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Historic Preservation

An Overview of Historic Preservation and Its Importance to Urban Planning

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Faneuil Hall - Boston

Historic Faneuil Hall is awash in Christmas lights in Boston, Massachusetts.

Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Historic preservation is a movement in planning designed to conserve old buildings and areas in an effort to tie a place's history to its population and culture. It is also an essential component to green building in that it reuses structures that are already present as opposed to new construction. Additionally, historic preservation can help a city become more competitive because historic, unique buildings give areas more prominence when compared to the homogeneous skyscrapers that dominate in many large cities.

It is important to note however, that historic preservation is a term used only in the United States and it did not gain prominence until the 1960s when it started in response to urban renewal (an earlier failed planning movement). Other English-speaking countries often use the term "heritage conservation" to refer to the same process while "architectural conservation" refers just to the preservation of buildings. Other terms include "urban conservation," "landscape preservation," "built environment/heritage conservation," and "immovable object conservation."

History of Historic Preservation

Although the actual term "historic preservation" did not become popular until the 1960s, the act of conserving historic places dates back to the mid-17th Century. At this time, wealthy Englishmen consistently collected historic artifacts, leading to their preservation. It was not until 1913 though that historic preservation became a part of English law. In that year the Ancient Monuments Act in the United Kingdom officially preserved structures there with historical interest.

In 1944, preservation became a major component to planning in the U.K. when the Town and Country Planning Act put the preservation of historic places into the forefront of laws and approval of planning projects. In 1990, another Town and Country Planning Act passed and the protection of public buildings grew even more.

In the United States, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities was founded in 1889 in Richmond, Virginia as the first state historic preservation group in the country. From there, other areas followed suit and in 1930, Simons and Lapham, an architectural firm, helped created the first historic preservation law in South Carolina. Shortly thereafter, the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana became the second area to fall under a new preservation law.

The preservation of historic places then hit the national scene in 1949 when the U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation developed a specific set of goals for preservation. The organization’s mission statement claimed that it aimed to protect structures providing leadership and education and that it also wanted to "save America’s diverse historic places and revitalize [its] communities."

Historic preservation then became a part of the curriculum at many universities in the U.S. and the world that taught urban planning. In the U.S., historic preservation became a large component in the planning profession in the 1960s after urban renewal threatened to destroy many of the nation’s most historic places in major cities like Boston, Massachusetts and Baltimore, Maryland.

Divisions of Historic Places

Within planning, there are three main divisions of historic areas. The first and most important to planning is the historic district. In the United States, this is a group of buildings, properties, and/or other sites that are said to be historically significant and in need of protection/redevelopment. Outside of the U.S., similar places are often called "conservation areas." This is a common term used in Canada, India, New Zealand, and the U.K. to designate places with historical natural features, cultural areas, or animals to be protected.

Historic parks are the second division of areas within historic preservation while historic landscapes are the third.

Significance in Planning

Historic preservation is important to urban planning because it represents an effort to conserve old building styles. In doing so, it forces planners to identify and work around the protected places. This usually means the insides of buildings are renovated for prestigious office, retail, or residential space, which can result in a competitive downtown as rents are normally high in these areas because they are popular gathering places.

In addition, historic preservation also results in a less homogenized downtown landscape. In many new cities, the skyline is dominated by glass, steel, and concrete skyscrapers. Older cities that have had their historic buildings preserved may have these but they also have the interesting older buildings. For example in Boston, there are new skyscrapers, but the renovated Faneuil Hall shows the importance of the area's history and also serves as a meeting place for the city's population.

This represents a good combination of the new and old but also shows one of the main goals of historic preservation.

Criticisms of Historic Preservation

Like many movements in planning and urban design, historic preservation has had a number of criticisms though. The largest is the cost. While it might not be more expensive to renovate old buildings instead of building new, the historic buildings are often smaller and therefore cannot accommodate as many businesses or people. This raises rents and forces lower income uses to relocate. In addition, critics say the popular style of newer high rise buildings can cause the smaller, old buildings to become dwarfed and undesirable.

Despite these criticisms however, historic preservation has been an important part of urban planning. As such, many cities around the world today were able to retain their historic buildings so future generations can see what cities may have looked like in the past and recognize that time's culture through its architecture.

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