The special issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 82, No. 2) explores the link between city planning and historic preservation.
In “Tangible Benefits from Intangible Resources: Using Social and Cultural History to Plan Neighborhood Futures,” authors James Buckley, Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Donna Graves, independent historian and urban planner, explore the growing concern that historic preservation is an elitist process.
Buckley and Graves describe the growing sentiment among planners and preservationists that the historic preservation process fails to engage disadvantaged communities. The process also fails to recognize gentrifying forces that can result when a neighborhood is deemed ‘historic.’
Instead of emphasizing historic status based on tangible items such as buildings and historic districts, the authors advocate for cultural preservation, helping diverse ethnic and social communities recognize their intangible historic pasts. The goal of cultural preservation is to “strengthen existing social and cultural minority communities rather than abetting their displacement.”
Through their research, Buckley and Graves examine if an official focus on cultural preservation in San Francisco, California, has helped minority communities resist development pressures. The authors evaluate three cultural preservation efforts and assess the impacts of efforts to engage underrepresented populations into the planning process. The efforts studied include the city’s traditional Japantown; creation of social heritage districts to memorialize important sites in the Filipino and LGBTQ communities; and establishment of a legacy business fund to support older commercial establishments that contribute to a sense of history.
The authors found that cultural preservation does have the potential to draw in underrepresented communities. However, since this approach is counter to existing historic preservation processes, its effectiveness in saving neighborhoods and sites that have cultural or intangible value to marginalized groups may be limited because:
- It is difficult to determine what is culturally significant within a system that prizes tangible assets. There are currently multiple methods to determine which physical landmarks are historically significant.
- Current planning tools used in conjunction with historic preservation efforts focus largely on traditional land use regulation, which is not the best tool for recognizing or protecting cultural and social assets.
- Neither profession has developed the cultural competence to understand “cities of difference” or the broad spectrum of less material goals and values that some communities cherish.
In conclusion, Buckley and Graves believe that planners and preservationists have the potential to work together to increase the participation of underserved populations in local planning and to support and value diverse cultural resources. However, this requires professionals to move beyond their traditional ways of approaching conservation efforts and work harder to understand the intangible cultural assets of different social and ethnic groups, recognizing that cities are created by what people do and value as much as by what they construct.