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The Role Of Historic Properties in Sustainability
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Sustainability is incorporated as one of the guiding principles of the historic preservation movement and are found in the Secretary of the Interior’s “Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.” In the Blackstone River Valley area, The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor has created the Blackstone Valley Land Use Institute to work with partners and communities in increasing development and local land use capacity level and move toward sustainable communities.

Sustainability, greening and simplification initiatives are evolving everywhere from U.S. cabinet level bureaucrats to the Grow Smart movement. Whether the trend is a response to our high stimulus world, to complexities of sprawl or a romantic harkening back to a simpler time, it is here to stay. In broad terms, “sustainability” refers to any activity or life-style that lowers human impact on our personal lives, our historic homes or traditional communities yielding positive gains. In definition, sustainability is a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.

Sustainability is incorporated as one of the guiding principles of the historic preservation movement and are found in the Secretary of the Interior’s “Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.” Many historic property owners and even communities use the standards to direct their evolution over time. Water, fire, and human habitation are the greatest threats to communities, building and landscapes insuring a continued need to preserve, rehabilitate, restore and reconstruct the built environment and cultural landscape. The historic buildings and development patterns that are our cultural landscapes are an integral component to today’s balanced and diverse communities.

Whether one is engaged in an historic rehabilitation of existing building stock or creating new buildings and landscapes within a community, the incorporation of sustainable design elements are important.


Sustainable design and construction have four criteria:

  • siting decisions
  • building and site materials
  • building and site equipment
  • overall design integration of streetscapes, buildings, sites, landscapes and community

As the old historic preservation adage states, “Build what you need to build and preserve the rest.” On your next historic property or community project, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the new design program for the building and site consume less energy based on comparative use? Am I making the building and landscapes adaptable to other uses and needs?
  • Are the building technologies and materials “green.” Green technologies and materials are those made from renewable resources or recycled building products or are biodegradable.
  • Are the building systems flexible?
  • Is the external and internal air quality sufficient in your historic property or in your community?
  • Is there a personal or community consciousness to consume less resources and recycle more waste? Am I an active participant?

Any project from a bathroom rehabilitation to a 60,000 sq. ft. commercial building project can incorporate the above four criteria. Even some communities like the cities of Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon are incorporating sustainable design values in residential and commercial projects that the cities review and permit.

Like a living organism, both the historic built environment and our communities need to grow and change to survive. Since post-WWII, there has been a major shift in how our communities, neighborhoods and downtowns have developed. Much of this “Sprawl” explosion has been attributed to the creation of a large Interstate Highway System and the public funding of infrastructure expansion on the local level. In essence, “sprawl” is partially a result of governmental policies and subsidies. For many in the sustainability movement, sprawl is defined as loss of open space; increased traffic congestion; increased commute times to work; overburdened infrastructure; spreading low density housing; commercial strips with no center and no edges like villages; auto-dependent; declining quality of life, all generally inconsistent with historic settlement patterns. The more serious consequences of sprawl are higher concentrations of air pollution, damaged water supplies, flooding, loss of local farm produce and recreational opportunities. What can every historic property owner do to assist in redefining how our communities and the historic fabric change? As James Howard Kunstler noted in his book, Home From Nowhere, “It is within our power to create places that are worthy of our affection.”

Some of the rethinking of how our communities develop is expressed by the Smart Growth advocates, or Neo-traditionalism development models. Smart Growth sees as the end goals, strong rebuilt urban cities; better, more diversified suburbs; and vibrant rural economies for a very mobile national work force. It is the creation of jobs — corporate, family businesses, small businesses and government positions that drive the demand for housing, transportation improvements, retail space and population shifts. The Neo-traditionalism development model is much like the New England village.

Many in the national development and environmental movements are calling the Neo-traditionalism the new paradigm for development. Both Smart Growth and Neo-traditionalism see sustainability as reflected in a buying market having a variety of housing and commercial building types arranged in higher density with more community amenities. Some of the amenities are connected open space as well as mixed zoning use and pedestrian oriented neighborhoods and village.

All of us are citizens, business leaders, nonprofit groups and members of governmental entities need to take an active role in defining their community’s future. In New England, “Home Rule” is the prevailing political process which drives the land use system. Every community’s land use system has a democratic regulatory sector where volunteers and professionals apply the myriad of highly technical, land use by-laws, building codes, life safety, accessibility and fair housing laws that guide the development process and have great fiscal repercussions. When was the last time as an historic property owner you attended a town meet council meeting, planning board meeting or zoning meeting? What was the motivation for attending the meeting? Was it an issue that directly affected your property like a local historic district review or was it an issue affecting the community at large like changing a zoning by-law to create open-space subdivisions? The local land uses system and associated development codes provide the legal blueprint for your community’s development. The private and public markets respond to the legal blueprint. The importance of civic minded, dedicated, critical thinking public sector participants is part of healthy, sustainable communities. Can you and a group of citizens or community officials develop policy, regulatory and tax incentives to create the quality communities you desire?

Our communities, our choices!

Quality of life is a reflection of a balance of social, economic and environmental values in our personal lives, our homes and our communities. The balance is achieved with a democratic dialogue that occurs almost every night of the week in most town and city halls. Quality of life, economic vitality and environmental health, whether in your historic home or in your traditional community, is a precious right that needs family and citizen activism in creating and implementing a vision of sustainable development and great communities.

In the Blackstone River Valley area, The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor has created the Blackstone Valley Land Use Institute to work with partners and communities in increasing development and local land use capacity level and move toward sustainable communities.

For further information, call 401-762-0250 or e-mail blac_institute@nps.gov or www.nps.gov/blac/home.htm



R. Christopher Noonan is President of Preservation Services, Inc., a design, land use planning, consulting, and real estate development firm. He specializes in land use and real estate issues.