Sustainable Communities and Historic Preservation

Posted on: October 11th, 2012 by Special Contributor 2 Comments

By Rachel Bowden

What is a sustainable community? It all depends on who you ask. The phrase has evolved greatly over the past 25 years as individuals, communities, and organizations mold the term to fit their particular needs and goals. Most definitions include social, environmental, and economic aspects--the three pillars of sustainability—but some explanations may place greater emphasis on one over the other, leading to varied definitions.

Baltimore Farmers Market | Credit: Byrd Wood

For example, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which is dedicated to helping community residents transform distressed neighborhoods into healthy and sustainable communities, places the most emphasis on the social and economic equity of a neighborhood in its definition of sustainable communities. In contrast, the Maryland Department of Planning, which has a different set of objectives and goals, places more emphasis on the social and environmental viability of communities.

Regardless of where the emphasis is placed, sustainable communities share several common characteristics or building blocks which come under the umbrella of the broader economic, environmental, and social sustainability goals. These characteristics generally fall under the following six categories:


  • Land Use--the equitable, healthful, and efficient composition of the natural and built landscape.
  • Transportation--the connectivity and accessibility of the transportation network.
  • Green Buildings--the efficiency of new and existing building stock.
  • Economic Development--the ability to capitalize upon natural, social/human, and built assets, without compromising these resources for future generations.
  • Equity/Social Justice--the ability to meet the diverse needs of all residents now and in the future.
  • Distinct Communities--the ability to create and retain a sense of identity as well as foster the creative use of cultural resources.

Preservation’s role is not always clearly understood or articulated within definitions of sustainable communities, but preservationists have always instinctively understood that older and historic buildings, historic neighborhoods, and downtown Main Streets are, by definition, sustainable. Fortunately, research is increasingly available that helps make the case that historic preservation is not a separate category unto itself, but rather a link that directly or indirectly supports each of the six common building blocks mentioned above.

For example, in January 2012 the Preservation Green Lab, a project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, released The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, which found that in almost every case, the reuse of existing buildings results in fewer environmental impacts over their life spans compared to demolition and new construction. Preserving historic buildings also offers several economic advantages. According to a study produced by the Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, repairing existing residential buildings produces roughly 50 percent more jobs than constructing anew. Recent research has also explored how historic preservation plays a crucial role in creating vibrant, socially connected, and thriving communities.

While there is still more work to be done to help communities recognize the connection between sustainable communities and historic preservation, this growing body of research provides ample support that preserving historic and older buildings is an essential means by which a community can achieve broader economic, social, and environmental goals. The phrase “sustainable community” is likely to continue to evolve, but this chameleon-like quality can be viewed as an opportunity rather than a limitation as we strive for a more sustainable future while continuing to embrace and preserve the places that matter to us.

Continue the discussion: What does the phrase “sustainable community” mean to you? How do we strengthen the link between historic preservation and sustainability?

Forum Members can read Rachel Bowdon's full article in the Summer 2012 issue of the Forum Journal in the Forum Library.

Rachel Bowdon is the Sustainability Program Assistant at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Economics, Planning, Sustainability

2 Responses

  1. Historic Preservation News | Sustainable Preservationism 2012

    October 21, 2012

    […] communities are the heart of the sustainable preservation movement….  This is observed all over the country in programs created in our neighborhoods and  main […]

  2. Nichole L. Reber

    October 27, 2012

    To further address the social sustainability notion, preservation also helps society remain connected to history, perhaps learning new things along the way. For example, finding a pair of shoes or newspapers buried within the walls while renovating a 19th-century house definitely refreshes us with a taste of zeitgeist. Furthermore, living in and/or participating in preservation of these houses makes us feel like we’re part of the community’s historical narrative.