MOR & Co.
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The Way Down

our thoughts on life outside in the cities we love

Preservation As A Creative Discipline

 
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“Legacy Cities provide a lens through which we can reconsider the field of historic preservation–as a creative practice rather than a regulatory discipline.” Yes. For so many reasons – yes.

I’m not a historian. I’m not a “historic preservationist”. I barely made it through my Architectural History classes because I seem to have an insanely difficult time memorizing dates and periods. Yet somehow, Terry Schwarz of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative managed to capture my attention with this 25-word session description at the recent Dialogue in Detroit conference, put on by the Legacy City Preservation group.

WHAT I CARE ABOUT IS THE PRESERVATION OF OUR STORIES – OF OUR COMMUNITIES, OUR HISTORY, OUR ENVIRONMENT, OUR ATTACHMENT TO PLACE AND IT’S ABILITY TO ORIENT OR DISORIENT OUR IDENTITY AS HUMANS. 

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So I took the advice of a new acquaintance (oddly enough, someone that works with the National Park Service – also not a historic preservationist) and attended the recent conference at Wayne State’s gorgeous McGregor Memorial Conference Center.

What followed was a series of conversations that further tied together disparate strings of my life work and ongoing interests. The unusual (for historic preservationists I assume) theme within this week’s gatherings was our neighborhoods, rather than monumental architecture that typically steals the spotlight.

Neighborhoods pose a new challenge for historic preservation – scale. How do you prioritize structures, places, and spaces when there is an exponential quantity of them and their importance lies mostly within their community’s past and present rather than on a state, national or global level?

During her session, Terry posed the following two provocations that I hope to reflect on further soon:

  • Counterpoint vs. Counterpart – both possess the ability to create valuable cultural context
  • Reexamine the period of significance – is the moment you are in not significant? Perhaps we should let the reality of the cycle of cities be reflected in their community. We should embrace ALL histories.

As an urban outdoorist within this dialogue, I was also enthralled with the numerous speakers that cited the immense opportunity that our 23+ square miles of vacant lots and open green space can provide for an urban community. One side argued that the perforations in our urban fabric manifest themselves in perforation of human activity while the other argued for embracing them for things like productive land enterprises.

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Public parks (the easiest use one might argue) can obviously serve as a catalyst for community. They are often high on the list of reasons people stay or choose to move to a particular neighborhood and I look forward to hearing more about the city’s plan for a “Give a Park, Get a Park” initiative coming in 2017 – but they are not as simple as one might think and certainly not the answer to every vacant space.

One individual cut through to the core of the issue within the preservation community though in stating that there is no such thing as a vacant lot.

EACH PLACE HOLDS – WHETHER THERE’S A STRUCTURE THERE OR NOT –  SOMETHING VALUABLE ALREADY AND IT’S OUR RESPONSIBILITY TO MAKE THAT VISIBLE AND PRESERVE THE COMMUNITIES’ ABILITY TO UPLIFT IT FOR GENERATIONS TO COME.

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Each place holds – whether there’s a structure there or not –  something valuable already and it’s our responsibility to make that visible and preserve the communities’ ability to uplift it for generations to come. Preserving just the design and architecture might not be enough or even feasible. Couple it with well-research, accessible programming though and you can create the potential for radical impact.

Not only did the discussion open the minds of many within the preservation community, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself hearing the same sentiments echoed at the Detroit City of Design Summit less than a week later.