So… You want to be a Preservationist?

A Preservationist is a person who takes an action that keeps elements of “the past” alive in some form, for the benefit of “the future.” I feel that it really can be that simple! So, it is at that very moment when someone endeavors to keep “alive” something of the past for the future, they in turn become a Preservationist. Maybe without even knowing it! 

Examples of Preservationists are people who simply take on the responsibility of saving an old forgotten map. Or people who are doing some research about a found object or place in hopes of discovering what meaning they might hold. They can also be people who save stories told so they can be heard again and again, long past the lifetime of the person who first told them. Meaning, people don’t always have to be saving a lovable house to be considered preservationists.

Richard Stamps so well illustrated this to me in his TEDx talk titled, “What History? The Importance of Historic Preservation.” (Stamps, 2014) Watching it I learned that the action of preservation is like valuing every letter on a page as they become words, sentences and chapters to a greater story. In essence preservationists take action that work to keep together in sequence, pieces of greater stories so those stories of the past can be alive and knowable in the future.

I also understand that Preservationists are just as diverse as the things they aim to preserve! In specific, I appreciate the National Trust’s approach to grouping preservationists into six different types; vocal, accidental, classic, green, people, and artisan. (Montgomery, Pgs. 34-38) I also appreciate how no one preservationist, is always working in one of the groups, all of the time. There is some overlap of skills seen within each person and overlap in the types of projects they work on.

What about the work of an urban planner? I think of urban planners as people who evaluate the many aspects of a city in order to prioritize and organize the aspects in such a way as to optimize each, all while making as few compromises as possible in order for them to coexist within the same area. I don’t immediately think of them as saving history but, rather building over it. Recently I watched Science Channel’s show “If we built it Today,” where they imagined the rebuilding of Washington D.C. As planners, they first referenced both L’Enfant’s and McMillan’s original and historic plans for D.C.

But I wondered, was their urban planning of a new D.C the work of a Historic Preservationist? This is where Lauren Walser’s article in the Spring 2016 Preservation titled, “A Tale of Two Planners: Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses” jumped out at me! 

Although Lauren’s article is a very brief introduction into the duel of two urban planners, it made a point. Specifically, that Jane Jacobs was a Preservationist. She began not as a big city planner for New York City but, rather a NYC resident. After learning of a proposal to build a 10-lane highway right through her neighborhood of SoHo and little Italy, Jane took action. She joined in the protest against the plan and by doing so, she became a preservationist. Had she only read and not acted, she would have remained a journalist, mother and potentially displaced resident.

I will let you read the brief article to see how she acted in discordance to her nemesis Robert Moses in her career as an urban planner that began with her protesting. Ultimately though as an urban planner, “Jacobs was the spokesperson for the human-scale neighborhood and for remembering how people actually function in urban environments.” Her approach includes keeping the old and blending in the new. (Walser, 2016)

Like Jane, urban planners can be preservationists once they consider and include the value of the things that are already in place. For example, a top-down urban planner such as Robert Moses, during his initial planning, might not be curious about things like a huge oak tree growing in a community park. Or, what business built the massive brick factory that sits along a town’s main street? Or, when a train station was built in town and if a growth spurt followed. In contrast, I’ll venture to guess that Jane Jacobs would begin her research with just those sorts of curiosities. I can imagine her venturing out, asking people, “What makes this a special place?” Jane would want to first know their stories. She could easily be considered a preservationist in her work as an urban planner. She is a person who takes an action that keeps elements of “the past” alive in some form, for the benefit of “the future.” 

For more information, consider reading:
Anthony Flints’ book titled, “Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City.” Random House 2009).

Or, Jane Jacob’s 1961 book titled, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Lastly, an Opera titled, “A Marvelous Order.” 

—– Works Cited —-

Walser, Lauren. “A Tale of Two Planners: Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses.” Preservation Magazine (April 2016). Online [] Accessed January 23, 2021.

Stamps, Richard. “What History? The Importance of Historic Preservation.” TEDx Oakland University. 2014. Online

Montgomery, Susan West. “The Evolving Definition of Historic Preservation: More Complex, More Inclusive.” Forum Journal 1 (Fall 2015), 34-38.