The Past and Future of City

“Old buildings don’t just connect us to our past. They are the cornerstone of a brighter future. The best part is: they are already right here, among us. And we are richer and stronger when they remain.”

This past-future connection, old-new nexus line of argument supports the idea of historic preservation which Stephanie Meeks and Kevin Murphy advocate in their book entitled “The Past and Future City.”

Grounded upon their decades of experience dealing with urban studies and drawn from robust data from the Preservation Green Lab, the book proves to be a perfect antithesis to the oft-quoted argument that preservationists are anti-change, anti-progress and agents of gentrification.

The Past and Future of City--- Stephanie Meeks and Kevin Murphy

Publishers Weekly describes the book as “…an impassioned and well-argued case for the economic, environmental, and social value of preservation and active reuse of the nation’s historic buildings… an articulate call to action that should be of interest to scholars, community organizers, and policy makers in municipalities across the country.”

Preserve the past and enrich the future

By presenting a number of empirical case studies, Meeks and Murphy destroyed the old-age negative stereotype against historic preservation.

According to the authors, old buildings are not just pretty edifices. Rather they’re economic engines, centers of community, and the foundation for a stronger, more vibrant future.

Furthermore they claim that reusing old buildings creates jobs, reinvigorates local economies, and helps small businesses come to life. They help make neighborhoods healthier and more sustainable. They also help cities and communities grapple with many of the present urban problems, like affordability and displacement, sustainability and climate change.

They contend that neighborhoods with older buildings tend to have more small businesses and diversity in housing costs. Along with creative infill and altering parking requirements, repurposing older buildings for housing can help mitigate the issue of displacement.

They assert that in cities big and small, the best preservation projects are those which create opportunities for community residents at all income levels, while retaining the local history that ties generations together.

 They also claim rather emphatically that restoring old places can add up to the quality of life in a given neighborhood. Borrowing the words of Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership in Houston, Texas, the authors suggest that “young millennials…don’t come to cities necessarily for jobs anymore. They come for quality of life” – the quality of life older places provide.

The Past and Future of the City

Existing literature seems to support this claim. The architectural firm Sasaki Associates conducted a survey in six US cities in 2014 to identify what residents loved about the cities they lived in. Surprisingly, nearly two-thirds (57%) of city residents said they like to stop and admire historic buildings while walking around, far more than those who said the same of modern buildings (19%) or skyscrapers (15%).

In terms of combating climate change, accordingly, encouraging building reuse and retrofits is a proven and effective way to reduce energy costs and mitigate further environmental damage.

Quoting Architect Carl Elefante, Director of Sustainable Design at Qunin Evans Architects in Washington, D.C.:  “…the greenest building is the one already built.”

Insights worth sharing

With 352 pages spread across 7 chapters, the book delves on the following interesting insights relevant to cities which I personally think are worth sharing:

  1. “Old places speak to the need for belonging in a way that little else can.” The authors point out that such places provide opportunities to feel a social bond to others, to the larger community of human experience, and give us more reasons to believe that life is worth living and that whatever we do today has impact on the years to come. Old buildings and communities give us a sense of history and connect us to earlier generations of city life
  2. “… historic preservation can no longer just be about saving old places, independent of the men, women and children who live among them. We have to see that diverse history is being honored and diverse stories are being told. And we need to see that the concerns of families are heard, and their needs met, by adaptive reuse projects and urban revitalization strategies.”
  3. “At its most basic, historic preservation is about keeping old places alive, in active use, and relevant to the needs of communities today. As cities across America experience a remarkable renaissance, and more and more young, diverse families choose to live, work, and play in historic neighborhoods, the promise and potential of using our older and historic buildings to revitalize our cities is stronger than ever,” and
  4. “Preservation is about ensuring that our urban landscape reflects more than just profit margins or the whims of developers and real estate speculators — that they address the real needs and concerns of communities. It is about working to see that we honor and reflect the full contours of our past, including the complex and difficult chapters.”

Old is not only beautiful

Have you ever walked along old but well-preserved places in some cities in Europe? Think of Prague, Budapest, Vienna or whatnot. These UNESCO-declared sites are rich in histories and culture.

There is so much at stake attached in old buildings and places—the history, culture, tradition, sense of identity and community—that will be forever be destroyed once cities decide to remove them to give way for new ones. There are so many ways of bringing about progress in the community without losing sight of the remembrance of things past.

That old is beautiful is for some a dry platitude, an old cliché if you wish, but the truth embodied in it is almost always universal and timeless.

Sometimes something old is not only a thing of beauty that is a joy forever, but more importantly it is there to remind us of our connection to the past so that we are prepared to face the morrow.

If this work piques your interest, you can learn more straight from the author herself Stephanie Meeks:

Source: Springer, Next City, Traditional Building, Publishers Weekly, Island Press

Photo: www.traditionalbuilding.com

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