President's Note

To Revitalize, Restore

Richard Moe

Credit: Robert Lautman

I've been reminded lately of a distressing fact: The United States has no comprehensive national urban policy. It could even be argued that the last time we saw evidence of a serious federal commitment to revitalize our cities through legislation and on-the-ground action was during the heyday of urban renewal 40 years ago—and all of us who lived through that era would agree, I'm sure: That program was hardly a model of ­success.

President Obama's new Office of Urban Affairs offers hope that the long period of federal neglect of our cities may be ending. If so, and if the day is approaching when significant government resources will be committed to restoring sustainable economic vitality to our cities, keep this in mind: As a tool for revitalization, historic preservation works.

Indeed, in the absence of an overall national policy, cities from coast to coast have launched their own revitalization programs. Happily, many of them have achieved impressive success—and almost without exception, those that have done so have made preservation a keystone of their efforts.

In Southern California, preservation has driven the rebirth of the once-derelict Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego, the development of loft apartments in historic buildings in downtown Los Angeles, and the rise of Palm Springs as a top destination for fans of midcentury modern architecture. The same thing has happened in Minneapolis, where preservation has been a major factor in the city's rediscovery of its long-neglected riverfront; in Miami Beach, where an unmatched collection of rehabbed Art Deco buildings now draws throngs of tourists; and in Baltimore, Denver, and numerous other cities, where preservation has turned once-dilapidated downtown areas into lively, appealing places to live and work.

The impact of preservation is on display in plenty of lesser-known places, too—including Dubuque, Iowa, which I visited recently. Dubuque is a long-time participant in the National Trust's Main Street program, which has used preservation to revitalize traditional business districts in more than 2,200 communities. Now, building on its Main Street experience, Dubuque has launched an ambitious effort to revitalize its historic warehouse district—a project that will create housing and commercial space in 28 formerly vacant or underutilized old buildings. A model of sustainability, the project also aims to improve energy efficiency, reduce water usage, and avoid other harmful environmental consequences. 

We need a visionary national urban policy that commits the federal government to a comprehensive effort to restore America's cities to vigorous health. Historic preservation must be a central component of this policy. We've seen it work in scores of cities already, and it can work in many others as well.

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