City Planning and Historic Preservation: Friendly Enemies?

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the most meaningful U.S. historic preservation laws: the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 that created the National Register of Historic Places, State Historic Preservation Offices, and National Historic Landmarks.

This law consolidated and improved on a century of piecemeal federal efforts to preserve important American landmarks and historic sites. It is more than opportune, therefore, that the Spring issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 82, No. 2) focuses on the sometimes contentious, sometimes supportive, relationship between the disciplines of city planning and historic preservation.

Guest Editors Jennifer Minner of Cornell University and Michael Holleran of the University of Texas at Austin have assembled an insightful group of articles and planning notes that deal with the synergies and conflicts between the two disciplines.

City Planning and Preservation Conflicts

Each of the eight articles and five Planning Notes in the special issue has a different substantive focus, but all concentrate on how city planning concerns and those of preservationists can be at odds with one another at the local level, where ironically most of the historic preservation occurs — as Jennifer Minner shows in her review article in the issue ("Revealing Synergies, Tensions, and Silences Between Preservation and Planning").

The 1966 federal act was a turning point in historic conservation, but it is the combination of public and private efforts at the local level, as Minner shows, that has most affected preservation across the U.S. and where the need for coordination with local planning efforts is the most crucial.

Many of the authors in the special issue describe ways in which planners and preservationists have been at cross-purposes at the local level. Many suggest ways in which these two professions can go beyond simply reducing conflicts to more effectively collaborating in the future, harmonizing their often differing viewpoints and perspectives in support of larger community goals.

Historic Preservation and Sustainability

For me, all of the articles in the issue touch on three major, and interrelated, themes to greater or lesser extent.

The first is that historic preservation has moved beyond a focus on saving only historic architecture and the built environment to accepting the need to recognize and preserve social history and cultural artifacts.

The second theme is that historic preservation may conflict with a number of sustainability goals as local planners have increasingly come to view them.

The third theme is the need for historic preservationists to understand the sometimes negative impact of their efforts on disadvantaged communities, to ensure that conserving historic neighborhoods does not lead to displacement of lower income families and those of color.

Top image: Cotter Bridge is Highway 62 across the White River. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. Photo by Flickr user Arkansas Highways (CC BY-ND 2.0).

About the Author
Dr. Sandi Rosenbloom is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American Planning Association and Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

March 24, 2016

By Sandra Rosenbloom