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Questioning historic preservation

Nathaniel Hood writes a provocative piece that questions the thinking behind historic districts and limits to change. From the post:

Minneapolis didn’t go from single-family homes to towering skyscrapers overnight. It took incremental growth over the course of 160 years to get it where it is today. But, what would Minneapolis look like if we decided to preserve itself in 1895?

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Great places evolve. This is a healthy and historic form of urban growth: start small and build up. Throughout human history, our places have evolved using this approach.

We’ve gotten plenty of things wrong along the way. Our wide cultural adoption of the automobile sprawled our places and destroyed a lot of great buildings in the name of car storage. Our towering skyscrapers offer little in the way ground-level urbanism and our skyways keep our sidewalks empty.

It might be time for our single family neighborhoods in Minneapolis to expand upwards once again. The new larger homes will be the duplexes of tomorrow. The duplexes of tomorrow will transform into small apartment buildings, and so on. Urban history appears to not be repeating itself because we’re not letting it; be it opposition to a small apartment building or new,  larger single family homes.

Nathaniel is attempting to spark a discussion, and it's a good one to have. From a big-picture standpoint, he's completely right. We used to build cities incrementally, gradually changing the scale building by building and block by block. New York City, even on Manhattan, used to be primarily single-family houses on their own lots and changed over time to what it is today. Along came the historic preservation movement, and one consequence is that most historic districts are largely frozen in amber in terms of scale and density.

Now, it's also important to note: there are good reasons for historic districts and why they came about. As Nathaniel notes, we destroyed a LOT of really good neighborhoods in the frenzy of 20th century car culture. Many concerned people looked around in horror and did everything they could to try and prevent any more destruction. In my opinion, those people are American heroes. They fought the reigning ideas of the time that were destroying civilization and because of them we still have some great places left. In Savannah, GA, one mayor even wanted to put streets through all the squares in order to "modernize" the place. People fought back and fortunately for all of us that never happened.

So now it's 2014, and things have improved. We're learning once again how to build urbanity, and it's putting economic pressure on those same historic districts. What should be done? Is it time to rethink our inherent approach to limiting change? Are form-based codes a good compromise solution? I'd love to hear more thoughts and discussion on this important issue. Please use the comment button below or even share your own post with me.

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