In the beginning, God made a place. He put people in that place and told them to care for it. And when they consumed a part of the place that shouldn’t have been consumed, their punishment was to be exiled from that place.
This is a huge oversimplification of the first few chapters of the book of Genesis, but it still manages to hit upon most of the key points. And it highlights a undercurrent that runs through the Bible. There are special places (like the Promised Land) and there are sacred places (the Temple) and there are even perfect places (the Garden of Eden). While it’s certainly not the central message running through the Bible, there’s still a theme that comes up again and again of “place” having importance and of there being a connection between God’s people and the places they inhabit.
This Biblical sense of place has intrigued me for several decades, but I’ve never sat down and tried to tease out exactly how this Biblical undercurrent relates to something else I’m passionate about, historic preservation. That is, until now.
I’ve written before about how my Christian belief system is reflected in my advocacy of multi-modal transportation (see “At the intersection of bicycling and faith” over at Pedal Fort Collins). And I’ve even found a book about Christianity and building walkable communities that makes the same faith and transportation connection (see Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, by Eric O. Jacobsen). But I’ve never heard anyone talk about the junction of historic preservation and faith (except when talking about preserving holy places in Israel).
So I’ve decided to make a brief foray into this topic and I’m inviting you all along. No matter what your belief system, I hope you’ll find this escapade to be an interesting introspective on the preservation of places and how that connects with doing good, loving others, and having a proper sense of ourselves in our world.
Doing Good and Loving Others
Historic preservation is a tool and, as with any tool, it can be used for either good or ill. But for those that choose to use it for good, it can be a very powerful tool indeed. The preservation and reuse of historic places can stimulate the local economy, support women and minority owned businesses, reduce negative impacts on the environment, reduce displacement due to gentrification, and recent studies even seem to indicate that it can have a positive effect upon people’s mental health, especially as they age. I think each of these positives outcomes fulfill Biblical mandates.
Stimulate the Local Economy
In Jeremiah 29: 7, God gave direction to the Israelites who had been conquered and carted off to Babylon. You might expect some sort of call to arms or at least a call to solidarity for a people living in the very heartland of their enemy. But instead God admonished them to, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Followers of God should be seeking the good of the community they find themselves in, whether they agree with the politics and religion of the place or not.
Numerous studies have found that historic preservation is a catalyst to economic vitality. According to a report from the Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness at Duke University, every $1 million invested in transportation infrastructure creates 21.7 jobs. In comparison, a study by History Colorado has found that every $1 million invested in historic preservation generates 32 new jobs. And while every dollar invested in transportation infrastructure creates $3.54 in economic impact (Duke), a study in Maryland by the Abell Report found that every dollar of Federal tax credit towards historic preservation generated $8.53 in total economic output.
If God has called his people to seek the good of the city where they live, then supporting historic preservation seems like a pretty sound way in which to do that.
The Bible is clear that believers should be seeking justice for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. Proverbs 14: 31 says, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” And in Zechariah 7:10a we find, “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.” So to the extent that minorities are poor, needy, oppressed or foreigners, Christians should be doing their part to honor God by “defend[ing] the cause of the weak and fatherless; [and] maintain[ing] the rights of the poor and oppressed.” (Psalm 82:3) Malachi 3:5 takes another tack, saying “‘I will come near you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against… those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans, and against those who turn away an alien…’ says the Lord of hosts.”
According to a study by Preservation Green Lab, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “neighborhoods with a smaller-scaled mix of old and new buildings host a significantly higher proportion of new businesses, as well as more women and minority-owned businesses, than areas with predominantly larger, newer buildings.” Supporting historic preservation is a good way to enable people to do for themselves. Rather than giving handouts, we can provide places where diverse peoples can support themselves through independently owned shops and businesses. And to the extent that the smaller businesses rely upon other small, locally owned businesses within the same community for secondary services such as advertising, accounting, and legal assistance, more money remains within the community, thereby yielding yet another way that historic preservation not only supports minorities but stimulates the local economy as well.
Reduce Negative Impacts on the Environment
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” (Psalm 24:1a) and God created people as a part of his creation to “work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15) As theologian, Francis Schaeffer, said in his 1970 book, Pollution and the Death of Man, “our conscious relationship with God is enhanced if we treat all the things He [God] has made in the same way as He treats them.” If Christians truly believe that God made all things, then it behooves us to treat creation with care, as stewards.
Environmentalists often refer to the 3 R’s– Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — as a means of curtailing waste. In applying this maxim to buildings, we should first reduce our need for expansion by finding ways to use our current spaces more efficiently. When we still need more space, then we should find ways to reuse buildings that already exist. And when that’s not feasible, then we should recycle as much of the building as we can in order to keep waste out of the landfill.
Reusing a building also conserves precious resources that might otherwise have been harvested or mined in order to construct a replacement building, and it saves tremendous amounts of energy that would be used in demolition and new construction as well as in harvesting, processing, and transporting raw materials, sometimes across oceans and continents.
For more on historic preservation and the environment, check out these Forgotten Fort Collins posts: “Why Historic Preservation Should Be Included in the Fort Collins Climate Action Plan” and “Historic Preservation Should be an Integral Part of Sustainable Development.”
