Can historians help planners make better futures?

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Editor’s note: The National Historic Preservation Act will turn 50 in 2016. While this is a time to celebrate how the NHPA has transformed public history, it’s also an appropriate moment to convene a national conversation on the Act, its legacy, and its future. The editors of History@Work and The Public Historian have commissioned a series of blog posts by a diverse group of historic preservationists about the NHPA. Each writer will reflect on an article from The Public Historian chosen by our readers and others that has been made freely available by University of California Press, and posts will appear monthly.

The Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair inspired many urban planners whose interests were in a hypermodern future rather than understanding the past. Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons

The Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair inspired many urban planners whose interests were in a hypermodern future rather than understanding the past. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Urban planners have accepted many of Stephen Grable’s arguments in “Applying Urban History to City Planning: A Case Study in Atlanta” (1979). Using a mixed-use development in Atlanta’s Bedford-Pines neighborhood as his focus, he complained that planners ignored the insights of urban historians, who would have told them that one development could not curb the momentum of people moving away from the central city.[1] Without historical perspective, he suggests, planners, architects, and developers make unrealistic assumptions about human behavior, leading city officials to make poor decisions.

Today, however, planners take history more seriously. They include local history in master plans for cities or communities. Some planners have become historic preservationists, using their knowledge of land use regulations and urban design to protect older buildings and historic sites. Students in accredited planning programs are required to learn the history of planning and human settlement.

Given these advances, are Grable’s arguments still relevant? Should urban historians get more involved in urban planning and development? As an urban planner with two decades of experience and little training in historical analysis, I think historians should actively seek to advise anyone whose work changes the form and functions of places–planners, developers, architects, community and economic development professionals, and, of course, public officials.

Grable offers four approaches to historical analysis to help planners and architects avoid similar mistakes: city biography, new urban history, oral history, and urban structuring. He recommends urban structuring because it “alone combines an awareness of environmental features with the historical developments that shape residential and commercial patterns.” Instead of looking at a project in isolation, urban structuring challenges analysts to explore the “historical development of its various localities: neighborhoods, commercial districts, and suburban developments.” (52) The goal is to see how the site in question fits within the context of the area and how the pieces came together.

This is similar to systems thinking, an approach emphasized in planning for decades. Systems thinking encourages practitioners to look at environments as a system made up of interconnecting parts. Any change in one part of the system has an effect on all others. Urban structuring contributes a historical dimension to systems thinking that can help practitioners analyze an area in both space and time. For example, Grable’s analysis of Atlanta didn’t consider that when large numbers of people moved to the suburbs, problems of crime and congestion–supposedly urban issues–would follow. The bucolic green spaces that ex-Atlanteans enjoyed when they first moved out would become housing developments, parking lots, and rubberstamp fast food places. And now the population shift has reversed. According to the Wall Street Journal, by 2011, the population in the city of Atlanta was growing faster than its suburbs. Atlanta was not alone: in 27 out of 51 major metropolitan areas, cities were growing faster than suburbs.

Downtown Atlanta as seen from the State Capitol in 1889. Few would have expected that by the 21st century, the city would be growing faster than its suburbs. Courtesy: Atlanta Journal Constitution

Downtown Atlanta as seen from the State Capitol in 1889. Few would have expected that by the 21st century, the city would be growing faster than its suburbs. Photo credit: Atlanta Journal Constitution

Today, urban planners and architects ignore a community’s history at their own peril. In the 1970s, many public officials were just starting to recognize the inherent beauty of century-old buildings.  Today, a growing number realize the economic value of marketing the experience of visiting historic buildings, sites, and districts since this experience is one of the few things you can’t purchase on the Internet. Cultural heritage tourism–based on selling access to history and culturally authentic experiences–is a growing field and a standard element in a destination marketing professional’s portfolio. Historic preservation groups that in Grable’s time were newly formed may today be vocal and influential advocates in urban development. In fact, I have heard some development officials in New Jersey grumble about what they call, ”hysterical preservationists.”

Deeper conversations between historic preservationists and urban planners can help both professions. In many communities, planners and architects believe that beautiful old buildings and sites should be preserved and protected. The question now, in an increasingly diverse society, is how to balance the interests of some members of the community to protect their heritage with the interests of others to showcase their own histories in the public realm. Much of the growth in cities in the 19th and 20th centuries was driven by immigrants and migrants from other regions (such as African Americans moving from the South to northern cities). Should a Portuguese family be denied the chance to put decorative tiles on their house in 2014 because it would cover over Victorian-era clapboard? Should a young storeowner from the Caribbean, where colors are so vibrant, be required to paint his storefront in colors that have been approved by a local Design Review Board made up of older Anglo-Americans? This question gets into the sticky issues of power relationships among class, race, and ethnicity. For what one person might be an ugly building or a recognition of some trivial event is for another a symbol of his/her continuing stake in that society. Grable offers some good lasting advice for historians. Professional historians can play a role in teaching planning and design professionals other ways to look at a community’s history. Planners, who are trained to analyze communities, can learn new ways of seeing places.

Over two decades of planning practice, I rarely, if ever, consulted local historians. I was content to read the condensed, consensus version of a community’s past. It was interesting but not particularly useful for the future. Recently, I took on a project to plan a park in northern New Jersey. After reading Grable, I called the head of the city’s historic society and invited him to be part of the project steering committee.

[1] Unfortunately, we can’t really know if Grable was correct. According to Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion, by Larry Keating, the project described by Grable added more than 1,400 units, but few were for low-income and moderate-income residents, as expected. Without further analysis, it is difficult to know whether the units attracted or helped retain residents in Atlanta or just provided new housing for people who were committed to stay in the city.

~ Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP is the Executive Director of The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking and a Visiting Lecturer at the Austin Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University.

  1. Luke Sprague says:


    There are so many variables involved, politics, money, perceptions of self, etc., that it becomes difficult, if not impossible to deal with these issues–it becomes an industry in and of itself.

    So, as a historian, I can tell you what building was there, who the people were, what they did, what they ate, where they worked, etc.

    With that said, it really comes down to what is in architecture fashion at the time, this in and of itself should be troubling as then the buildings we retain are the ones at the time we perceive to be attractive.

    Who is to say that a century from now that the historical preservationists are not desperately searching for 1970s brutalist architecture…and find little?


  2. Greetings: (Repost) It’s good to know that some planning is taking the historic perspective seriously. My first planning position was in the city of Galveston. As such my planning roots are well immersed into the Historic element of planning. Interesting though, that same city no longer employs a Historic preservation planner. And, historic preservation only occurs within the neighborhoods previously designated as Historic Districts. Now other neighborhoods that did not benefit from the planners influence and concern for the history of their communities via neighborhood plans that once took into consideration those type of histories are struggling to remain relevant. For the most part those neighborhood (with equal histories) are being overtaken by an economic development focus (gentrification) and not a community history and neighborhood stability due to that history. As such, on may say yes the planners are likely dropping the ball in those instances. Thanks – See more at:

  3. Melissa says:

    My history museum is located in the middle of one of Dallas’ oldest neighborhoods, but we’ve been surrounded by vacant, historic structures for decades–in essence, we’ve been an island. In the last year, all of these key properties have been purchased, with redevelopment plans ranging from a contemporary art gallery to residential. I’ve been amazed at how many of these developers have reached out to us to find out more about the neighborhood. We are also incredibly lucky that all of these projects involve renovating the historic structures–no preservation battles yet! I’m learning more about neighborhood redevelopment than I thought possible for a history museum director, and I really appreciate this perspective from the other side.

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