Kaid Benfield, NRDC’s Smart Growth director, looks at the mistrust between Smart Growth environmentalists and preservationists. On the one hand, he points out, some of the most walkable communities are also our most historic, from Paris to Capitol Hill. On the other hand, preservation also sometimes becomes a tool to oppose sustainable neighborhoods, like the effort to landmark the
Wisconsin Avenue Giant as a cudgel against development.
As a result, many Smart Growth advocates think preservationists are just a bunch of NIMBYs, and many preservationists think Smart Growth people just want to tear down neighborhoods wholesale and put up giant high rises. Then there are the Smart Growth preservationists, who get caught in the middle. We need to recognize that both sides’ goals matter. Historic buildings have value and need protection, and good urban design is much better for our communities and the environment than bad. When the historic is also the walkable, as in Georgetown, the two movements should reinforce each other and create a doubly strong case for preservation. When they conflict, as at Third Church, we must balance the two in a way that gives neither absolute supremacy.
Are we going to start saving Walmarts, which the National Trust [for Historic Preservation] has opposed in one community after another, when they are 50 years old just because they are 50 years old? The date is not all that far away. And, make no mistake: they will be representative of a period and style of architecture. If that’s the principal test, they will pass. What about urban freeways that sliced through and destroyed historic neighborhoods? They, too, are now part of history.
Thus far, preservation movement leaders have resisted debate about whether there are significant structures we ought not preserve. At a DC Preservation League panel on modern structures, panelists focused entirely on how to convince the public to preserve any modern building, assuming that preserving was always the right choice. When Benfield posed this question to a preservation friend, he got “a roll of the eyes and a quick rebuke that modernist buildings are just as historic as any other, and what people hate today might be what they like tomorrow. History is history.”
But, Benfield says, that misses the point. “I was not arguing against the landmarking of modernist buildings,” he said. “In fact, I am a fan of modernist architecture ... My point, rather, was that we need to be more discerning about what is worth fighting for and what isn’t, lest we lose our support. And that we need to be alert — preservationists and environmentalists alike — to those who harm our values by misusing them.”
Historic preservation is a political movement, as is environmentalism. When people trot out environmental or preservation arguments to defend something like the Wisconsin Giant, where strong community support stands behind change, it drives people away from the broader goals of that movement. And when advocates argue that their particular issue trumps all others, regardless of context, as preservation would if it started landmarking Wal-Marts across the nation, it risks moving into irrelevance. Environmentalists, preservationists, and Smart Growth advocates alike should bear that in mind.