The Case Against Historical Districts
September 18, 2014

I have noticed a trend in the United States, particularly for smaller towns and cities, to label their urban cores their 'historical town' or something similar. In my Arkansan town, they seem to be very proud of this that they built a banner announcing it;

While it is great to celebrate your heritage, labelling it as historic implies that it is a bygone place - a relic of a past generation that you want to preserve. I understand why many places feel the need to go out of their way to preserve their urban cores by labelling them as 'historic', as progress for the past 60 years around here has been synonymous with suburbanisation and decentralisation, so out of desperation they label what little urbanism they have left 'historic' to preserve it.

From another Arkansan town's Wikipedia article;

What little urbanism they have they label 'historic.'

I am an urbanist, and if I were put in that situation of rapid suburbanization I would probably have done something similar. However, I feel that it is doing more harm than good, because even if the 'historical' title has no legal meaning, labelling your urban core 'historic' implies to businesses that if you want progress you should go elsewhere. If your 'historical' core is the only place that is zoned for urban development the only growth you are going to get is auto-oriented suburban development.

I feel that there is a psychological element to this too - if all of the urban cores you have every known in your life are just a bunch of old buildings that happen to have not been bulldozed yet because some people labeled them 'historic' - you might get the impression that urbanism is a thing of the past.

Coming from Australia, it is rare to see historical districts in Australian towns. Even though the country is largely suburbanized like the United States, most of our small towns still have pretty much everything that are not single family homes or industrial buildings in one area;

There are exceptions to this, of course, just as their are exceptions to American towns, but I am comparing the typical pattern from my region of Australia to the region of the United States where I currently reside. Even as the population suburbanized, those small Australian towns never abandoned their Main Street. There has never been a strong desire to call their town centre a 'historical district' to save it, because there has never really been a threat attempting to destroy it.

Functional towns tend have a mixture of old and new buildings side by side;

Unless the town was recently founded, we expect there to a mixture of old and new buildings as a sign that the town is organically and incrementally growing. However, for there to be a new building, there most likely was an old building that it replaced.

I am sympathetic to those that try to preserve old buildings. We have buildings full of great architecture and great memories, and it is a shame for us to loose them. But realistically, we cannot preserve every building, because if every generation simply built then moved on, it would become obvious that many of our towns would quickly run out of space. Naturally, as our town grows and needs change, buildings need to be renovated and in many cases, replaced.

What is worth preserving?

There is no one answer to this, but the buildings most worth preserving are likely to be the buildings with the most value. A building of sentimental, architectural, or historical importance is likely to have value. From a free-market perspective without any distortions or regulations, the only time you would replace a building is to replace it with something better. As a business, it makes very little sense to replace an asset of high value with an asset of low value - as you would have made a loss in that transaction. In this case, the business would be better off selling the building rather than replacing it.

There are exceptional cases to this, such as when a stadium attempts to buy out all of the surrounding properties and turn them into parking. In these cases, perhaps labelling the property 'historical' could give it legal protection, but perhaps the argument should be on wasteful land use, not neccessarily perserving some random old buildings.

We know the free-market system works for the most part because our modern cities are full of well preserved historical and modern buildings. I am going to show some examples from Adelaide, Australia. I am using Adelaide because the city is my hometown - it was where I was born and raised - so I can think of several examples.

Adelaide Arcade is a beautiful shopping arcade from the 1890s;

It is also in the part of the city with the most expensive floor space;

Given the land value alone, it would be tempting to replace it with a higher-rise building that can generate more income. However, despite being surrounded by much denser retail, Adelaide Arcade, without any sort of historical protection, has managed to outlive a century of development and remains in good condition because it has value. There is a sense of pride in owning such a significant property, and I am sure there are many others eager to get their hands on it, so if the existing owner either wants to build something new or can no longer afford to maintain the property, it would be more profitable for them to sell it rather than demolish it.

There is the case of the Capri Theatre, a 1940s Art Deco cinema;

There have been multiple attempts to demolish it, but it had sentimental value to the community that they managed to purchase it, and today it is still a functional movie theatre, staffed by volunteers.

Sometimes we do loose real treasures, like the Jubilee Building;

It is heartbreaking to know that a really beautiful building like that no longer exists. We knock down buildings all of the time - usually buildings that have very little value to replace them with something with more value. It is impossible for us to know what buildings would have value to future generations. So, unfortunately, we do loose some - but does this justify labelling the area a 'historical district' and preventing all future development? In my opinion, no.

There are two reasons I do not support historical districts. a) They discourage development - and if you are talking about your urban core, then the only other place for development to occur is on the suburban outskirts. b) The free-market is better at protecting properties of significant value. The free-market is not perfect - every city has that building they regret was demolished - but I have yet found a better system.

Progress (the right kind of incremental and organic progress, not pseudo-progress and decentralization in the name of job creation) should mean adding value and charm to your town. If the desire to create a historical district is to preserve what little charm or urbanism you have remaining in your town, then I think you should really reflect on your zoning code and development regulations, because you are doing something wrong. Progress should be a positive thing.

The best way to preserve our historical buildings is to encourage investment and development, and not by outlawing them with silly regulations. By encouraging investment and development, we keep property values high and attract wealth, and that will make our historical buildings valuable. By being valuable and worth something, we prevent them from falling into disrepair and becoming obsolete.

We know this because cities that attract wealth and investment tend to take very good care of their buildings;

The worst thing we can do to preserve our history is by making it obsolete.