Local and National Register Historic Districts

Local Historic District Ordinances and the National Register of Historic Places

To protect sites of significance, many preservationists are most accustomed to working with local historic district ordinances and the National Register of Historic Places.  For an overview of those tools, read our introduction to historic districts.   


  •  These tools use national standards and criteria, basing designations on research to objectively understand and protect a property's significant elements. 
  •  The research done for these designations gives owners and the public a much richer and more complete understanding of the resource.
  • Local ordinances can bar demolition and inappropriate changes, and National Register designation requires federal agencies to consider the impacts of their activity on historic places. 
  • Both involve public engagement, which presents opportunities for discourse on a community's history and future development.  
  • In some cases, it can be impossible to build the public will needed for local districting even for the most vulnerable and significant places.  The National Register triggers a review and consultation process in limited circumstances, and doesn't serve as an outright bar on demolition or changes.   
  • Both require considerable lead time – usually years – from the start of the protection effort to designation. 
  • And while it is extremely unusual, both kinds of protection can be stripped or repealed in certain circumstances.  
  • Relying solely on regulatory authority to save places can drain enthusiasm and support for the cause. 

Comprehensive Protection and Local and National Register Historic Districts

Whole cultural landscapes can be designated as local historic districts and National Register Historic Districts.  Surveying a community's historic and cultural assets is the first step toward any local district or National Register designation.  To work toward more comprehensive protection, it is advisable for preservationists to: 1) take cultural landscapes into account in local historic resources surveys; 2) reach out to conservation counterparts and the larger community in the initial stages of survey; and 3) integrate this survey with local inventories of natural, agricultural, or scenic resources.

Land conservation organizations, too, have found real benefits from the use of local historic districts and the National Register for Historic Places.  These designations can greatly supplement and strengthen other protection measures.  For parks, trails, and preserves, research done for local or NR designation adds richness to the story of the place, and can be used to develop educational programming.   In some cases, these designations make owners eligible for grants or tax incentives for rehabilitation projects.