As discussion around the topic has increased, a document has been circulated outlining some thoughts presented at the National Trust's annual Forum Luncheon by Donovan Rypkema, an economist well respected for his interest and research in preservation. Those thoughts, available at his blog here, challenge his audience to change attitudes about preservation by changing its focus from one of history to one of heritage, that is, less about bricks and mortar and more about the culture surrounding their creation and use.
Though I may quibble with a few details and word choices, it's a viewpoint I largely share.
Those who know me well know that, after much mind changing, nail biting, and a few beers to settle down, I'm in the process of applying to graduate school as an MA student in Cultural Sustainability. As a part of that process, I was asked to provide a brief biographical sketch highlighting how I came to be interested in such matters. Since it was involvement in New Albany that mostly drove me to it, New Albany, and its personal but universal challenges, quickly became the topic.
An excerpt from that biographical essay is below. I certainly can't claim the depth of knowledge or talent that Rypkema demonstrates but I was struck by our somewhat similar themes. Readers will notice that both neighborhood revitalization and historic preservation receive mention. They are topics that I do not separate. It's my hope that these initial thoughts, both from Rypkema and me, will help to encourage the blending of the two in the ongoing conversation.
Readers are of course encouraged to share their thoughts as well.
I am a neighborhood activist in New Albany, Indiana, a city of approximately 37,000 along the banks of the Ohio River that was once the largest, most prosperous in the state.
About the city, a downriver 1850’s newspaper in Evansville said: "the glory of New Albany is in her construction of magnificent steamers. In this noble art her mechanics stand unrivaled. She is second only to Pittsburgh in the number of tons launched from her shores; but in the size of her boats, their models and strength, beauty and finish, she has no rival. The mechanics that have framed the Shotwell and Eclipse, and given them their grace, beauty, and speed, may challenge the world."
Today, much of the infrastructure and building stock created to support steamer construction and related industries still exist, representing a standard of public investment and private entrepreneurship not often replicated in contemporary small cities. The mechanics and craftspeople that created and utilized them, however, have largely vanished along with the vibrant culture their activities generated. A friend jokingly refers to it as an open-air museum. If so, it’s a museum whose programming has been woefully insufficient for decades.
That was the problem with which several others and I started a few years ago. After a year of individual study and research, I was lucky enough to begin making connections with regional community development leaders, sharing knowledge and beginning to identify the cohorts of my more private community within the larger, more public whole. They in turn provided access to an even broader contingent of consultants, a national network of professionals affiliated with NeighborWorks America, a Washington, DC, based nonprofit organization “created by Congress to provide financial support, technical assistance, and training for community-based revitalization efforts.” That access culminated in my participation in a national pilot program for place-based training that brought the NeighborWorks Community and Neighborhood Revitalization Professional Certificate curriculum to the Louisville, KY, metro area. It was as part of that training that I became familiar with the Healthy Neighborhoods approach to community revitalization.
The Healthy Neighborhoods approach seeks to establish neighborhoods (or communities) of choice, places where it makes economic sense to invest time, money, and energy; where neighbors have the capacity to successfully manage day-to-day issues; and where they have confidence in their investments and their futures.
The methodology involves focusing on four primary factors as defined by David Boehlke, a major proponent of the approach:
Image: In an asset-oriented strategy that builds both household and neighborhood equity, it is important to promote a positive identity. That for older neighborhoods to compete successfully, they need to draw on their assets and tell their unique stories (for example, historic homes, urban parks, and so on). Residents and outsiders will see the neighborhood as attractive.
Markets: Each neighborhood has a unique market niche. All investments must reinforce the housing market and increase home values. Investment in one property improves the value of all properties within the neighborhood.
Physical conditions: We need to target outcomes, not outputs, because numbers don’t tell the story. Outcomes measure whether the neighborhood is improving as a place for residents to invest and to build equity and neighborly connections.
Social connections (neighborhood management): Prospective homeowners and residents – not community development corporations, government agencies, or other funders – are the most important neighborhood decision makers. Traditional approaches often subsidize households with the greatest needs and provide housing as an end itself. Instead, we need to work to create and improve social connections by engaging residents in their neighborhood and community.
In essence, each of these factors deals with a notion of value— a sense of worth that can be experienced individually, shared with others, and promoted for the greater good. While Healthy Neighborhood outcomes are often discussed and measured using the type of market-based language most often associated with real estate, the ideas of believing and belonging are central to their resident-driven success. It’s that understanding that helped my initial exposure to cultural sustainability make sense.
As mentioned previously, the physical bones of my geographic community are largely intact. We, along with many other similar cities and towns, enjoy the type of built environment that those with New Urbanist leanings are currently investing millions to recreate under the guises of Smart Growth and environmental sustainability. Historic preservationists have also taken an interest in the structures that have long provided us a sense of place, more recently tying their efforts, too, to wider ranging environmental concerns via concepts of adaptive reuse.
Those interests are certainly important if we’re to make the most of the limited natural and financial resources available to us. Simply put, they will help allow us to continue living. What’s missing from those respective equations, however, is the less tangible but more important proposition of what constitutes “living” in the experiential sense. Though the relationship between people and their built environment is one of mutual impact and can serve to inform legacy, a community’s culture is not limited to products. As such, it’s not the products themselves but rather the endeavor to create the products out of a shared understanding of and desire for potential benefit that’s key to cooperatively striving for betterment.
It’s that type of camaraderie, that shared belief in the possibility of the better - whether it takes the form of preserving the old or initiating the new - that forms the basis of community and culture and allows us to sustain ourselves in new and not-so-new meaningful ways.
Artist, author, and copywriter Hugh McLeod said, “The market for something to believe in is infinite.” From firsthand experience, I know that to be a tough market. But it’s not so much the mechanics and craftspeople themselves that have been missing from my neighborhood but the passion, creativity, and general spirit they brought to the place. Fostering belief in those assets, both within the community and as a marketing function directed toward external audiences, is the problem I have now as revitalization efforts move forward.