Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Integrating Historic Preservation and Sustainability at the Local Level 

12-09-2015 17:35

Welcome to the Summer 2012 edition of Forum Journal. This issue brings together a diverse collection of articles that highlight progress in all corners of the country in advancing the integration of historic preservation and sustainability goals.

While sustainability considerations may not be a main concern right now in national policy discussions, the issue is still very much a priority in many communities throughout the United States. Cities of all sizes are embracing sustainability for myriad reasons—for example the belief in an obligation to help minimize climate change impacts, and the desire to help homeowners and other building owners save money on energy bills.

Going beyond the single building approach, cities are also embracing sustainable placemaking because they see it as a competitive advantage, helping to attract and retain key demographics that are especially important to a city’s economic success, including college students, well-educated workers, and entrepreneurs. The preference of these groups for living in vibrant, walkable neighborhoods is increasingly well known, and has been discussed at length by Richard Florida and other urban thought leaders who stress the connection between a rich built environment and attracting talented people.

Older buildings and historic preservation serve as the foundation for the creative, lively neighborhoods that give cities a strong sense of place and identity—and thus a competitive boost. Yet all too often the role of older and historic buildings in sustainable urban areas is overlooked, and in some instances older buildings are even demolished as part of a community’s sustainable planning efforts.

In addition to attracting people to more compact, walkable neighborhoods, there are other sustainability advantages associated with older buildings. The National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab released a study earlier this year, entitled The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, which finds that in almost every case, the reuse of existing buildings results in fewer environmental impacts over their life span compared to demolition and new construction. Even when comparing building rehabilitation to new, more energy-efficient construction, the value of building reuse still provides near-term opportunities to reduce negative impacts, such as those that contribute to climate change.

But as The Greenest Building demonstrates, reusing buildings alone isn’t enough to satisfy environmental responsibilities. The study finds that the greater benefit comes from reusing and retrofitting an existing building. Such retrofits help to conserve the earth’s resources and reduce climate warming emissions—worthy objectives to be sure—but they also directly serve preservation goals: greening buildings helps owners save money, makes these buildings more attractive investments, and secures their survival over time.

The importance of reusing existing buildings and retrofitting them for improved environmental performance is at the core of the National Trust’s Building Sustainable Communities Preservation Priority. These priorities are designed to address high profile, cross-cutting preservation issues of importance to the saving of historic places and the growth of the preservation movement in America. Through the Sustainability Priority in particular, the National Trust is working to encourage key decision makers for the built environment—including local policy makers and developers—to integrate building reuse and retrofits as a central element of their sustainable development strategies. Forum members—as preservation experts on the front lines working with these decision makers every day—have an extremely important role to play in helping local decision makers “connect the dots” between historic preservation and sustainable placemaking.

The articles in this issue are intended to help Forum members understand the latest thinking and current practices relating to the integration of sustainability and historic preservation. In this edition of Forum Journal, you will find excellent examples of communities working to integrate sustainability with their existing historic preservation goals—and vice versa. Such progress can be seen in the green preservation guidelines recently developed by Oklahoma City and New Orleans. Both communities have developed locally appropriate guidelines that help building owners understand how they can integrate green technologies into their rehabilitation projects in ways that do not compromise the character of historic buildings.

The rehabilitation of the Emerson School in Denver has provided the National Trust with the opportunity to “walk the talk” about green building and preservation. Read more in Jim Lindberg’s article about how the National Trust has rehabilitated this 1885 former school to serve as a permanent, historic, and visible home for the National Trust’s Denver Office and its local nonprofit partners, Historic Denver, Inc., and Colorado Preservation, Inc.

You will also read about noteworthy activity taking place at the neighborhood level. Across the country, district-wide greening approaches are becoming increasingly popular, since the process of greening one building at a time can be quite slow compared to working at a district-scale. Tom Osdoba’s article on the potential integration of district energy into older and historic neighborhoods illustrates exactly how such a neighborhood-level focus can help transition entire neighborhoods to more a sustainable fuel source, thus permitting buildings to reduce their carbon emissions at a much larger scale than might be accomplished by a one-by-one building approach.

Wayne Donaldson’s article on the North Park neighborhood in San Diego illustrates a different and equally exciting kind of district-based approach to sustainability, one that is embedded in Main Street. In developing and embracing a local sustainable development plan, North Park offers a terrific example of the potential to integrate Main Street’s principles of sustainable economic development and historic preservation with efforts to create a more environmentally friendly community. As Donaldson notes, the sustainability plan is “intended to further strengthen and broaden the district’s competitive position as a desirable destination for new businesses,” and, as such, is likely to inspire other Main Street communities that are also looking to strengthen their economic core.

“Sustainable communities” means many things to different people and its definition continues to evolve. In her article, Rachel Bowdon of the Preservation Green Lab takes a look at the building blocks of sustainable communities and discusses how historic preservation is an integral component of each of these blocks.

Kimberly Koole’s review of Stephen Coyle’s Sustainable and Resilient Communities: A Comprehensive Action Plan for Towns, Cities and Regions, reminds us that while we can point to many successes, too often planners and others still overlook the role of preservation in sustainability-related endeavors. It will take all of us working together at the national, state, and local level to help cement this connection. But as this edition of Forum Journal demonstrates, we’re off to a good start.


Publication Date: Summer 2012

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Author(s):Patrice Frey
Volume:26
Issue:4