Historic Preservation as a City-wide Design Control Tool

By Steven A. Watchorn, LEED AP BD+C

Historic preservation is a very unique form of design control used by local governments to manage the aesthetic quality of our built environment.  Other forms of design control include design guidelines, zoning by-laws, and mandatory design reviews, to name a few.  While these techniques are a growing priority for many local governments, critique over their use and application has been a concern, perhaps none more than historic preservation.

One of the greatest challenges that many local governments have is “designing cities without designing buildings” (to borrow the phrase from Jonathan Barnett, perhaps one of the greatest American Urban Design scholars).  How can cities enforce good design and preservation standards without overly-restricting an Architect or Owners’ right to design their building as they wish?  The ability to exercise control over a large region without exercising too much control over a single building or piece of property is a delicate matter.

The Historic Preservation Movement grew in North America in the mid twentieth century out of concerns for decaying city neighborhoods and the ruthless destruction of buildings.  Along with zoning, historic preservation had become the representation of the American tradition of design control in the late twentieth century.  While zoning enacted restrictions on the placement of buildings by use, historic preservation placed primarily aesthetic regulations on buildings and individual sites.

I believe that a common mistake is the failure of local governments to use this design control tool to implement larger-scale urban design objectives, properly identified in the by-laws.  Too many historic preservation ordinances are limited to restricting development and reuse of individual buildings, but some have recognized the fact that historic preservation ordinances can do much more than conserve and protect the style of a single building.  It can guide new development based on historic principals of how the city was formed and what its design values have been.  It can also acknowledge coherency about the entire city, not just of a single building.  

Preserving the past can be about much more than just restricting buildings to a specific architectural style and offer more to the city as a whole. Portland,Oregon, for example, has been engaged with preserving its unique 200 foot block pattern downtown.  Not only is the block pattern a historically rich heritage of the city, but its protection will enhance the richness of the public realm because the shorter blocks allow for greater amounts of air and sunlight to penetrate into the city center.

The adoption of historic preservation techniques into the zoning ordinance has been a recent development.  The zoning ordinance is becoming a tool to help regulate much more than building use.  Recently, the zoning ordinance has been the place where incentives, design guidelines, as well as historic preservation are now found.  And it is through proper zoning thatU.S.courts allow these design controls to give substantive due process.  This means that whether or not the regulation can fall back on a rational plan that serves a legitimate public purpose is of the utmost concern.  This allows designers to understand the purpose of the control, and what is specifically expected out of them. 

By elevating Historic Preservation to larger-scale urban issues, we may be able to better define the intent of our actions and better serve the public.