PPS and the National Trust for Historic Preservation team up to promote a new vision for the future (and past) of American communities

What’s the biggest secret army of placemakers throughout the world?

Historic preservationists. These tireless activists protect historically significant buildings, downtowns, neighborhood districts, parks and even whole landscapes. They are citizens and professionals in communities everywhere who work to preserve places that people most treasure in their communities.

For more than thirty years, PPS has applied placemaking to support preservation efforts through our work in train stations, main streets, public markets and other historic sites. Historic places also often rank high on our list of Great Public Spaces, because their human-scale qualities create vibrant, people-friendly settings. Yet for all our work in historic places, PPS has never identified preservation as an explicit focus of our work.

For this reason, we are thrilled to announce our new partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation—the organization that has spearheaded America’s preservation movement for many decades— to unite placemaking and preservation.

The mission of the National Trust shares a deep resonance with the principles of placemaking: to “bring people together to protect, enhance and enjoy the places that matter to them.”

An Historic Partnership

Project for Public Spaces is joining with the National Trust in a cooperative effort to “save the places where great moments from history – and the important moments of everyday life – took place by revitalizing neighborhoods and communities, sparking economic development and promoting environmental sustainability.”

We kicked off this partnership in May at the National Main Streets Conference in Oklahoma City. One key theme that emerged from the event is that placemaking provides both a proactive strategy and a practical tool kit to help preservationists accomplish their goals. As one state coordinator for the Main Street program put it, “Placemaking provides an opportunity for great community education and engagement—a way to bring together department of public works, DOT, property and business owners, and residents to build trust.”

And placemakers have much to learn from the success of the preservation movement. One particular lesson involves the importance that architecture plays a in people’s attachment to place—the understanding that great buildings are the backbone of any great community. As PPS President Fred Kent put it, “Historic Main Streets and districts are some of the best places we have in this country today. We need to apply that knowledge to creating new places that people will want to preserve in the future.” Another lesson is that Main Street is more than just a place–it’s a comprehensive development tool that can help communities build a sustainable and complete revitalization effort.

As PPS and the National Trust deepen our partnership, we are eager to hear your ideas. How do you think placemaking and preservation best interact? What are examples of historic places in your community that showcase a strong sense of place? To stimulate your thinking, take a look at some of our thoughts on the subject.

Placemaking helps restore historic social functions of a building or historic district.

Main Streets and other historical places are rightfully valued for their architectural and heritage qualities—but that is not the only thing that makes them significant in our lives. According to the National Trust, historical sites must also possess “integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association.” Historical places are equally important for the vital social functions—civic, commercial and otherwise— they make possible today as well as the mood and emotionsthey evoke in people. Preservation is most effective when it takes all of these elements into account— the movement is just as much about the present as it is about the past. Placemaking reinforces this insight by addressing critical questions such as: How can historic places retain their economic viability and become important community destinations? How can places like Main Street become the heart and soul of a community today?

Placemaking embodies the common sense approach that guided how most historic places were created in the first place. Historic communities were not built exclusively by developers and architects. All kinds of people worked together over decades to create buildings, streets and public spaces that would fulfill social, economic and political needs in their communities. Turning our backs on this common sense approach to placemaking has posed the greatest threat to America’s built environment, cultural heritage and sense of community.

Placemaking helps expand the impact of preservation projects . Preserving historical places from physical destruction is only the start. By embracing a community-oriented vision that draws upon local knowledge and assets, preservationists can create places of long-lasting value. As part of our partnership with the National Trust, we have recently revisited many of our projects in historic Main Streets, train stations, and public markets and found a consistent trend: these places are lively public places that have had a positive impact in their communities. No one will question the importance of protecting historic buildings and districts when those places stand as vital centers of activity in the community.

The newly renovated Shed 3 at Detroit's historic Eastern Market. Photo credit: Eastern Market Corporation

Placemaking helps expand the constituency for the preservation movement—and vice-versa. Linking the causes of preservation and placemaking could result in more public support for both movements. The preservation movement can showcase that its concerns go beyond just protecting architectural and historical landmarks to include keeping communities strong and vital. The emerging movement of placemakers can persuasively illustrate how public spaces are connected with cultural, artistic and heritage values.

Now it’s your turn!
Leave your thoughts about placemaking and preservation in the comments.