Conflict and Convergence Between Historic Preservation and City Planning

The Spring issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 82, No. 2) honors the spirit of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

This crucial piece of national legislation actually highlights the importance of local efforts to conserve and maintain our cultural efforts. In so doing it also brings into relief the conflicts which can emerge or perhaps are endemic to a process in which city planners and historic preservationists must work together to achieve successful outcomes, when the goals of the two professions are not always the same.

The special issue of JAPA, guest edited by Jennifer Minner and Michael Holleran, focuses on these conflicts. Most of the articles and planning notes in the issue provide compelling examples of the sometimes difficult interplay of city planning and historic preservation. A compelling theme in several articles is the equity implications of historic preservation, the failure of preservationists to involve or consider the impacts of historic preservation on low-income families or disadvantaged communities.

Brian J. McCabe and Ingrid Gould Ellen directly address this issue, asking whether neighborhoods in New York City, after being designated as historic districts, evince undesirable changes in racial and socio-economic make-up.

In "Does Preservation Accelerate Neighborhood Change? Examining the Impact of Historic Preservation in New York City," the authors do not find racial changes but they do see significant increases in socio-economic status after the historic designation.

McCabe and Gould Ellen suggest that while preservation can contribute to economic revitalization, it also risks making neighborhoods less affordable for lower income families. The authors note, "Our findings present a dilemma for planners concerned about balancing the many benefits of historic preservation with the realities of socio-economic change." They suggest that planners must work to ensure that longstanding residents are not pushed out of historic neighborhoods as they are preserved so that "...preservation [is not] simply gentrification by another name."

Guest Editor Jennifer Minner, in her review article "Revealing Synergies, Tensions, and Silences Between Preservation and Planning," also addresses this theme by exploring the need for preservationists to explicitly consider the equity implications of their work. She counsels preservationists to reconnect their concerns for the historic city to the broader community goals that planners often espouse.

She concludes, "I believe that the pursuit of an equity agenda would transform the field and has the potential to provide profound contributions to the development of sustainable and equitable communities. Armed with an equity agenda, preservation could more powerfully assist planning in ameliorating inequities while stewarding the historic and cultural assets upon which communities are built."

I invite you to check out the Spring issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association. Subscribe to JAPA; feel free to contact me for additional information.

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. Contact her at

Image: Detail of the Astor Library, now the Public Theater. It was designated a New York City Landmark in 1965, one of the first buildings to be recognized by the city's newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission. Detail of photo by Flickr user Billie Grace Ward (CC BY 2.0).

March 30, 2016

By Sandra Rosenbloom