Creating Sustainable Communities

Preservationists instinctively get it—older and historic buildings, historic neighborhoods, and Main Streets are, by definition, sustainable.  Yet all too often the role of older and historic buildings is overlooked and in some instances older buildings are even demolished as part of a community’s sustainable planning efforts.  Fortunately, a growing body of research is providing ample support that makes the message clear:  Preserving historic buildings is an essential means by which a community can achieve broader economic, social, and environmental goals—the three pillars of sustainability.

Historic Preservation = Greener Planet

In January 2012 the Preservation Green Lab, a project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, released The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, which found that in almost every case, the reuse of existing buildings results in fewer environmental impacts over their life spans compared to demolition and new construction. Conserving buildings prevents demolition waste from entering landfills and reduces sprawl by encouraging the revitalization of our existing communities. Further, historic buildings are often more energy efficient than more contemporary buildings due to careful siting choices and the use of passive heating and cooling systems.

Historic Preservation = Economic Development

Preserving historic buildings offers several economic advantages that serve as a catalyst for additional investment in communities.  According to a recent study by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, repairing existing buildings produces roughly 50 percent more new jobs than constructing anew. In addition, reusing and retrofitting older buildings stimulates the local economy due to the fact that labor tends to be hired locally and materials are often purchased locally. And for further proof of the economic power of historic preservation, look no further than the influence of the Main Street movement – which has generated $55.7 billion in reinvestment, 109,693 new businesses, and 236,418 building rehabs on America’s Main Streets since 1980.

Historic Preservation = Social Cohesion

Historic preservation plays a crucial role in creating socially connected, and thriving communities. In general, historic preservation projects involve a large number of community stakeholders, resulting in civic engagement and social interaction of all residents resulting in social equity. Furthermore, historic communities are typically compact, walkable places, with easy access to mass transit and services, resulting in a great quality of life for all residents. In an effort to more fully explore the social benefits of historic preservation, Preservation Green Lab is undertaking new research to test many of Jane Jacobs’ key observations from almost fifty years ago about the positive role that older, more diverse urban blocks play in facilitating social relationships, connections to place and entrepreneurial activity.  

While there is still more work to be done to help communities recognize the connection between sustainable communities and historic preservation, the National Trust offers important information, research and analysis that shows how preserving historic and older buildings is an essential means by which a community can achieve broader economic, social and environmental goals.

Transportation & Historic Preservation: Learn about the National Trust’s effort to support federal transportation programs directed at protecting historic and cultural resources and also the efforts of communities and organizations nationwide to make the places that matter to us more liveable. This section includes additional information about MAP-21 and the new Transportation Alternatives Program.

Teardowns Resources and Tools: Learn how historic neighborhoods can be protected from teardowns, through a variety of tools and approaches that manage this type of growth.

Economics of Revitalization: Preservation creates jobs, stimulates investments, and revitalizes communities. Learn more about the role of federal and state historic tax credits in the creation of jobs and how heritage tourism and the establishment of historic districts support the economic strength of a community.

Habitat for Humanity Affiliate Resources: Nationwide, Habitat for Humanity affiliates are increasingly rehabilitating existing and historic housing stock. Check out the National Trust’s resources, case studies, and FAQs to learn more about how to jump-start your Habitat for Humanity affiliate’s next rehab on an older or historic building.