(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.
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