Since the urban renewal movement that swept the nation in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans have been preoccupied with the idea that bigger and newer are better. Instead of continuing to appeal to this compulsion for expansion, communities would be wise to establish richer, deeper ties locally in order to recognize the value of resoures provided by previous generations.
Civic growth and progress can be achieved through developing a greater sense of community, shared responsibility and shared history.
This attitude need not stifle or discourage economic growth. We must support economic progress and civic development in a way that conserves the resources and energy of both the past and present. When an existing building is demolished, the community loses the value of materials, energy, resources and labor used to design, build and maintain the structure. The preservation of buildings protects the energy and environmental investments communities have made over time and the rehabilitation of them uses less energy, fewer materials and produces far less waste than demolition and new construction.
When considering the energy consumed in the construction and renovation of a city's buildings, one must consider the energy spent from multiple angles. Time energy involves individual and community decisions made over a period of time during both development and use. The natural and human energy spent includes not only the materials used, but also the artisanship and creativity expended. Lastly, one must consider the kinetic and raw energies of the construction, labor, and fuel spent on a building. If a building is demolished, these energies go to waste, and more are used for new construction.
When a building can be rehabilitated or adapted for new use, the collective energy spent continues to serve the public.
In addition to historic significance, most historic buildings were designed to be energy-efficient to the extent of technology available at the time. When buildings are maintained with materials and methods comparable to the original, these energy-saving features can continue to benefit building tenants. Many have thick masonry walls to conserve heat, tall windows and skylights for natural interior lighting, and floorplans with large open spaces that allow for air circulation.
New construction consumes a great amount of natural resources including forests and timber, land, coal, and oil as well as the pollution of land, air and water. In addition, new construction requires increased utilities and services from local and state governments such as power, sewage and water, schools, hospitals, fire, police, and roads. All of these expenditures can be drastically reduced through the preserving and development of existing structures and neighborhoods.
Change is often misconceived as a synonym for progress. Within that concept, value is based purely on economic usefulness or financial benefit as opposed to physical utility or historic significance. When profit or investment value is the only consideration in urban planning, the history and significance of place and belonging is lost.
Most importantly, it is important to remember that the act of demolition is irreversible. No amount of regret, redoubled effort, or expense can possibly bring back a lost historic structure.