role historic preservation plays in urban spaces. In this book Meeks uses unique empirical research to describe the many ways that saving and restoring a city’s historic fabric can help create thriving neighborhoods, good jobs, and a vibrant economy. She explains the critical importance of preservation for all communities, the evolution of the preservation field to embrace the challenges of the 21st century, and the innovative work being done in preservation today.
You can hear Meeks speak about some of this work in Houston this November during the live-streamed opening plenary of the 2016 PastForward Conference. (The book will be available for purchase at the conference—both following the opening plenary and subsequently in the exhibit hall.)
To mark the publication of The Past and Future City, we asked Meeks a few questions about the book.
It has been more than five years since you became president and CEO of the National Trust. Why is now the opportune moment to publish The Past and Future City?
Many of the ideas informing the book pre-date my tenure—they have been percolating at the Trust, and through the work of the preservation community, since the days of Jane Jacobs. But now felt like a particularly appropriate time to write and publish this book for a number of reasons.
This year we have gathered enough data from our “Older, Smaller, Better” research—which we began in 2014, quantifying the many powerful benefits of historic preservation for cities—from enough cities to draw broad conclusions. In fact, soon after the publication of my book, we will be releasing an Urban Preservation Atlas [official title to be determined] that analyzes the building fabric of 50 cities all over America. As you know, we’ve found that, in city after city, neighborhoods with a mix of older and newer buildings perform better along a spectrum of social, economic, and environmental metrics than areas with just new buildings. Cities really do need older buildings quite badly, as Jane Jacobs surmised 55 years ago.
Furthermore, in my six-plus years with the Trust, I’ve found that there’s often a disconnect between the creativity you see in historic preservation today and public perceptions of the work we do. Preservation today is an amazingly vibrant and dynamic field, one that is embracing new tools and technologies and taking on new challenges—like presenting a broader version of the past and working to combat displacement and climate change. But too often, and even by people who are very close to our work, we’re still seen as a parochial-minded movement—the “Paint Police,” as it were. Preservation is so much more forward-looking and vital than that, and I wanted to try to capture some of that excitement and convey it to people outside our field.
Since 2016 is also the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, it seemed like a good year for a book that summarizes why preservation matters and all the good work it does to help us achieve a more prosperous, sustainable, and equitable future. Fifty years ago, that Act passed in part because of the arguments for preservation made in With Heritage So Rich. I can only hope this book is as well received! I think it is important to take this golden anniversary moment to look at the big picture of preservation—our past, present, and future.
“Preservation is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal for urban regeneration.”
Stephanie K. Meeks
In the chapter on affordability and displacement, you write that “preservation shouldn’t be something that happens to communities. We have to make sure we’re doing it right, and that the quality of life for existing urban residents isn’t being diminished by the associated impacts that come when a street, block, or neighborhood begins to improve its fortunes.”
In what ways does the book address the contributions (both real and perceived) of preservation to displacement and gentrification? How do we “do it right”? What strategies can we use to work alongside urban residents and enhance their quality of life?
First, I should say that, in many cities and neighborhoods, disinvestment is still the main issue, and one central argument—probably the central argument—of the book is that preservation is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal for urban regeneration. It is proven to create jobs, nurture small businesses, attract tourists and residents, and generate economic activity.
That being said, we’re also seeing cities where rapid revitalization is threatening to hollow out neighborhoods and drain them of character. Chain stores and luxury lofts are crowding out small businesses and affordable housing, and longtime residents feel like they are being priced and pushed out. We at the Trust are very concerned about these trends, and the chapter about them reflects our conversations with many city and community leaders who are working on the ground to address these issues.
In the book I outline a number of specific tools—like community benefit agreements, community land trusts, and heritage business protections—that can be applied to help maintain affordability and mitigate displacement. The 11th Street Bridge Project in Washington, D.C., for example—which will re-connect communities east of the Anacostia River to the rest of D.C. via a bridge that is being reused as a park—is currently using many of these tools. The main thing that the 11th Street Project is doing right is being cognizant of these issues and listening to the concerns of communities at every step: before, during, and after. That’s how we can have the best impact going forward, and that’s what I meant when I wrote that our work shouldn’t be imposed on communities from without. When we’re doing it that way, we’re doing it wrong.
I also thought it was important to address these issues because sometimes preservation is perceived as the driver of those current trends. We’ve all heard the argument that, if we just tore up the historic fabric in a given city and built a bunch of skyscrapers instead, there would be more housing and cities would be more affordable again. But that’s not in fact correct. For one thing, older neighborhoods are proven to achieve high densities at a human scale. For another, preservation protections are by no means driving the housing shortage in cities. There are other factors at work, such as the fact that almost all new construction today aims to serve the luxury market. One recent survey of 54 cities found that 82 percent—more than four out of every five—of new rental units built between 2012 and 2014 were high-end units. Some cities saw hardly any middle-class or affordable housing built at all.
That’s a much bigger supply and demand issue than historic preservation laws, which, if anything, have helped protect denser neighborhoods that still provide opportunities for residents of all incomes.
Throughout the book you emphasize the importance of connection (between people and place) as a strength of the movement, while at the same time quoting leaders of the field who say that preservation has become too procedural and bureaucratized. How do you see preservation balancing the head (supporting the achievability of useable older buildings) and the heart (nurturing that emotional connection to protect the past) of the work we do?
I think this goes back to what I mentioned earlier—the disconnect between the exciting work happening in our field and the way that people outside of preservation tend to view us. Too often, people think of preservationists as the folks who want to tell you, “No, you can’t build a deck on your historic home” or “No, you can’t re-paint that.” There’s a place for local controls, but there’s also so much more to historic preservation than bureaucratic strictures.
We want to lead with our best foot forward, and I think the fastest way of achieving that is by acting as, and thinking of ourselves as, a “movement of yes”—a movement that is working proactively to bring people together, solve problems, and connect us to our past. That’s one reason I wrote this book—to attempt to capture the passion, creativity, and even joy that infuses our work of keeping historic buildings in active use for their communities.
The conversations in The Past and Future City are all a part of a new major National Trust ReUrbanism initiative. What are some of the major goals of this initiative, and how does this publication contribute to these goals?
American cities are experiencing a renaissance at the moment, driven in part by the authenticity, distinctiveness, and character that historic neighborhoods provide. I discuss all the many positive social, economic, and environmental benefits that come from reusing existing buildings—benefits that are lost when these older buildings are demolished.
This is also the essence of our ReUrbanism initiative. In a nutshell, it works to refocus and emphasize these many benefits of preservation and illustrate how saving places can be a tremendous tool for urban revitalization going forward. Preservation isn’t just about the past—it helps cities grapple with the problems of our present and lays the foundation for a stronger future. Taken to scale, it can create jobs, reinvigorate local economies, and help small businesses come to life. It can make neighborhoods healthier and more sustainable. It can help us address problems like affordability and climate change. It can bring us together.
Both The Past and Future City and our ReUrbanism initiative work to highlight these remarkable powers that preservation has to enrich our communities. We hope this initiative will spur more creative partnerships at the city level with leaders and organizations working to encourage growth and solve urban problems. And we hope it will serve to spread the important message that reuse should be the first option and demolition the last resort. Because creating a successful community or neighborhood takes time, and when you destroy a building or other historic asset, it is gone forever, along with all the many positive benefits it might have provided.
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