Why Do Old Places Matter? Continuity

Posted on: November 21st, 2013 by Tom Mayes 16 Comments

Editor's Note: Click here for full coverage on the Why Do Old Places Matter? series including the Spring 2015 issue of Forum Journal.

The Eternal City—what better place to find answers to the question: Why do old places matter? Tom Mayes, a 2013 Rome Prize winner in Historic Preservation from the American Academy, is in Rome these days and is contributing a series of posts about his experiences and research. Join us for his periodic essays and add your thoughts to the discussion.

Continuity Caldwell Station School

Old schools provide people with a sense of continuity. My father's family attended Caldwell Station School, in Huntersville, NC until it was closed. It now serves as a community pre-school, continuing to build ties between the past and the future. | Credit: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Foundation

Old places create a sense of continuity that helps people feel more balanced, stable, and healthy.

When I ask people why old places are important, a frequent answer is that old places provide people with a sense of continuity. But this idea of a sense of continuity, which so many people obviously feel, is not often explained. What does this sense of continuity mean, how does it tie to old places, and why is it good for people?

Based on my conversations and the research I’ve done here at the Academy, the idea of continuity is that, in a world that is constantly changing, old places provide people with a sense of being part of a continuum that is necessary for them to be psychologically and emotionally healthy. This is an idea that people have long recognized as an underlying value of historic preservation, though not often explained.  In With Heritage So Rich, the idea of continuity is captured in the phrase “sense of orientation,” the idea that preservation gives “...a sense of orientation to our society, using structures, and objects of the past to establish values of time and place.”

Juhani Pallasmaa, the internationally known architect and architectural theorist, is a resident at the American Academy this fall, and I’ve been privileged to talk with him about old places. Juhani put it this way in an essay he wrote: “[w]e have a mental need to experience that we are rooted in the continuity of time. We do not only inhabit space, we also dwell in time.” He continues: “Buildings and cities are museums of time.  They emancipate us from the hurried time of the present, and help us to experience the slow, healing time of the past. Architecture enables us to see and understand the slow processes of history, and to participate in time cycles that surpass the scope of an individual life….”  1

We see and hear this idea in the way people talk about the places they care about--in blogs, public hearings, newspaper articles, and anywhere people talk about threats to places they love. Discussing the potential loss of his 100-year-old elementary school, for example, a resident says, “It’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember… my great grandmother graduated in 1917… it’s the heart of the community.”

People share stories of the experiences they, their parents, and other people have had at theaters, restaurants, parks, and houses--as well as events that happened long before their parents were alive. They not only feel the need to be part of a timeline of history, both personal and beyond themselves, but their connection to these old places makes them aware that they are part of the continuum, connected to people of the past, the present, and, hopefully, into the future.

Palmer Chapel, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. | Credit:  Brian Stansberry/Creative Commons.

Palmer Chapel, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. | Credit: Brian Stansberry/Creative Commons.

Environmental psychologists have explored many aspects of peoples’ attachment to place, including the idea of continuity. Maria Lewicka, in her review of studies on “place attachment,” says “…the majority of authors agree that development of emotional bonds with places is a prerequisite of psychological balance and good adjustment, and that it helps to overcome identity crises and gives people the sense of stability they need in the everchanging world….”  Although studies relating specifically to old places are limited, Lewicka summarizes the studies this way: “Research in environmental aesthetics shows that people generally prefer historical places to modern architecture. Historical sites create a sense of continuity with the past, embody the group traditions, and facilitate place attachment….”

Lewicka’s summary of one study captures a key idea: “The important part...is the emphasis placed on the link between sense of place, developed through rootedness in place, and individual self-continuity. Rootedness, i.e., the person-place bond, is considered a prerequisite of an ability to integrate various life experiences into a coherent life story, and thus it enables smooth transition from one identity stage to another in the life course. (citations omitted)" 2

Life story. This phrase captures the way people create a narrative out of their lives and make their lives meaningful and coherent. Old places help people to create meaningful life stories. This may sound a bit touchy-feely for our American sense of practicality and hard-nosed reality. But the point is that people need this sense of continuity, this capacity to develop coherent life stories, to be psychologically healthy.

We can see the importance of continuity in the places where continuity has been intentionally or unintentionally broken. People who have been forcibly removed from their homes, such as those who lived on the land that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and who were removed in the 1930’s, described themselves as heartbroken by the forced removal. These former residents continue to visit the sites of their former homes--the remains of an old chimney, the foundation of an apple cellar, and the family graveyard--and to participate in homecomings, such as at the one at an old church named Palmer Chapel. Although they had been forcibly removed, the attachment to the place continued, and has continued through later generations who never lived on the land, but continue to feel a sense of connection to the place. 3

On a trip to Puglia, the Fellows of the American Academy visited a World Heritage Site, Matera, where the residents had been removed from their community in the mid-20th century. Our guide at one of the churches, a descendant of one of the families removed to the new location, said that her grandmother hated the move and felt that the community never recovered from the forced removal.  Studies have shown that the loss of the sense of continuity from uncontrollable change in the physical environment may even cause a grief reaction. 4 Put simply, people need the continuity of old places.


