We often get this question about historic places:
How do you grow downtown as the focus of commercial and social life, while honoring and sustaining its historic character?
Take Anytown, USA (or Canada/India/France). The downtown area is filled with historic commercial and residential buildings.
In Anytown, there is a passionate group of people who are convinced that their community’s historic properties are more than just relics.
They’re smart folks. They get it. They’re civic leaders, economic development people, architects, planners, Main Street Managers, merchants, and tourism folks.
Every day they are busy working to make their town or neighborhood thrive.
They want growth, investment, and high occupancy. They want lots of business, lots of appeal, lots of people bustling about, and tons of creative ideas. They believe that somehow they can grow without becoming “Generictown.”
The best “preservation treatment” is approaching historic buildings as tools for economic development.
We’re not talking about hardcore, “don’t-touch-historic-stuff-at-any-cost” thinking. Typically that approach isn’t successful.
Communities aren’t static. They’re like coral reefs, where evolution and change are part of the story. We’ll gain some and we’ll lose some, but we’ll always build on what we have and we can be smart about it.
Indeed, we’ve seen how historic properties are able to “play nice” with modern redevelopment activities. Think Charleston, Santa Fe, New Orleans, Lawrence, Portland, Miami, plus thousands of towns, villages, and neighborhoods. Places with identifiable character where much of it is tangible and architectural. Not to mention unique, humble, impressive, plain, ornate, interesting, and filled with story.
Historic places are where you start.
The smart money says historic properties and districts are more than just physical expressions of shared heritage; they are the basis of a community’s future aspirations. They’re where you start.
Historic places represent sustained investments over long periods. Investments that residents and city leadership have agreed are worth protecting (even when they weren’t “preservationists”). Places that somehow had enough of the right stuff to last a long time. Historic downtowns and neighborhoods shape the stage where generations of business owners, residents, civic leaders, professionals, and visitors have lived, met, done business, socialized, banked, worshiped, and engaged in the myriad of everyday activities that form the basis of every vital community.
So, how do you build a future on the unique character of place? How do you save the baby without tossing out the bathwater? What’s the best way to integrate all the stuff that’s been there a long time into all the stuff that is to come?
1. Know what you have.
Do the inventory. First step in any endeavor. You can’t plan if you don’t know what you’ve got. Every business, grocery store, and boot palace knows what it’s got “in house” and plans accordingly.
The architectural survey is designed to look at historic properties and tell you what you’ve got, when they got there, what shape they’re in, and where they are. Without this information, it’s tough to make good decisions.
But for years the field survey has been too hard to do. Too wrapped up in esoteric terms or expensive and closed systems. Too detached from the planning process, and thus detached from the economic development process.
We created RuskinARC to make architectural survey and inventory work easy and fast, without sacrificing any power or control. It works on mobile devices, in the field, at the office, wherever you are. We are impressed at what some places have done just in the past months.
2. Make your survey information usable.
Hate to say this, but preservationists need to get out of the newspapers. If you’ve got a good handle on your historic assets and flexible data, you’re ahead of the game instead of behind it. And the information should be easy to export, manage, and use. Your planners are going to need it. The GIS people are going to need it. The economic development folks need it, as well as analysts, real estate folks, project managers, property owners, researchers, architects, and others.
RuskinARC is a fabulous front end for collecting information about historic properties, but the back end is just as important. RuskinARC exports in seconds to GIS, Google Earth, Excel, plaintext, and more. Data, photos, attached files — the whole shebang. All keyed and nicely named for you. You can get a sense of this by trying it yourself. Get out with an iPad or tablet and give it a shot.
3. Put your historic places where people can find them!
Online, please, where we can engage. And make it interactive. Lots of survey information is sitting around on shelves, in file cabinets, locked up in offices or in single computer systems, in PDFs or somebody’s Excel or Access database. You might have to drive down and ask the GIS guy for a map.
Argh. I have looked at far too many lists of addresses with no map, no photos, no story. And half the time, there’s no accessibility at all. I live in Lexington, Kentucky where we have fourteen historic districts. Try to find some information about them online.
RuskinARC makes interactive maps, sortable lists, and image galleries. It lets you search by architect, construction date, function, eligibility, street, and more. It lets you manage boundaries for districts, zones, or overlays. It lets you attach files, plans, drawings, photos, narratives, or whatever you’ve got.
The last college group I talked to didn’t even blink:
“If we can’t find your historic buildings online, they must not be important!”
I hope that’s not the message we’re sending.
So, why should we care about something if it either doesn’t exist or is not important? How do we attract creative planning and stewardship ideas? How do we broaden our audience, appeal to the public, show off our assets, AND satisfy planners, researchers, and GIS folks?
We created RuskinARC to be that solution. RuskinARC makes it simple to put your historic buildings online where people can find them. It’s an easy, powerful, inexpensive way to do the fundamental inventory work, while making information about your historic buildings and districts accessible and interactive.