Can the Junk, Save the Town

Posted on: October 9th, 2007 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

(This post was written as part of PreservationNation's coverage of the National Preservation Conference, October 2-6, 2007.)

How do you keep your town looking, feeling, acting, and even preserving as your town and not some other burg up the pike or across the country? That question -- how to hold on to community character (and what benefits accrue when you do) -- informed a special speech by Ed McMahon. This was an early-morning Saturday event, not the primest of times to attract those on the down slope of a long and busy conference. But preservation types are nothing if not enthusiastic and indefatigable, as they proved by showing up in huge numbers for McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

He really delivered. Flawlessly mixing humor and truth -- and showing plenty of slides, that beloved mode of making a good point -- McMahon illustrated the often-ignored fact that good design really pays off, not just in dollars but also with social and environmental benefits. He set the stage with the sad observation that “special and unique character has been disappearing faster than ever” but went on to show that communities can and have made U-turns toward saving their individuality.

“The problem is not development but the pattern of development,” McMahon said, flashing us a good slide/bad slide combo of, first, a well-preserved Civil War battlefield building in Virginia (beautiful!), then a high-dreck strip shopping center right next door (phooey!). Guess what, he said. Communities can choose whether or not they want this sort of thing. They can plan against such mistakes. And in the cases where development will happen anyway, they can tell developers and fast-food folks a big-fat “no” to business-as-usual design – then get the much better model. Images of McDonald’s in exquisitely local-appropriate buildings, some of them hard to distinguish from historic structures, proved this beyond a doubt.

Building (restoring?) community character can sometimes be done in the most basic of ways. One example: Narrowing your streets, McMahon pointed out, will reap benefits of safety, appearance, and cost. You don’t really need “streets wide enough to land a 747 on.” Your town should also look critically at its entrances, those “front doors” that can repel, rather than lure, visitors. And visitors, travelers, tourists -- that great potential crowd -- is certainly one class you want to attract. “Tourism is the biggest economic driver in so many places.” Getting those folks downtown is often key. Make that center central -- the focus of a city or even region. If the center does not hold, well, then everyone suffers. “It’s hard to be a suburb of nothing.” And while you’re at it, please don’t destroy character in the name of parking. “You can have all the parking in the world,” McMahon warned, “if there’s nothing to do” there ultimately.

Above all, McMahon exhorted, plan. “Failing to plan means planning to fail.” Long-range, creative -- and persuasive -- plans will ultimately carry the day. Among his examples, McMahon offered Suisun City, Calif., which floated a bold blueprint to transform the seedy town not far from San Francisco. They carried it out, too, as he showed symbolically with images of the old city hall (two trailers) and the new (a stunning domed building on a placid lagoon).

McMahon brimmed over with pithy, quotable advice: “Sameness is not a plus.” “Strip retail is retail for the last century.” “Money always follows good ideas.” “Keep a grip on places that make us feel comfortable and secure.” “The image of a community is fundamental to its well-being.” And my favorite: “Why would anybody invest in a community that won’t invest in itself?” That’s what it’s all about.

-- Arnold Berke

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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