Matera, Puglia, Italy. | Credit: Thompson Mayes

Continuity is not, however, only about the past, but also about the present and the future. That’s what continuity means--bringing the relevance of the past to give meaning to the present and the future. Paul Goldberger, the architectural critic, says about preservation, “[p]erhaps the most important thing to say about preservation when it is really working as it should is that it uses the past not to make us nostalgic, but to make us feel that we live in a better present, a present that has a broad reach and a great, sweeping arc, and that is not narrowly defined, but broadly defined by its connections to other eras, and its ability to embrace them in a larger, cumulative whole.  Successful preservation makes time a continuum, not a series of disjointed, disconnected eras.” 5

Old places help people place themselves in that “great, sweeping arc” of time. The continued presence of old places--of the schools and playgrounds, parks and public squares, churches and houses and farms and fields that people value--contributes to people’s sense of being on a continuum with the past. That awareness gives meaning to the present, and enhances the human capacity to have a vision for the future.  All of this contributes to people’s sense of well-being--to their psychological health.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about continuity, and I’d love to see images that you think best show the sense of continuity provided by old places. Future posts will explore related topics--identity, memory and time.

Please comment!


1. Pallasmaa, Juhani, Encounters 1: Architectural Essays, 309, 312.

2. Lewicka, Maria.  “Place attachment: How far have we come in the last 40 years?”  Journal of Environmental Psychology 31, 211, 225 (2011) and and “Place Attachment, place identity, and place memory: Restoring the forgotten city past,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 28, 211 (2008)

3. Williams, Michael Ann, “Vernacular Architecture and the Park Removals: Traditionalization as Justification and Resistance,” TDSR 13: 1 2001, 38.

4. ClL. Twigger-Ross and D.L. Uzzell, “Place and Identity Processes,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16, 205-220 (1996).

5. Goldberger, Preservation Is Not Just About the Past, Salt Lake City, April 26, 2007.

Read the full series here.

About Tom Mayes

Tom Mayes is the deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2013 Mayes was awarded the Rome Prize in Historic Preservation from the American Academy in Rome.

Historic Sites

16 Responses

  1. Ric

    November 21, 2013

    This is one of the most powerful statements I have read of the link between psychological health and place. It evokes another modern psychological diagnosis: Nature Deficit Disorder. NDD holds that humans are programmed to engage the natural world and live in harmony with it, and when we don’t — when we spend all of our time in artificial environments, or undertake destructive behaviors — we are in effect acting against our own nature, denying our place in the continuum of all life. It’s a sort of psychological masochism. Perhaps we are on the cusp of naming Culture Deficit Disorder as an outcome of urban renewal and chronic transience. Keep up the good work.

    • Tom Mayes

      November 25, 2013

      Thank you Ric –Great idea about Culture Deficit Disorder! People need to have the sense of being connected to the long continuum of culture to feel grounded and healthy, just as they need connections to nature — flip sides of the same coin. Your comment reminded me that a few years ago, the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance listed the night sky as one of the most endangered places in New Mexico, recognizing that light pollution was severing the relationship between people and the most historic place of all — the universe.

  2. Brian Turner

    November 21, 2013

    Wonderful essay. It reminds me that heritage stewardship has an interesting parallel in the discussions surrounding end of life care. We strive to assure that our elders can age in dignity. Why not reflect that in the way we treat what they and their forebearers have left us? Among many reasons, it simply makes us feel good to do such an honor for those who can no longer argue the value of their contributions.

    • Tom Mayes

      November 25, 2013

      Thank you Brian, for this thoughtful comment. I love the idea of honoring our elders by respecting the places they have passed down to us — look for a post on the connection to ancestors (both literal and metaphorical) at some point in the future —

  3. Junita Bognanni

    November 22, 2013

    Our current culture often feels like a big shrine to the self. The huge proliferation of social media doesn’t help–with each status update or tweet, the habit of focusing on ourselves is even more ingrained. I love the idea that architecture can empower us to step out of that vicious cycle, to “participate in time cycles that surpass the scope of an individual life.” I think preservation not only keeps us psychologically healthy, it can help us become more empathetic, active citizens by encouraging us to think of all that lies outside our own experiences. Thank you for this thought-provoking post!

    • Tom Mayes

      November 25, 2013

      Great comment Junita — old places seem to enable people to think — or feel — about people from the past, and to give them some perspective on the present. Keep commenting!