Reduce Displacement Due to Gentrification
Jesus summed up the entire Biblical law in two statements: 1) “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” 2) “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31) We don’t show love to our neighbors when we contribute to patterns of redevelopment that raise housing prices (and rents and property taxes) to a point where residents who have lived in the neighborhoods for generations can no longer afford to remain.
Although historic preservation has limited ability to help in the case of gentrification, it can offer some protections to home owners who don’t want to be displaced or who want to be able to age in place. Federal tax credits are available for historic preservation projects that are income producing properties (like businesses and residential rental properties), and State tax credits are available for all types of historic preservation properties. The tax credits are a one-for-one reduction in the amount of taxes owed and can add up to substantial savings. (Find out more at History Colorado.)
The City of Fort Collins also offers interest free loans, up to $7,500 a year, that don’t need to be repaid until the building is sold. This enables home owners on a tight budget to still maintain their historic properties rather than being forced out due to economic pressures.
Locally landmarked historic districts can also help to preserve an entire area from having developers come in, scrape lots clean, and built McMansions that, when sold, lead to increased property taxes in the area as well as accelerated rates of gentrification.
Mental Health Benefits
A stunning article in Curbed (an online housing industry magazine) claimed that “Architecture, interior design, and even city planning can affect human behaviors and mental processes, causing psychological, biophysical, and cognitive changes in people, often without them noticing.” Not only should that incentivize us to take great care with how we fashion our built environment going forward, but familiarity of place has also been found to help people as they age, especially if they suffer with dementia. Some care facilities are being built to include small re-creations of familiar places that provide comfort and stability for residents.
This doesn’t mean that our cities should never change. But the preservation of landmarks in the midst of change can ease mental distress for long time residents as well as residents that are growing more fragile with age.
Having a Proper Sense of Ourselves
He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. -Micah 6:8
Dealing with issues of economic vitality, mental and social health, and environmental concerns are all means of seeking to “act justly” as the prophet Micah urged. The admonition to “love mercy” reflects how those acts of justice should be carried out, not in anger or self-righteousness, but in love. However, “to walk humbly with your God” is an issue of the heart. I believe that historic preservation can have a positive affect upon our sense of self and our place within our community.
When we live in a world of our own making, we have nothing to reflect upon except that which we ourselves have created. In a culture in which anything old is thrown away and there’s an expectation that things should be shiny and new, we create a sense of entitlement and an expectation of obsolescence. When we indiscriminately tear down that which was there before us, we display a level of hubris that asserts that those that came before us were not as capable, smart, or forward thinking as we are.
However, when we sensitively add an addition to an older building, we acknowledge that the older building holds value that’s worth retaining while still expanding the usable space to fit modern day needs. When an infill building reflects the context within which it’s built, it recognizes that there’s already a valuable sense of place, of history, of culture, and of values that has grown over time in that location and that should be tactfully, even gracefully, strengthened rather than damaged. This type of growth bears a sense of humility. It recognizes that our community did not begin with us, nor will it end with us. We are caretakers but for a time.
When we add new buildings that acknowledge the type, form, and style of those that were built before, and yet the new buildings also embody a very clear sense of now, that is when the growth and development of a city feels organic, respectful, and culturally sensitive. This, in turn, creates a sense of harmony where the younger generation feels that they are able to leave their mark, yet old timers don’t feel as though they are being sidelined or disregarded.
Retaining and reusing older buildings and landmarking those with integrity and significance engenders a culture of remembrance for those who have gone before. It shows humility as it acknowledges that we our residency is temporary, even if we live here our whole lives. It builds thankfulness for the care, thoughtfulness, and inventiveness with which our forebears built this city. It enables us to feel at ease, having a sense of stability even in the midst of expansive growth. And as we recognize our own place within the timeline of our community, we begin to understand not just where we fit, but that we also belong.
As a Christian, I believe that God is the maker of place. But we are the stewards. And as stewards in a quickly growing city, it behooves us to do all that we can to invest our time, resources, and energy towards building a community where we all feel like we belong.
I could easily write a chapter on each of the topics above. This is simply, as I said at the beginning, a brief foray into this topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Whether you are a Christian or not, I hope that you have found something here that has resonated with you.
All Bible quotes are taken from the New International Version.
“Infrastructure Investment Creates American Jobs.” Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness, Duke University. October 2014.
“The Economic Power of Heritage and Place: How Historic Preservation is Building a Sustainable Future in Colorado.” Prepared for the Colorado Historical Foundation and funded by a State Historical Fund grant from History Colorado by Clarion Associates of Colorado, LLC. October 2011.
“Heritage Tax Credits: Maryland’s Own Stimulus to Renovate Buildings for Productive Use and Create Jobs, an $8.53 Return on Every State Dollar Invested.” By Joseph Cronyn and Evans Paull. The Abell Report. March 2009. Volume 22, Number 1.
“Older, Smaller, Better.” By Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Places. May 2014.
Pollution and the Death of Man. By Francis A. Schaeffer. Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois. Page 58.
“Can your city change your mind? The design of our spaces can heal us, hurt us, and alter the way we think.” By Nate Berg. Curbed. 16 Nov 2016.