Smart Growth and Resilience in the Face of Another Ellicott City Flood

By Nicholas Redding posted 06-07-2018 16:51


When I last visited Ellicott City just a few weeks ago, I saw a community full of hope and potential. Two years after the devastating 2016 flood, Main Street bustled with activity and new life. Just a few short days later, that new reality was shattered by a ferocious wall of water.

Ellicott City's Main Street circa 1890 | Credit: Library of Congress

In the span of less than 24 months, Ellicott City has endured two “1,000-year” floods. In 2016 the preservation community rallied around the city to rebuild, spending millions of dollars and thousands of hours putting the pieces back together. Preservation Maryland played a significant role in that effort, coordinating a variety of services to support as many members of the historic Ellicott City community as possible. The 86-year old organization adapted to meet the needs of the community, providing engineering support that saved buildings from demolition, hands-on technical assistance, laser scanning of the entire historic district, and the establishment of a bona fide Preservation Resource Center. A full report on Preservation Maryland’s involvement was published in 2017.

By early 2018, nearly 96 percent of the historic downtown storefronts were back in business—a stunning testament to the success of the recovery effort. Now, the people of Ellicott City are confronted once more with the unenviable task of rebuilding.

The unfortunate reality is that simply putting Ellicott City’s buildings back together will not make the community stronger. As satisfying as it may be to see a new coat of paint or repointed brick walls, we must be careful not to confuse recovery with resilience. The flooding is a vivid and undeniable reminder that the preservation of historic places is inextricably linked to broad and complex issues that our field has not traditionally focused on. We must now recognize that:

  • We cannot save historic Ellicott City if we are not joining the conversation about watershed overdevelopment to encourage smart growth.
  • We cannot save historic Ellicott City if we are not advocating for the increased funding necessary to support stormwater mitigation.
  • We cannot save historic Ellicott City—or any other historic place at the water’s edge—if we are not engaged in the effort to urgently advance climate resilience and action.

These are not the conversations that the preservation community is accustomed to having, but if we are serious about saving historic places like Ellicott City, these are the ones we must have. We can no longer sit on the sidelines of these debates, because smart growth is preservation and preservation is smart growth. We must think beyond the historic district because water and the forces of nature do not abide by arbitrary lines.

Ellicott City flood in May 2018 | Credit: Shannon Baranoski

Fortunately, in Maryland and beyond, preservationists are beginning to engage with these critical issues, and city- and statewide groups are leading that effort. The Keeping History Above Water conference, a project of the Newport Restoration Foundation, has been an ideal starting place for many such conversations. The conference, which most recently took place in May 2018 in Palo Alto, California, has provided leaders from around the globe with an opportunity to meet regularly and discuss challenges, concepts, and mitigation strategies. The recently reinvigorated National Preservation Partners Network is another space for these discussions, allowing preservation leaders to share case studies and best practices.

There is also more direct advocacy taking place across the country, including in Maryland, where the flood has sparked a robust public discourse about stormwater mitigation and the importance of historic places. Through these conversations, everyday Marylanders are expressing the value they place on historic communities. When asked, very few are willing to abandon or “give up” on Ellicott City or places like it, which suggests a broad and undeniable public preservation ethic. This provides preservationists an opportunity to enter the discourse as an emphatic voice for identifying smart growth strategies that also saves historic places. The task ahead is to convert the public’s energy into the political will and funding that will be necessary to complete vital resilience and mitigation projects. Accomplishing this in Ellicott City is especially important given Maryland’s many other historic resources in equally vulnerable locations. We need to get this right and learn how to duplicate that work across the state—and then across the nation.

Directly connecting preservation to smart growth—a concept that the community has supported in theory for decades, but has been largely unable to effect in practice—is the obvious next step. Preservation Maryland is now exploring that step with a renewed sense of urgency. Connecting the dots without diluting the preservation message or losing sight of the core mission is the challenge, and rising to that challenge is now a priority. If the recent flood in Ellicott City has taught us anything, it is that we must embrace a broad agenda and think beyond recovery alone. The future of our history depends on it.

Nicholas Redding is the executive director of Preservation Maryland and currently serves as the vice chair of the National Preservation Partners Network.


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