  4. Eve Errickson

    November 22, 2013

    Attachment to place can be harmful to those who are left outside of ‘grand, sweeping arc.’ As an example, Mount Rushmore stands as a beloved monument for fans of American history. However, for the Sioux displaced from the Black Hills, it’s tragedy, to say the least. In the case of places that are claimed by more than one group of people, realizing attachment to place may be impossible. Will your work include recommendations for healing these types of conflicts?

    • Tom Mayes

      November 25, 2013

      Thank you Eve — there will indeed be a few thoughts about this in the future, including in the next post on Memory. When I think of the “grand, sweeping arc,” I don’t think of it as being exclusive (though I’m certainly aware that history and historic places may be used to establish exclusivity). One of the great things about old places is that they can transcend an exclusionary interpretation and be reinterpreted with new meanings over time —

  5. Stephanie Sperling

    November 22, 2013

    I love this article, Tom! I am an archaeologist and intern coordinator with an organization in Maryland (and a former UMD student of yours – Preservation Law, Spring 2009 – I learned so much in that class, thank you!). During the exit interviews I conduct with every intern, we talk about the value of archaeology and preservation. I tell them that knowledge of our shared past provides context to our present, in the same way that learning about your ancestors gives you a different perspective on the individual you are. Maybe you learn that your great grandmother had certain traits that you share or you learn a family secret that explains the choices your relatives made. I think I’m trying to convey that sense of continuity that you talked about in this very well-written article. From now on, I’m going to make this required reading for my interns! Thanks so much.

    • Tom Mayes

      November 25, 2013

      Stephanie! Great to hear from you — thank you for this idea of archaeology giving perspective to the present. I agree with you that the work we do about the past is really about giving meaning to our lives now. It’s fantastic that you have this conversation about the meaning of preservation with your interns — keep up the excellent work!

  6. ” Why Do Old Places Matter? Continuity”, an interesting consideration from the Preservation Leadership Forum | INTERFACES

    November 23, 2013

    […] a phrase from the post “Why Do Old Places Matter? Continuity“. It illustrates a very interesting, and human, point of view. It’s written by Tom […]

  7. Evelyn Terry

    November 26, 2013

    Today I stumbled upon this wonderful site after opening an account to receive funds to help preserve the George Black House and Brickyard in Winston-Salem NC. My values were shaped at this place as were those of many others who lived and worked there.This site went on the National Register in January 2000. Mr. Black, my grandfather was born in 1879; making bricks by hand made him famous but his life story is so much richer than the hand made bricks. He lived beyond 100 years and became an ambassador to Guyana for the US State Dept. in 1971. I’m so happy to read and share with others how important connectivity with our past is to living in the present day. I’ve been discouraged many days but today my spirit is renewed. I thank souls from my past for leading me to this site.

    • Tom Mayes

      November 30, 2013

      I’m delighted to see your response, and that you were inspired by the post. I looked up the George Black House and Brickyard, and was pleased to see your efforts to preserve it, and was inspired myself by the stories of this place. Keep up the good work!

  8. tom leslie

    November 29, 2013

    Great piece–and great comments. One aspect that seems to be overlooked in thinking about old places is that there’s very often a meaningful connection to the work that was done to make an old structure–or just an old thing. I think we naturally recognize and appreciate the investment of human effort, and one of the criteria (stated or unstated) that we use to judge things is whether someone has cared enough about them to make/maintain them in a thoughtful way. When we’re around a particularly well crafted building we know it, and I think we intuit that someone, at some point, cared deeply about it and about making it last beyond their lifetime. That’s a hard thing to ignore–on the one hand we tend to feel most secure and comfortable in structures that we understand as being well made or adequately constructed, on the other I think we also have an inherent desire for things that are invested with time and thought, and that outlive individuals. When that investment has a legacy of decades or centuries, there’s often an even deeper sense of appreciation for ways of making that were different/more difficult. John Dewey talked a lot about how much it means for us to connect the experience of a thing with the making of that thing, and I think this underlies at least some of the meaning that old buildings and places have for us.

    Also, I think Junita’s comment is right on–today we crave these moments that make us think about the time invested in objects, buildings, and spaces as moments that resist what’s often a not-very-humane pace of life.

  9. tom mayes–”why do old places matter?” | architecturefarm

    December 2, 2013

    […] to historic–or even just aged–places so strongly, and he’s collecting them on an extraordinary blog on the Preservation Leadership Forum.  Worth reading, and please consider leaving a […]

  10. Nancy W Cook

    December 2, 2013

    Yes to continuity, perspective, and pure history, but how about pride in the “leavings” of humanity which teach us perpetuated values.
    These perpetuated values are revealed and revered in the legacy only preservation provides.