This past week I had the opportunity to spend four days in Chicago with other preservationists from around the country at the 2017 Past/Forward Conference, an annual conference put on by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
This year’s conference had three main themes: ReUrbanism, health and technology. The conference offered more than 200 hours of programming focused on education. Sessions ranged from area tours and site visits to learn about case studies to lectures and participant-driven group discussions in which individuals shared their questions as well as success stories from around the country.
Three TrustLive (live streamed) presentations were made focusing on technology, creating vibrant future cities, and health. Experts from multiple disciplines were called upon to share the impact and support their fields of study can offer to improve upon current practices in our field.
As the advocate for German Village, one area I found fascinating, and a refreshingly new way to frame the impact of our preservation activities was the focus of historic preservation and its impact on health outcomes. Specifically, we are now looking at the role historic buildings, streetscapes, and communities play in supporting both our physical and mental health. What I learned in Chicago has literally shifted the axis of my thinking when it comes to what we do as preservationists.
A unique method of illustrating these connections was presented in a Ted-style talk given by filmmaker Holly Morris, producer of the documentary film “The Babushkas of Chernobyl”. What Ms. Morris has uncovered since the 1986 nuclear disaster was simply this: those few women who refused to leave, choosing to remain in their ancestral homes in the radioactive ‘dead zone’ have statistically outlived those who were relocated to nondescript housing blocks in Kiev. Further, the filmmaker speaks clearly to the power of place, the ability to live amongst daily physical reminders of family, one’s own heritage and the transgenerational imprints on both structures and landscapes as being critical to our mental and psychological well-being, even prolonging our lives.
I know I am not the only one who finds life more comfortable when lived in buildings and communities with an architectural legacy reaching back through generations. I thrive when surrounded by the physical imprints of those who came before me be it in the well-worn handrails of a stairway, (remember that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey accidentally pulls the top of the newel post off for the hundredth time and just smiles?), the bricks all askew along the sidewalk or the wave-filled windows of my favorite cottage. Each and every detail informs me of my place in the continuum of time, gives me hope that I will remain a bit longer, yet the humility to know that my presence will eventually be replaced by another. Historic communities anchor our souls in what is known, proven, functional and enduring. They have the power to comfort us in uncertain times.
Upon my return to Columbus, I had to run an errand in an outlying community, a planned community that has risen from the fields in recent history. As I pulled off the freeway I was struck by the catalyst that no doubt drove the design: consumerism. There at the end of the off-ramp stood a nondescript office ‘park’ (interesting use of the word), with parking lots stretching out in all directions, where one ‘makes a living’. Extraordinary and seemingly never-ending opportunities to shop, dine and otherwise spend ones living presented themselves along with all the transportation routes filled with one person per car. Off in the distance, I could see residential areas with European names, offering mini-estate style homes languishing behind gates, accessible from the drive or from within the garage, the lack of sidewalks a stark reminder to keep to oneself. I found myself thinking, and not for the first time, what a soul-killing way to live, surrounded by new construction with few familiar design references ones DNA might recognize, sequestered within one’s vehicle, exiting to consume or retreat into a home with little visible invitation to interact with those around it. I too have lived in such landscapes at various times, seduced by the idea of a new construction and modern conveniences.
I reflected back on German Village, whose catalyst for ‘design’ was not ‘consumerism’, but rather ‘community’. We are surrounded by homes intentionally built close to those of friends and family, many with welcoming stoops, all connected by public throughways built to human scale. Pedestrian travel is the design priority, automobiles a phenomenon arriving long after the village was platted. A district such as German Village is built to physically support our need for social interaction and the development of social support networks in real time.
As we continue to explore the relationships of health and preservation in our district, I think you will come to realize as I have that preserving this place we call home may not just be about saving old buildings, it may indeed be about preserving the mental and physical health of the people charged with its preservation, you and I.
To be continued…
Happy Thanksgiving to all-