Five Lessons for Community Revitalization from Historic Home Restoration

As a Historic Home Restoration survivor, veteran community organizer, Landscape+Architect, and Urban Designer, it has occurred to me numerous times over the past 2-decades, just how much restoring a historic home is really a microcosm of community revitalization.  By now most people recognize that historic structures are an essential building block of a successful community revitalization.  But the parallels go much deeper that this fact alone.  Here are a few insights in community revitalization from the home renovation world:

SLOW AND STEADY

While the thought of restoring an old-house HGTV style is certainly appealing (with a big renovation, professionally done all at once, and a glossy reveal at the end – and IN ONE EPISODE no less!!!) in reality most people can’t afford to make all the necessary or desired improvements to their place all at once.  And most communities can’t afford the city-scale of ‘Flip-or-Flop’ either.  The truth is that the most authentic homes and communities evolve in a series of consistent little improvements over time.  The result is a more authentic house/community where every project tells a story, and adds to the rich tapestry of history, community, and place.

Volunteers working on Ogden’s Nine Rails Creative District Painted Streets Project, 2019

VALUE VS. VALUES

Most historic home owners have more than exceeded the actual value of their home in terms of their long-term reinvestment (especially in terms of sweat equity).  The value proposition for old-house restoration and community revitalization alike HAS to be one that capitalizes on the intangible things that drive this totally irrational behavior:  Authenticity, history, narrative, sense of community, pride of place, and being a part of something bigger than yourself.  That said however, a little cash infusion into a place never hurt anything.  So, if you are going to give out cash subsidies to help offset the high-cost of renovation and redevelopment make sure you are giving it to the passionate people who are already working to improve the community and not carpet-baggers, flippers, and cut-and-run developers.

Author Shalae Larsen, photo (and bike) courtesy of Emily Ballard.

GOOD BONES

There’s a saying in the renovation world that a house has “good bones” meaning there’s a certain integrity to the original design and structure that will make for a beautiful and functional finished product.  This same concept applies to the overall planning structure of the city.  Historic neighborhood with human scaled buildings, historically mixed use and incremental development, intimately scaled streets, and massive historic shade trees already provide the perfect setting for an urban renaissance.  When you are revitalizing a community, start with the areas with the good bones first (your downtown and inner-city neighborhoods).  Second, be sure to PRESERVE the things that are the good bones in the first place.  Don’t widen streets.  Don’t require excessive amounts of off-street parking for infill development. And for the love of Pete, don’t tear down the actual historic buildings!

Traditional main streets have “good bones,” foundation for sustainable community revitalization

WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE MATTERS

In the renovation world, flippers get a bad rap because a lot of the time they are simply making aesthetic changes, completely ignoring essentials like plumbing, electrical, and insulation (things that can end up costing a future homeowner a lot of money in the long run).  The flipping version of community reinvestment is any development or restoration work that doesn’t do the following:  Responds to the context of the existing community, provides quality design, materials, and workmanship (because your just creating a new slum 10-years down the road), and most importantly you need to address the social infrastructure of a place:  Schools, churches, community groups, vibrancy of social spaces, and the overall self-narrative of a community.  Working with the local community has a far greater impact than working on the local community.  Having good community engagement in redevelopment efforts and empowering local community members and groups to make their own positive changes will result in more sustainable and equitable renewal process.

Volunteers working together to help finish the Central Park Community Center landscaping, in South Salt Lake, Photo by Sharen Hauri

TELL YOUR STORY

One of the main reasons that people love historic buildings (besides their obvious nostalgia and architectural charm) are because of the rich stories that they tell.  Living in a home with a history, gives you a sense of being connected to something larger than yourself.  Stories provide not only history and context, but they provide depth and meaning.  Communities, just like houses have stories.  The story of your community is both its past and its present.  Framing a positive community narrative actually increases civic engagement and organic reinvestment in a place.  But an authentic story has to be derived from the unique history and culture of a place.  It can’t be forced on a place, or dictated from the top-down.

Newspaper clipping about the original owner of my old house.