June 22 2011

Historic Districts: Exclusiveness, Gentrification, and Unaffordability

For much of recent history, Historic Districts are a much-heralded addition to any city.

Some of these more notable areas include the historic districts of Greenwich Village (New York City), The Savannah Historic District (Savannah, Georgia), and Olde Towne East(Columbus, OH). As is the case with all historic districts, each of these areas has their own unique story. Their futures, however, as areas designated “historic,” will share similar experiences, success, and failures.

While certain designated areas of cities are “historic,” preserving the uniqueness of the area’s architectural history, the downfall is the prohibition of further growth and expansion greatly hinders the ebb and flow a city’s economy, primarily in the housing sector. The primary hindrance historical districts create is a zone of exclusiveness.

In his new book, Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser offers up many interesting counterpoints to the implementation of historic districts. He observes how Jane Jacobs got it wrong when it came to creating historic districts:

“Because she saw that older, shorter buildings were cheaper, she incorrectly believed that restricting heights and preserving old neighborhoods would ensure affordability. That is not how supply and demand works. When the demand for a city rises, prices will rise unless more homes are built. When cities restrict new construction, they become more expensive.”

Glaeser goes on to explain how there is a lot worth keeping in our cities, but historical preservation comes at a cost. He explains how Paris, a city that puts preservation first, was “once famously hospitable to starving artists, but is now affordable only to the wealthy.”

Another frowned-upon consequence of historical preservation is gentrification. My current city of residence, Columbus, OH, experienced this problem while Olde Towne East was undergoing the transition from an economically depressed urban neighborhood to a prestigious historical district. The entire process of this transition is documented in the award-winning documentary Flag Wars.

I found the argument that Historic Districts created a zone of exclusiveness, gentrification, and unaffordability to be quite intriguing. It got me wondering: To what lengths should urban planners go to designate areas of their cities as “historic?”

Please share your thoughts below.

Daniel Sheehan

Dan Sheehan studied City and Regional Planning with a concentration in Urban Design at the Ohio State University. Dan has lived in several cities throughout the Midwest and is dedicated to exploring urban and environmental design issues as they relate to Midwestern cities of the United States. His passion for urban design and urban planning began during his studies in Columbus at the Ohio State University, and continues to pursue those passions in the realm of urban planning. Dan blogged for The Grid until October 2011.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011 at 12:25 pm and is filed under Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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