Q&A with Stephanie Meeks: Why the Key to Successful, Future Cities Lies in the Past

Meeks uses case studies, like Philadelphia, to illustrate her call for building preservation

By 2030, the United States will demolish 82 billion square feet of existing building space to create new and modern structures. While some new buildings may be equipped with energy saving technologies and materials, the construction process itself consumes a lot of energy. In fact, the energy required to tear down and rebuild 82 billion square feet could power the entire state of California for a decade. Instead of prioritizing new construction, what if companies invested in preserving existing buildings? Are historic buildings valuable for future cities?

A new book, The Past and Future City, explains how historic buildings and the preservation movement can make our cities more desirable, prosperous and equitable, and urban residents happier and healthier.

I sat down with Stephanie Meeks, CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and author of The Past and Future City, to learn more about the potential of old buildings and the benefits of their preservation in modern cities.

Why is it important to preserve old buildings, and how can cities benefit from their preservation?  

As the urban activist Jane Jacobs argued fifty-five years ago, “cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.” She was writing at a time when too many cities were destroying their historic neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal,” which usually meant demolishing entire city blocks to build more highways and parking lots. But today, experience and new empirical research have shown the truth of her words: Preservation is one of our most powerful tools for urban regeneration. At the National Trust, we have amassed the data and research to back this up.

In fact, older buildings possess many remarkable powers that help cities to thrive. They often have low overhead and offer opportunities for small businesses and innovative thinkers alike.  They help reduce energy and carbon costs – As the saying goes, “the Greenest Building is the one that is already built.” And they provide the character and distinctiveness that attract residents and tourists.

Older neighborhoods also tend to be denser, more walkable, and designed in a way that is more sustainable over time. In all of these ways, older buildings are proven and durable economic engines that can help a city grow.

If the benefits are that striking, why aren’t more cities investing in historic areas? What is the biggest challenge in preserving historic structures? 

Many cities are investing in historic areas today, and preservation now has a seat at the table in discussions of urban planning, zoning, and economic development. Time and again, you can see that the road to revitalization runs through the historic Main Street or downtown.

But, of course, some challenges do exist. We sometimes see, despite all the evidence of preservation’s success, old stereotypes prevailing about the usefulness of older building stock.  This is unfortunate. We strongly believe that building reuse should be the default option for cities, and demolition always the option of last resort. Because once a place is destroyed, you lose all the remarkable benefits I just described – benefits that can only accrue over time.

In addition, sometimes building codes, zoning laws, and parking regulations need to be updated or streamlined to allow older places to thrive. If an area is designated purely residential or purely commercial, for example, it doesn’t allow readily for the type of multi-use older buildings in many cities that features a store on the first floor and apartments above. Similarly, parking requirements often don’t make sense for an historic downtown that was built before cars. At the Trust, we are working with cities to make these sorts of regulations more flexible, and to integrate building reuse into other policy reforms, like transit guidelines.

What is an example of one city that has created benefits through preservation?  

Well, there are many! But one that immediately comes to mind, in part because I grew up and went to college near there, is Denver. Today, Denver is a national leader in almost all the ways that count, with a growing population, a surging economy, and a high quality of life – good mass transit, walkability, etc. And if you talk to city officials and developers there, they’ll tell you that one of the keys to Denver’s success has been historic preservation.

In many ways, Denver got a head start over much of the country in using preservation as an engine for positive change. Through the efforts of visionary developers like Dana Crawford, historic Denver neighborhoods like Larimer Square in the 1960’s and Lower Downtown, or LoDo, in the 1980’s became catalysts for economic growth and urban regeneration. Today, that same spirit is prevailing across the city.

In your book, you dedicate a chapter to diverse and inclusive communities. How does preservation address issues of urban equity? 

When it comes to diversity, we feel it is very important to capture the full American story, and to honor and preserve the places that matter to all communities. As Americans, we are bound together not by blood but by our commitment to democratic ideas, and a shared history that is embodied in our landscape. So we have to get that history right – even the complex and difficult parts – to make sure it is told in a way that does justice to the past, and that allows every American to see themselves in it.

Regarding urban equity, a central argument in this book is that older buildings can help jumpstart revitalization. At the same time, sometimes rapid revitalization can produce neighborhoods that are in danger of being completely hollowed out and drained of character. If an historic neighborhood that was once home to a thriving, diverse community suddenly becomes unaffordable to all but the wealthy, and all its unique storefronts get replaced by chain stores, that is not a success. So we have to make sure that the quality of life for existing urban residents isn’t being diminished by the impacts that come when a street begins to improve its fortunes – most notably displacement.

The good news is there are ways to do it – to use older buildings to provide affordable housing and help ensure positive outcomes for all. In Macon, Georgia, for example, a neighborhood-wide preservation effort led by the Historic Macon Foundation (HMF) has helped to transform nearly five hundred homes in the Beall’s Hill area around Mercer University. Through a partnership with the Knight Foundation and others, HMF has been working to provide façade and energy efficiency loans and down-payment assistance to those who need it in Beall’s Hill. They also work to counter displacement of the current community in other ways – by recruiting low-income homeowners, advocating for property tax freezes, and never acquiring occupied homes. Their work is revitalizing the entire neighborhood in a way that includes everyone.

Many cities in rapidly developing regions aren’t facing the same kinds of aging building stock as cities in the U.S. What do you think are some of the lessons or implications for these cities?

While we tend to focus on buildings, and for good reason, every community has places that define them and stories to tell. And every city’s future is connected to its past.

At the beginning of the book, I talk about the Maravilla handball court and El Centro grocery store in East Los Angeles. To outsiders, the court just looks like a simple stretch of asphalt – There’s nothing outwardly remarkable about it. But to the residents of Maravilla, the court remains a special place and a center of the community. A place worth preserving.

Ultimately, older places are powerful because of the impact they have on the community around them. They are the places that make up our landscape and that tell our story. They bring us together and make us feel like we’re at home. We want to see them endure, so we can show them to our children and grandchildren. And the best way to make that happen is to see that they are meeting the needs of today, and continuing to play a vibrant and dynamic role in the community. That’s important whether we’re talking about buildings, parks, or anything else.

Learn more about Stephanie Meeks’ Book: The Past and Future City

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